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“Cobra Kai” Is Fan Service Done Right | Column from the Critic

If you’ve been reading my The Book of Boba Fett reviews, you’ll know that I’ve been vocal about my irritation with the show’s (and the rest of modern Star Wars‘) overreliance on fan service and legacy characters. This show and The Bad Batch were shows that came in with interesting stories, but then got bogged down with more callbacks as they progressed. That’s not to say that these kinds of callbacks are inherently bad. In fact, there’s one show that has perfected it: Cobra Kai.

Starting as a series on YouTube before moving to Netflix, the show follows Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), the bully from The Karate Kid, as he’s hit rock bottom; he’s estranged with his son, Robby (Tanner Buchanan) and is in the shadow of his old rival, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). One day, he protects Miguel (Xolo Mariduena), the new kid in his building, from a pack of bullies. Feeling the rush of the fight, he reopens the Cobra Kai dojo and takes Miguel on as a student.

One of the things this show does right is that it prioritizes the story over pleasing fans. While the show is a love letter to the original movies, it doesn’t alienate newcomers. Daniel is a recurring character for the better part of the first season. And even then, he shares it with Johnny and the kids. Using the kids, it creates a ripple effect in how the Lawrence-LaRusso rivalry affects them; from relationships to rivalries; the loyalty among dojos is comparable to high school cliques.

Like Book of Boba Fett, there are a lot of legacy characters that return. But here, their addition challenges the protagonists and further the story. Here’s a few examples:

  • John Kreese (Martin Kove) returns at the end of season one to challenge Johnny’s authority as sensei to Cobra Kai.
  • Chozen (Yoji Okumoto) not only challenges Daniel to a rematch, but his perception that his rivals can change.
  • Allie (Elizabeth Sheu) challenges both Daniel and Johnny in how both remember their rivalry. On top of that, she pushes Johnny to let go of the past and pursue a future with Miguel’s mother.
  • And then you have the latest legacy character, Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith). Not only does Silver make things hard for Miyagi Do and Eagle Fang, but he also shakes up Cobra Kai.

I know it can seem that I’m too harsh on fan service but I’m not. My problem is when it makes a show or movie more insular. I’m not a big fan of having to do homework to watch something, and this trend makes a problem like this widespread. When I saw the finale of the latest season, I was more excited for what was next for the characters, with the callbacks in the next season as an afterthought and reminder that I should really check out the rest of the movies.

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