Move to Netflix has given ‘Cobra Kai’ a major kick in popularity

William Zabka (Johnny), Martin Kove (Kreese) and Ralph Macchio (Daniel) are part of "Cobra Kai" on Netflix. NETFLIX
William Zabka (Johnny), Martin Kove (Kreese) and Ralph Macchio (Daniel) are part of "Cobra Kai" on Netflix. NETFLIX

Credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX

The show originally debuted in 2018 on YouTube’s premium channel.

“The Karate Kid” was one of those classic 1980s films that created a raft of catchphrases that became ubiquitous for generations: “Sweep the leg.” “No mercy.” “Wax on, wax off.”

More than three decades later, three fans of the “Karate Kid’ trilogy came together to pitch a story about a middle-aged Daniel LaRusso and his enemy, Johnny Lawrence, and how they bring a new generation of kids into the world of karate.

Actors Ralph Macchio and William Zabka signed on, and in 2018, YouTube Red — its subscription-based premium streaming service — debuted “Cobra Kai” to critical acclaim. YouTube gave the series a second, then a third season.

But while YouTube is seen by billions, its effort to compete with Netflix and Hulu stumbled, and management began canceling scripted shows. Last year, while “Cobra Kai” was producing season three in Atlanta, “we saw the writing on the wall,” said Hayden Schlossberg, one of the creators. “We kept shooting the show not knowing what the future would be. We weren’t in control of it.”

In early 2020, YouTube gave Sony Television and the “Cobra Kai” producers good news: They could shop the series to other streaming services.

After the pandemic broke, interest in “Cobra Kai” among the big players actually went up, aided by the fact they had a completed third season of 10 episodes ready to go.

Netflix, the biggest and brawniest of them all, ultimately gave them an offer they couldn’t refuse.

“They liked our show and where we saw it going in subsequent seasons,” Schlossberg said. “We knew they were the perfect platform for a global audience.”

Over the summer, the first two seasons debuted on Netflix, and for millions, it was like a brand new show. The series spent weeks in the top 10 most-watched Netflix shows in multiple countries. Anticipation for season 3 became sky high. Netflix last month even moved up the launch date a week to New Year’s Day.

With season three out, the show once again shot back up to the top, edging out Shonda Rhimes’ hot historical drama, “Bridgerton.”

“It’s been an incredible ride,” said Jon Hurwitz, one of three friends who produce the series. “There are ‘Karate Kid’ fans all over the world. Whether it’s the nostalgia or the teenage drama, people have connected with the show. We’re happy to put a smile on people’s faces during these difficult times.”

William Zabka plays Johnny Lawrence in "Cobra Kai." NETFLIX
William Zabka plays Johnny Lawrence in "Cobra Kai." NETFLIX

Credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Though the show has artfully blended drama and comedy, the final moments of season two were super dark.

In season one, Johnny revived the Cobra Kai dojo (a place for immersive learning and meditation) and inspired Daniel to launch his own rival version in season two. While Johnny was mentoring a neighbor’s kid, Miguel, to stand up for himself via karate, Daniel latched onto Johnny’s estranged son, Robby. Then Johnny’s former mentor, John Kreese, showed up and threw a monkey wrench into Johnny’s efforts.

Miguel, for a time, dated Daniel’s daughter, Samantha, who broke up with him and ended up dating Robby. A new rival girl, Tory, popped up and began dating Miguel. Boiling jealousies erupted into a massive karate brawl at school that led Robby to knock Miguel over a railing. Miguel ended up in the hospital in a coma as season two wrapped.

“We knew that would catch people off guard,” said co-creator Josh Heald. “We wanted people to feel uncomfortable.” Though the trio came from a comedic background with credits like “Hot Tub Time Machine” and the “Harold & Kumar” films, “we see the value in drama.”

Season three begins with most of the main characters encumbered with guilt over what had transpired. Daniel’s reputation has been sullied, and his car dealership business craters. Johnny feels even worse than ever, thinking his efforts to be a better person had failed. Robby, knowing his actions could lead him to prison, is on the run. Samantha feels like her actions led to the brawl. The only happy person, it seems, is the ever evil Kreese, who has taken over the Cobra Kai dojo and is ready to wreak revenge for Miguel’s injuries.

Xolo Maridueña plays Miguel Diaz in "Cobra Kai." NETFLIX
Xolo Maridueña plays Miguel Diaz in "Cobra Kai." NETFLIX

Credit: TINA ROWDEN/NETFLIX

Credit: TINA ROWDEN/NETFLIX

The storytelling, Heald said, became more complicated in season three with more key characters than when the series began. The fight also caused lines to splinter and new alliances to form. In the case of Daniel and Johnny, there is even a moment when they team up to track down Robby, creating some of the funniest moments of the season.

After they shake down a prisoner for intel, Daniel calls his wife Amanda to inform her “we got a new lead on Robby.”

Amanda: “What are you? Tango and Cash?”

Johnny interrupts: “Tango and Cash were narcotics detectives. This is a totally different thing!”

Daniel apologetically says the prison meet up “was more a good cop, bad cop situation.”

Amanda: “You do realize neither of you are cops?!”

The producers also decided to take a beat from shows like “Game of Thrones” and allow certain storylines to breathe. “We have to be comfortable playing the long game,” Heald said. “We don’t have to service every character in every episode.”

Though each episode is about a half-hour, the way viewers watch Netflix shows also means they don’t necessarily miss a particular character if they aren’t in an episode because they could very well watch two or three in a row.

“Cobra Kai” still pays homage to the original films, intersplicing scenes from it during key moments. Season three features Daniel returning to Japan, providing the creators a chance to honor the late Pat Morita, who played Daniel’s mentor, Mr. Miyagi, in the trilogy. Morita died in 2005.

Martin Kove plays John Kreese in "Cobra Kai." NETFLIX
Martin Kove plays John Kreese in "Cobra Kai." NETFLIX

Credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX

And the new season also delves deeper into the back story of Martin Kove’s Kreese and why he became the Darth Vader of the show. He doesn’t see himself as evil or bad. He sees himself as a man who focuses on strength over weakness. As Heald said, “He wants to arm people with a ‘no mercy’ philosophy that will protect themselves in life,” as it did him. And since the overarching theme of “Karate Kid” is about bullying, it’s no surprise people bullied Kreese when he was a teen.

“We wanted Kreese’s character to be an underdog,” Heald said.

And the producers had fun casting Kove’s real-life son, Jesse, in the first flashback scene. But surprise! He doesn’t play Kreese. He plays a dude who bullies Kreese.

“We have a lot of super fans,” Heald said. “This was a way to have fun with them. It was a major misdirect.”

Ralph Macchio and William Zabka as Daniel and Johnny in a fight during episode 2 of season 3 of "Cobra Kai." NETFLIX
Ralph Macchio and William Zabka as Daniel and Johnny in a fight during episode 2 of season 3 of "Cobra Kai." NETFLIX

Credit: TINA ROWDEN/NETFLIX

Credit: TINA ROWDEN/NETFLIX

ON TELEVISION

“Cobra Kai”

Three seasons streaming on Netflix

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