Night before last, I was honored to attend a virtual screening for the first two episodes of Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop, a live-action reimagining of the beloved 1998 anime that debuted its full first season yesterday. The two episodes I saw were pretty good – a little slow, perhaps, and guilty of retreading ground the anime already covered, but good enough to leave me wanting more when the credits rolled. Sadly, it turns out that Cowboy Bebop is one of those shows that gets progressively worse as it plods along through a ten-episode season that feels like an eternity.
Now, we all love a show that’s so bad it’s good in a roundabout way, and I even think Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop has its fair share of unironically compelling elements, including a couple of scenes toward the end that enrich the world of the anime so significantly that, if (and that’s a big if), if expanded upon in a second season, we could theoretically just forget about all the bad stuff and move merrily along. But this first season’s greatest crime is that it makes Bebop boring – and that’s really hard to do, so this took concentrated effort.
Ironically, it’s Cowboy Bebop‘s inability to free itself from the imagined constraints of a straight-up remake that keeps this series about the dangers of never moving on from the past entangled in a web of its own creation. The glimpses of originality that shine through are much appreciated (though often built on other generic tropes), but every time it looks like the show might finally do something bold and unique it inflicts upon us another halfhearted re-enactment of storylines that were intended to be stand-alone in the anime and are here awkwardly fused with the series’ mostly new overarching narrative to create some lopsided chimera of a first season.
If it was ever implied that there was some reason behind the inclusion of these storylines, apart from the desire to lure in fans of the anime with scenes and characters they already know, that would be one thing, but none ever emerges; and in any case such clarity of purpose would be jarring in a series that ricochets tonally between snarky profanity-laced comedy (which is where, tellingly, it seems most comfortable) and a transparent facsimile of the anime’s melancholy atmosphere.
Uneven writing is largely to blame, but the whole series is gonna carry that weight. And if that pun was obvious, it’s still more subtle than Cowboy Bebop‘s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to adapting a story famous for its multiple delicate layers of meaning. Where the anime slowly peeled back those layers to reveal more depth than one might at first expect from a sci-fi western, Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop has nothing to uncover and nothing to say that the anime didn’t already communicate more efficiently and poetically. It’s shallow and thematically muddled.
Cowboy Bebop‘s best attempts to disguise this involve repeatedly hitting you over the head with dialogue that spells out the series’ message in capital letters (incorrectly, but that’s beside the point), but such clumsy writing only draws more attentions to the areas in which Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop not only fails to honor the visionary anime, but very purposefully throws out the source material. I’m hardly a purist, but in this case it’s clear that Cowboy Bebop‘s writers aren’t motivated by some spark of their own genius but by the desire to build another franchise for Netflix.
Specifically, I’d point to what I feel is the most significant change, and that’s the reimagined team dynamic between our three main characters; former hit-man Spike Spiegel (John Cho); ex-cop Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir); and amnesiac bounty hunter Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda). Both the anime and live-action series revolve around the traumatic events in their backstories that defined them and still affect them to this day, but the anime allowed this conflict to impede on their ability to form new relationships or start over with their lives. You felt all of their pain because it was evident in how they remained closed-off from each other, how they kept their secrets sealed behind closed doors.
Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop can’t ever go to those lengths, because that would require editing out at least fifteen minutes of friendly banter from each episode. Leave aside the fact that the characters’ backstories are already rendered weightless by being unloaded early in the season before we form an emotional attachment to any of them, the live-action versions of Spike, Jet, and Faye are simply too emotionally available, too familiar with each other, too well-adjusted, for the core conflict to work. They bicker, but they’re already basically a family unit by the end of the season when they face the first real challenge to that dynamic.
Of the three main characters, I do want to point out that Mustafa Shakir is not only an excellent Jet Black, but a vast improvement on the anime’s version of the same character. Jet was my least-favorite of the main trio, partially because his backstory was simply less interesting to me and partially because his character often stayed behind on the Bebop while Spike and Faye would go after a bounty together or individually. Shakir’s Jet is always in on the action, effortlessly taking the lead. He’s also a father in this retelling, which leads to some plot-beats that would have been predictable if not for Shakir’s performance.
I wish I could say the same of Cho or Pineda. Cho is a very good actor, but his Spike is written to be so talkative and funny that it’s only in those rare moments where he’s allowed to speak volumes through silence that he really feels like the character – for instance, when he gets off an elevator wearing headphones and strolls casually into the middle of a casino-heist, or when he’s hanging upside-down from a billboard and lights a cigarette while he waits to be pulled to safety. These are both new scenes, but they express the character’s motto of “Whatever happens, happens” perfectly.
Pineda, sadly, is dealt the worst hand, as her character is only Faye Valentine insofar as that’s her name and she shares roughly the same backstory. The nostalgia for a life she doesn’t remember that kept Faye frantically bouncing from place to place in search of belonging, the vividly realized claustrophobia of being in your own body and still not recognizing whose it is, and the vulnerability that comes with that, leaving Faye susceptible to manipulation – almost none of that is brought over into live-action. Pineda’s Faye is only a step above a comedic-relief character.
Even with an entire episode centered on a gender-bent version of the con-artist Whitney Matsumoto (Christine Dunford), who here poses as Faye’s doting mother, the series squanders its opportunity to explore Faye’s internal conflict. Cowboy Bebop could have played up the psychological horror of waking up with no grip on reality or sense of stability, and then being fed lies by a total stranger who claims to be the only person who remembers you…but instead Faye and the others get roped into a whole bunch of humorous hijinks involving Matsumoto’s husband that culminates in an utterly random plot twist for shock value.
And while we’re on the subject of characters undercut by cheap humor, I can’t not talk about Vicious (Alex Hassell). I’ll be honest, I never liked him in the anime to begin with; he was a despicable, one-dimensional villain. But I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed on his behalf while watching the live-action Cowboy Bebop drag Vicious’ name and reputation through the mud, reducing the menacing warlord to a sniveling parody of Lucius Malfoy, with a stringy platinum-blonde wig so atrocious that if you told me it was found discarded on the set of Jupiter’s Legacy, I’d believe you.
Vicious is constantly surrounded by a whole host of other actors hamming it up as various crime-lords of the Syndicate, which might have been enjoyable in a different show; in Cowboy Bebop, it’s just weird and unnecessary. John Noble is probably the best of the bunch, playing another authoritarian father figure in the same vein as his iconic Denethor, only a little more overtly villainous. Vicious is also accompanied by Julia (Elena Satine), who in the anime remained enigmatic and invisible until the end of the series. Here, she’s a major character, which is a nice change. The final episode sets up a very interesting future for her, which as I said could turn the whole show around in season two.
Apart from some interesting new characters, there’s also the occasional character so exquisitely redesigned – and often modernized – that at best you wish they looked like that in the anime, as I felt was particularly the case with Gren (Mason Alexander Park). Sadly, they’re all stuck in this inferior series.
Even in its best episodes, Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop falls far short of the anime on which it’s based. There’s good stuff scattered here and there, and with a lot of work this show could be something interesting down the line – but I don’t know if it will ever feel like a proper adaptation of Bebop. And as disappointing as that is, take comfort in the fact that the original anime is also streaming on Netflix, so you can skip this entirely and go straight to the source. You won’t be missing much.
Series Rating: 5/10