I’ve often talked about the five building blocks of storytelling: plot, setting, characterization, theme, and tone. I’ve also talked about how I believe theme is the most crucial, but that doesn’t mean the others aren’t important in their own ways. Tone, for example, is what turns a story into an experience. Characters engaged in a plot are just details. It’s the tone that shapes those details into something funny, scary, sad…whatever! And with Cobra Kai, its tone is on full display and is crucial to making the show work.
I want to make something perfectly clear: I love Cobra Kai. But that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize how ridiculous it could be. Bonsai gifting car salesmen? Balancing showdowns at house parties? School wide ninja gang brawls? The show definitely exists in a hyper form of reality.
Cobra Kai’s tone accepts that reality rather than fights against it. It understands just how ridiculous its tone needs to be in order for all the karate action to exist in a plausible world.
BUT—and this is a big but—the show doesn’t lean into that ridiculousness completely. It straddles a very fine line between absurdity and seriousness, which, I believe, is the key to the show’s success. This fine line allows Cobra Kai to exist in multiple genres at once. Rather than be the absolute focus of the show, the karate fights play out over the backdrop of comedy, romance, and drama with devastating consequences. It’s only able to do that because the writers crafted its tone just right for all those things to exist at the same time. It’s a great example of how with the right tone, a story doesn’t just have to be one thing.