This will be the first in a short series of posts where I’m breaking down just why Cobra Kai’s Season 1 was so good (I haven’t seen Season 2 yet, we’re using it to fill the break between GoT and Stranger Things). It’s also the summer, I’m done grading papers and instead of responding to grade-grubbing e-mails I’m sitting in the sun getting shithoused on cheap rum, so if you think I’ve gotten something terribly wrong, you’re probably right. I’m not an expert, I’m just a guy that likes talking about the craft of story telling.
I’m going to start with Cobra Kai’s medium (or it’s general genre), because I think this is one simple decision that really paid dividends in elevating the series.
Cobra Kai is a Novella
How many times have you heard (or said) “the book was better than the movie?” It seems to be an almost universal truth, and it’s basically just simple math. Depending on length of the work and the speed of the reader, a typical novel will take something like 10-15 hours to read, while a movie takes about 2-2.5 hours on average. Obviously if you’re trying to turn a 10 hour story into a 2 hour story something is going to get lost in the compression. (Short stories, on the other hand, tend to translate well onto screen.)
This is why the television miniseries and the shorter seasons have been so incredibly successful, because 10 1-hour episodes is the right amount of time to tell a novel-length story in.
It’s also the length of story audiences respond to overwhelmingly well. People don’t think the novels are better because they enjoy the written word so much more than film; they like them more because it’s the correctly sized package for the story. It’s long enough to get into depth and nuance and have the characters get an interesting variety of scenes without getting so long as to be cumbersome, feel stale, or cause the reader to lose track of the earlier material.
Season 1 of Cobra Kai clocks in at around 5 hours total, so it’s between a novel and a short story in length. It’s a novella.
In this case, 5 hours is the right size for this story. Not only do our main characters have plenty of depth and enough room for a compelling story arc, but our secondary characters get fleshed out and have arcs of their own (most notably Hawk and Aisha). If we tried to expand the story to 10 hours, it’s hard to imagine new moments that don’t feel either repetitive or too far removed from the main action. We don’t need any more scenes with Yasmine, and while we might wonder what happens with the characters’ relationship with Demetri next, we were’t craving more time with him during the events of Season 1.
Like a great meal, a great story does more than just provide some delicious experiences. It understands what parts are rich, what is light, what accompaniment enhances the flavor, when more is needed to be satisfying, and when it’s rude to heap another un-asked-for helping onto someone’s plate.