Stranger Things and Cobra Kai are undoubtedly two of the most successful shows on Netflix. But what’s interesting to me is the better show is the one that hasn’t earned all of the pop culture attention and Emmy nominations over the last few years.
Stranger Things and Cobra Kai to keep it blunt, are both hit Nexflix shows about a group of winsome teens and their parents. They’re both obsessed with the ’80s and are filled with a bevy of pop culture from that decade. The problem I have with Stranger Things, however, is that each successive season is a retread of the first. The plot of supernatural horror and the terror and traumatization these kids experience in each of the first 3 seasons gets old, and Stranger Things never seems to even attempt an ongoing story. And while there are a few cool cameos from prestigious actors such Sean Aston and William Wheaton, new characters seem to be the only thing that differentiates between each of the first 3 seasons.
Cobra Kai, on the other hand, is such a ridiculously warm-hearted and likable show 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 episodes, only being about a half-hour long.)
In my opinion, part of what makes Cobra Kai work is that the production itself reflects the vibe that both shows are trying to emulate on-screen. Each episode is about underdogs and Outcasts amid references and links to the pop-culture spirit of the 1980s. Stranger Things puts its kids in Ghostbusters costumes for a Halloween episode, whereas Cobra Kai puts 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 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 that feels oddly VHS about the show that makes it like time travel, even though, unlike Stranger Things, it’s actually set in modern times.
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, and dodging CG monsters, Cobra Kai’s martial arts bouts are often weirdly thrilling. 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 scene.)
Look, there are things to love about both shows, and we will never have to actually choose between them. If you look at Rotten tomatoes their respective critic scores are nearly the same: Stranger Things a 93 percent fresh, and Cobra Kai a 94 percent. But just like Karate, the difference between victory and defeat can be a single punch-and Cobra Kai sweeps the leg.