Case Study: Cobra Kai – The Most Focused Show On TV
In a recent post, I talked about how The Orville is the best show, or at least the best sci-fi show, on TV right now. Then I had to modify that post, clarifying that the first two seasons were amazing, but unfortunately season 3 was not and really changed the show for the worse.
In this post I’d like to discuss how Cobra Kai is, in my view, actually the best show out right now. The main reason for this is that it’s the most focused show.
In case you haven’t seen it, Cobra Kai follows Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence from Karate Kid fame as they navigate middle age while returning to their roots in karate. Both start their own dojos, competing against each other, and both take on high school students to mentor. I wrote about Cobra Kai previously in this post about dynamic storytelling and making use of opposites. In that post I discussed how the main characters are always growing and changing, which keeps the show compelling. Sometimes one of the characters will be more of the underdog, and as the viewer you have more sympathy for them, and then that character will later transition into more of a bully, so you have less sympathy for them. All the main characters have weaved through this bully-victim dichotomy and it’s very effective.
As I mentioned above, another reason the show is so good and effective at keeping you hooked is that it’s focused.
Keeping the Focus on Karate
Every single episode (and we’re five seasons in now) has focused relentlessly on karate and the competition between Danny and Johnny (and later Kreese and Silver) and their respective students. This focus spills over into the personal lives of the characters as well, which is excellent. Now, sometimes this means that technically unrealistic things happen in the show, but as the viewer that doesn’t matter because it’s realistic in the story world. This is all part of keeping the show focused and is an important lesson in storytelling: plot points must be realistic to the story world not necessarily realistic to our world.
Allow me to provide a few examples:
Example 1: Season 2 Episode 10 – School Fight
This is a great set piece that took place in the high school of all the karate kids. Obviously a huge fight like this is quite unrealistic and would never happen in real life, but it’s true to the story world where these kids are mired in teen angst, anger, and vengeance against each other. No matter where they go or what they do, karate, and the competition between the two dojos, is always top of mind. That’s literally what this show is about and it never strays from that focus.
This scene continues for several minutes after this clip, culminating in Miguel Diaz falling off the balcony area. 🙁
Example 2: Season 3 Episode 9 – LaRusso House Fight
This is another great set piece that I can only imagine was super fun to film and direct. It’s also another example of something completely unrealistic to us but perfectly realistic in the story world. Obviously, a group of kids would never (I hope!) break into a private residence like that and get into a karate fight, destroying the entire house. You could literally be charged and arrested for that. (Of course, the offending gang are not.) But it’s just another example of how karate is all-encompassing for the characters.
Example 3: Season 5 Episode 4 – Terry Silver Provokes Daniel LaRusso
This short scene is an example of two of the main characters, Daniel LaRusso (protagonist) and Terry Silver (antagonist), allowing their karate rivalry to spill over into other aspects of their lives, again keeping the show focused.
In this scene, Silver deliberately misleads Daniel in order to provoke a reaction from him and make him look bad in front of everyone at the charity event.
This is another type of occurrence that I don’t believe would happen in real life (though it’s closer to being more realistic than the previous two fight scenes). More than anything it just shows how focused the show is. Everything is always about karate, even at proper grown up events.
All of this also has serious consequences for each of the characters. As mentioned above, after the school fight scene, Miguel falls off the balcony in the high school and sustains a very serious back injury. And after this scene, Daniel’s wife walks out on him, as she (quite reasonably) is tired of him making everything about karate and his rivalry with Silver.
Secondary Focus: Family
Another focus of the show, what I would call its secondary focus, is on family. This is woven throughout each episode in various ways (but always through the lens of karate).
For example, Johnny Lawrence is trying to reconnect and have a better relationship with his son, Robby, while also mentoring his student, Miguel. There’s tension here because in many ways Robby feels he’s being replaced by Miguel. Daniel LaRusso meanwhile is teaching his kids, Samantha and Anthony, karate as well. Here Sam and Miguel are an on again off again couple, which also creates good tension and dynamics.
Example 4: Season 2 Episode 3 – Johnny and Miguel in the Diner
This scene is a great example of the heart of the show, family (or perhaps the real heart of the show is redemption?). Here, Johnny confesses to Miguel that he was never there for Robby and how it’s the biggest regret of his life. Because of that, he promises never to do the same thing to Miguel.
Example 5: Season 4 Episode 10 – Johnny and Robby Hug
The final example I’d like to show is this scene that also focuses on the family dynamics of the show, specifically between Johnny and his son, Robby. Here, Robby realizes that the hate and anger he’s harboured towards his dad has affected the mentoring relationship he had with a younger karate student, Kenny. Now he sees that Kenny is going down a bad path and feels responsible, coming to his dad for help because he has no one else to turn to.
Again, note how these two examples are still maintained within the context of karate. In example 4, Johnny doesn’t want to make the same mistakes with Miguel, his karate mentee. And in example 5, Robby realizes the mistakes he’s made in mentoring a younger karate student.
If anything, I hope this post convinces you to watch Cobra Kai if you haven’t yet. It’s hands down one of the most entertaining shows on TV, and certainly the most focused. Five seasons in and there hasn’t been a single filler episode or episode that didn’t push the story and the characters forward in some way. To the writers and show runners of Cobra Kai, my absolute hats off.