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Why Cobra Kai has become Netflix's latest sleeper hit TV show

Cobra Kai
(Image credit: Netflix)

Cobra Kai racked up 90 million views for its opening episode on YouTube, boasts a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score for its first season and was even once declared as the streaming world's most in-demand original series. But do you know anyone who actually watched it? 

Yes, despite such impressive statistics, the belated continuation of The Karate Kid franchise still seems to have flown somewhat under the radar during its two-year run on YouTube Premium. But just as it did with Lifetime's stalker drama You, Netflix has acquired a highly watchable show struggling to make any notable impression at its original home and transformed it into a pop culture phenomenon. At the time of writing, Cobra Kai is number one on the Netflix charts in both the US and the UK. 

The response has been so overwhelming, in fact, that its creators are already discussing the prospect of spin-offs, and season 3 – which has already been filmed – is coming in 2021. So what exactly has reignited interest in the world of bonsai trees, illegal crane kicks and menial chores masquerading as muscle memory techniques?

Well, first and foremost, Cobra Kai is that rare revival which manages to further its story while still respecting its legacy. Indeed, picking up 34 years after Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) defeated his nemesis Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) at the All-Valley Karate Tournament, the show delivers plenty of fan service to kids of the '80s. 

There are nods to various memorable scenes from the 1984 box office hit, including the skeleton Halloween costumes, balancing routines and, of course, “wax on, wax off.” Actual footage from the movie is also cleverly interspersed throughout as characters reminisce about the good old days, and some bad ones too. And despite the 2005 death of Pat Morita – who received an Oscar nomination for his performance as Daniel's eternally wise sensei – Mr. Miyagi remains a strong, if ghostly, presence. 

There are also returns for Daniel's interfering mother Lucille (Randee Heller), sadistic coach John Kreese (Martin Kove) and, for a particularly poignant second season episode, three members of Johnny's old crew. 

It's clear that the show's three screenwriters are longtime Karate Kid fans, that's for sure, and they all have form when it comes to riding the nostalgia train too. Hayden Schlossberg and Jon Hurwitz helped bring back Jim, Stifler and company a decade on in the surprisingly touching American Reunion, while Josh Heald sent John Cusack spinning back to the 1980s in bawdy bro comedy Hot Tub Time Machine. 

Yet you don't have to be familiar with this staple of the VHS era to find Cobra Kai thoroughly entertaining. Sure, you may be more invested in Daniel and Johnny's rivalry if you grew up trying to recreate their climactic first battle in your back yard. But the writers give the arch enemies plenty of reasons to hate each other in the modern day too, while the flashback sequences help to fill in any gaps for anyone new to their story. 

(Image credit: Guy D'Alema/Netflix)

Interestingly, Cobra Kai is far more nuanced when it comes to determining who the real bad guy is this time around, if, indeed, there's even one at all. We first meet the characters in polar opposite circumstances. Daniel owns a successful car dealership, has the 2.4 children lifestyle in a swanky mansion and somehow still looks at least ten years younger than he actually is. Johnny, meanwhile, is a drunken deadbeat dad living in a rundown apartment whose litany of regrets are etched across his face. Karma can be a bitch, right?

However, as the latter reluctantly becomes a mentor to Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) – the asthmatic teenage neighbor he saves from a vicious beating – and finds purpose in reviving the Cobra Kai dojo, the sympathy starts to continually shift. Of course, Johnny is often still a boorish jerk stuck in a 1980s time warp (in perhaps the most suspension-disbelieving scene, he claims to have never even heard of Facebook). But his initial attempts to drum up business are so pitiful that it's hard not to cheer for the guy when a bunch of misfits eventually pay for the privilege of constantly being called “pussies.”

Daniel might be a far more respectable 21st century man. But he's not without his moments of being an asshole, either, often using his privilege to gain an unfair advantage for his own dojo, while also denying Johnny the chance to redeem himself as a father figure to estranged son Robby (Tanner Buchanan). As a result, viewers' allegiances can quite easily change from episode to episode.

It's a similar situation with the younger cast members. Miguel starts out as the underdog who we all want to succeed on the mat and get the girl. By the time he does, however, he's been corrupted by his sensei's more boorish tendencies. Robby heads the other way, evolving from a Molly-dealing, thieving truant into Daniel's most committed pupil. Eli (Jacob Bertrand) undergoes an even more radical transformation, developing from a meek and mild nerd bullied for his appearance into a tattooed, mohawked thug.

(Image credit: Sony)

If this all sounds a little too intense – and the second season cliffhanger certainly ups the ante on this front – then the writers also counterbalance all the verbal and physical smackdowns with a knowing sense of humor. Johnny's inability to understand that modern life has moved on from boomboxes and hair metal is always a source of amusement; likewise Demetri (Gianni Dicenzo), the relentlessly sarcastic nerd who prefers to do his trash-talking on Yelp. Paul Walter Hauser is also a great addition to the second season cast as the oldest and most overenthusiastic member of Cobra Kai, Stingray. 

Sadly, the female characters aren't as well-written or defined. Daniel's wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) has a natural charm but still spends most of her time trying to dampen the fun, while his daughter Samantha (Mary Mouser) and her love triangle drama with Robby and Miguel drag the show down to soapy teen drama territory. Only Aisha (Nichole Brown) gets to be as badass as the guys. 

No doubt anticipation will be at fever pitch by then as word of mouth continues to build, in a manner similar to The Karate Kid's original theatrical release. The film never reached any higher than No.4 on the U.S. box office chart but still spent an incredible 18 consecutive weeks in the Top 10 on its way to a $100 million domestic gross. But with all the talk of at least six seasons and spin-offs, let's just hope the makers remember the words of Mr. Miyagi: Trust the quality of what you know, not quantity.

Cobra Kai seasons 1 and 2 are now streaming on Netflix worldwide.