‘Cobra Kai’ season 4 on Netflix: Battle for the soul of Valley rages on for N.J. creators and cast
Johnny Lawrence is totally ticked off.
The All Valley Karate Tournament will now have separate boys’ and girls’ competitions.
“Thought they were all about women’s lib,” he sneers in the upcoming fourth season of “Cobra Kai,” the “Karate Kid” revival series on Netflix. “They ought to man up and take a punch like the rest of us.”
“They”: girls. Him: woefully locked in the past (if you couldn’t tell from the whole “women’s lib” thing).
“Women aren’t meant to fight,” Johnny said in the show’s first season. “They have tiny hollow bones.”
However, the former Cobra Kai boss, played by “Karate Kid” star William Zabka, wants his new Eagle Fang dojo to win the tournament. As much as Johnny is loathe to admit it, he needs girls. Running after them doesn’t work (he tries), so he gets a brief schooling in modern terminology. Before long, he is dropping the term “neomasculine hierarchy” in a pitch to a potential recruit.
“What about nonbinary and gender-fluid?” the student asks.
“Yes, fluids are crucial,” Johnny says without missing a beat. “If you don’t hydrate, it affects performance.”
This is “Cobra Kai” — a hefty dose of humor and “Karate Kid” nostalgia mixed with new high school rivalries, fight scenes and the anachronisms of an out-of-touch ’80s tough guy. The winning formula has powered Johnny Lawrence, his former opponent Daniel LaRusso — Karate Kid Ralph Macchio — and their band of students from West Valley High to TV glory.
Over the past two years, “Cobra Kai,” created by New Jersey’s own Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald, has become a Netflix juggernaut. The show, nominated in 2021 for the Emmy for outstanding comedy series, first drew an audience on YouTube in 2018 and exploded after moving to the streaming service during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ahead of the fourth season premiere Friday, Dec. 31, NJ Advance Media spoke with the show’s three co-creators, fresh off filming a fifth season in Atlanta, plus two main cast members with Jersey roots.
Johnny’s awkward change of heart on girls in karate is one way the series has tried to nudge him into the 21st century.
“He’s such a Homer Simpson character at times,” Heald says from Los Angeles, where the show is set. “He wakes up and faces each day. But there’s also something endearing about him trying. Basically, he’s one of these characters that’s able to do borderline problematic things because they’re coming from a good place.”
While boys and men dominate the lineup of fighters in “Cobra Kai,” girls figure in two key roles at the center of the show’s so-called battle for the soul of the (San Fernando) Valley.
Samantha LaRusso (Mary Mouser), Daniel’s daughter and dedicated student at his Miyagi-Do Karate, has a serious rivalry with Tory Nichols (Peyton List), a student at the Cobra Kai dojo.
Complicating matters is Samantha’s ex-flame, Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan), Johnny’s estranged son and Daniel’s recruit, who leaves Miyagi-Do for Cobra Kai. Samantha’s current boyfriend, Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña), Johnny’s original recruit for Cobra Kai, now a student in Eagle Fang — got that? — wants to learn the ways of Miyagi-Do from Daniel.
Beyond the intricacies of shifting dojo allegiances, upcoming episodes make a point about representation for karate students who aren’t boys.
“We always wanted to have more female characters on our show that weren’t just there to be involved in family dynamics or in love triangles,” says Heald, 44, a Red Bank native.
A changing karate tournament was one way to do that.
“The upswing of karate in the Valley can really sweep everybody up into it and be honest to the world we live in where it’s not just young men doing karate,” says Heald, who, like Schlossberg and Hurwitz, has directed episodes of the show. “If you go to any dojo, it’s guys and girls, and that’s something that needs to be reflected on the show.”
New friends, old foes
In the first season of the “Karate Kid” revival, Johnny Lawrence resurrected Cobra Kai — the rival dojo to Daniel LaRusso and Mr. Miyagi’s Miyagi-Do Karate — at a Los Angeles strip mall.
But the space has since been commandeered by his old teacher John Kreese (Martin Kove).
Johnny brings former Cobra Kai students into his Eagle Fang fold (eagles don’t, in fact, have fangs; he just thinks it sounds badass and they can kill snakes). Since Kreese is now a nemesis to both Daniel and Johnny, the former foils are left to join forces against the aging sensei and his destructive “no mercy” mantra. Whichever dojo loses the All Valley tournament has to close up shop.
“This season was a special one, because after three seasons of wanting Johnny and Daniel to be on the same side and be working together, and perhaps form a friendship, season four, we finally get to see them with a common enemy,” says Jon Hurwitz, who attended Randolph High School with “Cobra Kai” co-creator Hayden Schlossberg.
Macchio and Zabka’s characters — the actors, now 60 and 56 respectively, are executive producers alongside the creators — have taken baby steps in that direction, even going on an awkward double date at one point. Talk about romantic tension. It’s the ultimate will they-won’t they.
There is just something about their longstanding beef — pride? Neomasculine hierarchy? — that keeps pulling them apart.
The alliance isn’t an effortless one, to be sure. Johnny’s in-your-face Eagle Fang approach directly opposes the meditative spirit of Miyagi-Do, mirroring the antagonistic menace of the Cobra Kai method.
But for Johnny and Daniel, overpowering their shared adversary could prove even more difficult. Because in “Cobra Kai,” each step forward is accompanied by a continual unearthing of the past.
The series gleefully deploys retro pop culture references from “Bloodsport” (1988), “Star Wars,” the 1992 Macchio film “My Cousin Vinny” (look for the ultimate Marisa Tomei/Mona Lisa Vito tribute this season), and of course, “The Karate Kid.”
Well-timed flashbacks to the John Avildsen-directed ‘80s installments of the film franchise are intercut with forward action. The show is always revisiting and litigating fateful moments, starting with Johnny’s big loss to Daniel at the 1984 All Valley and the fallout.