Review: Poignant and funny, ‘Cobra Kai’ vividly captures a man stuck in the Valley of the ’80s

Xolo Mariduena and William Zabka rock on in "Cobra Kai."
Xolo Mariduena, left, and William Zabka in “Cobra Kai.”
(Curtis Bonds Baker / Netflix)

Corn Nuts. Fotomat. A Truckasaurus rally.

The ’80s are alive and kicking in the San Fernando Valley courtesy of “Cobra Kai’s” Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), a hard-drinking, heavy metal holdover from an era when Twisted Sister ruled the charts and “No Fat Chicks” bumper stickers were commonplace.

The karate dramedy’s lead carries Season 3, which premieres New Year’s Day on its new platform, Netflix. The streamer picked up the YouTube Premium series last year, delighting loyal “Kai” fans by adding the first two seasons to its catalog and announcing there would soon be a third.

Season 3 of the self-aware, kitschy soap takes place 36 years after the original “Karate Kid” movie, on which the series is based. Though Johnny and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) are now in their 50s, their long-simmering rivalry has spilled over to the students of their competing dojos. Now the Valley is home to an all-out struggle between karate gangs. These food-court warriors include LaRusso’s earnest daughter, Samantha (Mary Mouser); Johnny’s delinquent son, Robby (Tanner Buchanan); and Johnny’s neighbor, high schooler Miguel Diaz (Xolo Mariduena). And Johnny’s former teacher, Kreese (Martin Kove), who stole his dojo, is more than happy to fan the flames.

Campy, fun and nostalgic, this series from Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg continues to build pop culture lore around the aging film franchise, looking toward the future by drawing from the past. The main characters’ fortunes have reversed since they battled it out at the All-Valley Karate Tournament way back when. Rich kid Johnny is a broke, divorced handyman who lives alone in a crappy Reseda apartment. Poor kid Daniel is a successful businessman who lives in the upscale West Valley with his seemingly perfect family.


But while a lot has changed since 1984, Johnny is not part of the evolution. Watching the Coors Banquet-drinking, “Tango & Cash”-loving waster navigate today’s Valley, with its vegan menus, overpriced rental market and confusing array of craft cocktails, is a blast.

The unapologetic throwback still calls women “babes,” wears a long-sleeved thermal under his flannel shirt and rocks out to the Crüe’s “Kickstart My Heart.” Pretty much everything he says is politically incorrect, and not in a Rush Limbaugh sort of way. Snowflakes are still just frozen water to Johnny.

It has been 30 years since “The Karate Kid Part III,” and Ralph Macchio is still alive — and kicking.

May 6, 2019

Ralph Macchio, left, and William Zabka in "Cobra Kai."
(Curtis Bonds Baker / Netflix)

Those of us who grew up in the Valley in the ’80s will recognize Johnny as a former classmate or perhaps a version of our clueless, high school selves — “Dude!” “Bro!” He’ll either make you shudder or laugh. I did both.

But there’s a charm and innocence in the way he views modern times through vintage Ray-Bans. Facebook is mostly still a mystery to him, but when he does manage to type a message out, it’s in ALL CAPS. Why would that imply he’s a serial killer?

Season 3 of “Cobra Kai” capitalizes on Johnny’s woefully out-of-touch ways and the steep learning curve he faces while trying to impress an old flame, at once helping the viewer understand the character’s time-capsule quality and poking fun at it. The teens he trains in karate even coach him on the basics of living in the 21st century: Bullying is bad, sexism is worse, and it’s not OK to nickname students things like “penis breath.” (Hand-to-hand combat never drops out of fashion in the world of “Cobra Kai” though.)

There are too many spoilers to get into plot specifics, but if you liked the last two seasons, you’ll love the new one. Original characters from the first film appear throughout, giving the sense that the series has a much wider arc than it really does, while new characters continue to push the story forward.


“Cobra Kai” has already been renewed for a fourth season, so expect more high-flying kicks in the tony homes south of Ventura Boulevard and in the dilapidated mini-malls of Reseda. Or is it Van Nuys? Johnny doesn’t care where it is or how the place has changed. The Valley is still the Valley, where rock rules and karate is as bitchin’ as ever.

‘Cobra Kai’

Where: Netflix

When: Any time, starting Friday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)