Stranger Things has taken pop culture by storm, but Cobra Kai is the '80s obsessed Netflix show that deserves your attention.

By James Hibberd
September 04, 2020 at 12:47 PM EDT
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Credit: Netflix; Guy D’Alema/SONY

Stranger Things and Cobra Kai. They're both about a group of winsome teens and their parents. They're both obsessed with the 1980s and have fantastical elements. And as of last weekend, they're both on Netflix.

One show is better. And what's interesting is the better show isn't the one that has earned so much pop culture attention and Emmy nominations over the last few years. Yes, these are clearly fighting words.

Now, if we were judging solely by their respective first seasons, the verdict would be different. The 2016 debut season of Stranger Things was better than Cobra Kai's first year. But shows are graded by their totality, and so far we've seen three seasons of Stranger Things and two of the curiously terrific Karate Kid sequel series that first launched on YouTube Red YouTube Premium YouTube two years ago.

After Stranger Things season 1 aired, I wrote a post suggesting the show would actually make a better anthology series (telling a different retro-supernatural story with a different cast each year, like American Horror Story) rather than attempt an ongoing story. I noted the first season was perfect, yet also ended very neatly, and aside from the fact that we like spending time with these characters, the story didn't really have anywhere else to go. We also didn't really want to see these kids traumatized again and again with more supernatural horror.

I was pretty sure my assessment was right at the time, and far more sure now. The second and third seasons proved the point – each successive round was a retread of the first, the plot running on a treadmill, with more fake-out deaths and lots of yelling from Jim Hopper (David Harbour). Aside from some interesting threads with Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) and Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Stranger Things just kept hitting the same beats again and again, only louder.

In some key respects, Cobra Kai isn't better even comparing their second seasons. Stranger Things' writing, direction, acting, and production values are all at a higher level. Which probably makes you ask: Then what else is there? What else is there to judge by? 

It's a strange, well, thing. If this were a karate competition, Stranger Things would easily win on points. Yet the experience of watching art is more than the sum of its parts. Cobra Kai is such a ridiculously warm-hearted and likable series that it somehow breezes past Stranger Things as a viewing experience while trying half as hard. Stranger Things has this heavy self-importance to its episodes that's entirely unearned by its subject matter, whereas a season of Cobra Kai flicks right by (partly due, of course, to the fact the episodes are only a half-hour long).

Part of what makes Cobra Kai work is the production itself reflects the vibe that both shows are trying to emulate on-screen. Each show is about underdogs and outcasts amid references and links to the pop culture and spirit of the 1980s. Stranger Things put its kids in Ghostbusters costumes for a Halloween episode, and Cobra Kai put its teens in John Hughes-inspired garb for a retro night at the roller rink. Yet Stranger Things feels like a slick corporate production, and there's a lo-fi scrappiness to Cobra Kai that makes it feel quite literally like a yesteryear underdog. From its inexpensive sets to the "sure that take was good enough" performances to its heart-on-its-sleeve earnestness, there's something oddly VHS about the show that makes it feel like time travel even though, unlike Stranger Things, it's actually set in modern times.

That retro quality extends to Cobra Kai's value system, which in some respects is a downside. The show's eye-rolling at woke performative gestures and language policing is sometimes amusing, but the show seems to embrace Johnny Lawrence's regressive worldview in bothersome ways, too. (I mean, a show about dueling karate dojos should have at least one major Asian character. No, throwing in more flashbacks to Mr. Miyagi do not count.)

Both shows are also action dramas to some extent, and it's here where Cobra Kai particularly shines. Instead of angry psychic glares from Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and dodging CG monsters, Cobra Kai's martial arts bouts are often weirdly thrilling. (Spoiler note: If you haven't seen the season 2 finale yet, skip the rest of this story.) The Cobra Kai season 2 high school battle royale does not work on paper as a concept at all: Wait, so it's 10 minutes of boys and girls furiously beating the s--- out of each other at a school? Yet, somehow, it was one of the most fun sequences I've seen on TV all year.

And maybe that's the reason Cobra Kai is better – it's truly fun . Both shows are supposed to be, yet it's Cobra Kai that seems to be enjoying itself. (It's winkingly hilarious every time a character makes a totally straight-faced reference to how seriously everybody in the San Fernando Valley takes the local karate school scene.)

And yet, Cobra Kai's dramatic touches are often more powerful and less contrived as well. The last scene of season 2 had a devastated Johnny (William Zabka) seemingly leaving his whole life behind to do something new — it was an emotionally perfect moment that built on Johnny's arc across two seasons and leaves you with no idea what will happen next. Whereas Stranger Things season 3 ended with another wearisome effort to stop a monster, this time "killing off" Hopper, then wringing this non-death for every last ounce of drama, when we know he'll back next season.

Look, there are things to love about both Netflix shows, and we'll never have to actually choose between them. If you look at Rotten Tomatoes, their respective critic scores are nearly exactly the same: Stranger Things is 93 percent Fresh and Cobra Kai at 94 percent. But just like in karate, the difference between victory and defeat can be a single punch – and Cobra Kai sweeps the leg.

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