“Cobra Kai” might not be the best show on TV, but few appear to have more fun playing with their formats, as this “Karate Kid” revival – having received a major commercial boost from its migration to Netflix – kicks off (literally) its fourth season.
Each new round of episodes has cleverly built on the one before, with shifting alliances and familiar faces from the original trilogy, weaving in old clips to enhance the connection. Even the music gets a shout out, with Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) singing the praises of the band Chicago – whose Peter Cetera had a song prominently featured in “The Karate Kid Part II” – to one of his young charges.
The main conflict again involves Cobra Kai, the karate dojo now under the stewardship of not only John Kreese (Martin Kove) but his old buddy Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), both ardent practitioners of the “No mercy” code.
Their involvement has also forced Daniel and one-time foe Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) to try setting their differences aside, but the pair’s personalities and styles don’t easily mesh, and they’re hardly working from a place of mutual trust.
The series also neatly avoids dumb-teenager syndrome, introducing new characters and unexpected wrinkles involving the existing ones, predicated on the theory, much like Johnny’s arc, that being a villain doesn’t automatically mean staying one forever.
As usual, the tensions built toward the inevitable valley karate tournament, but the real strength lies in getting there, with Zabka delivering plenty of laugh-out-loud moments as the set-in-his-ways dinosaur, caught between his former opponent and one-time mentor.
Johnny is equally uncomfortable (often hilariously so) in pursuing a relationship with Carmen (Vanessa Rubio) while training her son Miguel (Xolo Maridueña).
At the same time, both Daniel and Johnny continue to have complicated interactions with their own kids, while functioning as surrogate fathers to others.
Frankly, topnotch revivals are so rare that it seemed inevitable “Cobra Kai” would experience a misstep, or simply run out of gas. Happily, that’s definitely not the case with season four, which – coming off a pop-culture breakthrough and Emmy nomination with its graduation from YouTube to Netflix – admirably services everyone from its seniors to teens. Just turning Kove’s 70-something Kreese into the central heavy has a certain audacity to it in a show that spends half its time looking like “Dawson’s Creek.”
Despite the dojo’s familiar “Never die” slogan, “Cobra Kai” can’t live forever. For now, though, it remains a model of how to take a known title and breathe life into it, without taking itself too seriously. Even when the karate action becomes a little tedious, in terms of deftly milking a concept, it’s hard not to admire its form.
“Cobra Kai” begins its fourth season Dec. 31 on Netflix.