“Cowboy Bebop” Is Gonna Carry The Weight Of Its Wrong Choices

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.

Cowboy Bebop
Spike Spiegel | vulture.com

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.

Cowboy Bebop
Jet Black | indiewire.com

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.

Cowboy Bebop
Vicious | netflixlife.com

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

“Cowboy Bebop” 1st Trailer Review!

Let’s get this out of the way upfront: the first trailer for Netflix’s upcoming live-action reimagining of the classic 1998 anime Cowboy Bebop is wildly entertaining regardless of whether or not you’ve watched the original series. If I knew nothing about the plot beyond what the trailer told me, I’d still likely feel compelled to check this out based solely on the colorful visuals, cool blend of sleek science-fiction and gritty film-noir aesthetics, zany character designs, and the soaring jazz score by Yoko Kanno. But as good as Cowboy Bebop looks, I probably wouldn’t have reviewed the trailer had I not been able to finish binge-watching the original anime just the night before last.

Cowboy Bebop
Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, and Faye Valentine | comingsoon.net

Most of the time, if I’m not already ingrained in the fandom of any particular franchise I choose to cover, I’ll do my best to research that franchise’s lore and mythology before writing about it. To cite an example off the top of my head, I’ve never read The Witcher stories nor played the games, but I’ve written extensively about material from both while covering the Netflix adaptation. But in the case of Cowboy Bebop, I felt very strongly that I needed to absorb the anime’s themes before I could properly pass judgment on its successor.

That’s not to say that watching the original anime is essential to understanding or appreciating the Netflix series (although…well, more on that in a moment), but I’m glad I did. Because for all its witty humor and cute corgis, the original Cowboy Bebop is also a deeply melancholy series that examines how we can all too easily become defined by the events of our past, or alternatively choose to find the strength within ourselves to define our future. The anime builds off that core concept to explore a wide spectrum of human responses to trauma, regret, and the consequences of our own actions, through a cast of four main characters who are all stuck at pivotal points in their lives.

That was something I started to become aware of by the end of the first episode, and it drove me to finish the anime just in time for the release of this trailer, so that I could come into this review knowing what Cowboy Bebop is at its core and what Netflix’s reimagining has to be, and not just discussing the various references to the original series that I might have been able to catch through research. And in the process, I’ve discovered a great new show, and become invested in the anime’s vibrant world and complex characters (especially Faye Valentine – I knew I was going to love Faye Valentine the moment she walked onscreen, but I love Faye Valentine).

And yes, of course I know that I’m over two decades late to the party for the original Cowboy Bebop, but all of us – those who’ve been fans since 1998, and those who’ve joined the fandom in the years since – will get to enjoy Netflix’s reimagining of the anime together. Now you may have noticed by this point that I’ve used the word “reimagining” a lot to describe this live-action iteration of Cowboy Bebop, and that’s because details are still kind of hazy about what Netflix intends for this to be. Is it a remake? Some kind of retelling? A total reboot?

Cowboy Bebop
Spike Spiegel | gizmodo.com.au

None of those options seem particularly appealing, which is why I’m using the word “reimagining” out of a hope that Netflix’s series aspires at least to be more than a carbon-copy of the original anime. In a world – or rather an entire solar system – as diverse and expansive as that in which the largely stand-alone stories of Cowboy Bebop take place, there’s really no excuse for the Netflix series not to try and do its own thing. And yet this trailer indicates that Netflix will be recreating numerous iconic scenes, even entire episodes and story arcs, from the anime.

In that spirit, it seems that Netflix has aimed for as strict an adherence to the original character designs of Cowboy Bebop as live-action will allow. There’s spot-on casting, and then there’s John Cho as Spike Spiegel. He’s maybe slightly older than how I envisioned Spike in the anime, but Cho has all of Spike’s physicality, and he’s rocking the bounty hunter’s snazzy blue suit. Spike is an enigmatic figure who lingers in the galaxy searching for purpose but remains tethered to his tragic past by love and anger, and I can’t wait to see what Cho does with a quiet and pensive character like that.

If you’re getting some Mandalorian vibes from Spike Spiegel and the space western setting of the series in general, well, so is Netflix. And I think it’s pretty obvious why this trailer and other promotional material for the series has massively played up the importance of Spike’s sidekick Ein, an extremely intelligent corgi who is absolutely going to be Cowboy Bebop‘s answer to Baby Yoda. The fact that Baby Yoda’s popularity was a complete shock to everyone, including Disney, is something that other studios seem to have forgotten in their rush to find and subsequently overpromote their own adorable nonverbal sidekick characters.

I’m tempted to draw a similar link between the reinvention of Faye Valentine as a rough-and-tumble brawler with a soft spot for dogs and The Mandalorian‘s Cara Dune, although I truly hope Daniella Pineda isn’t channeling any part of Gina Carano’s unmemorable performance into her portrayal of Valentine, my favorite character in the original Cowboy Bebop crew. Valentine is a great bounty hunter, but it’s the daily battle she wages inside her head with the remnants of the person she used to be that really had me rooting for her to succeed. So much of her story hinges on the quiet moments when she’s confronting her past, and I hope that Pineda can sell those scenes as well as her action sequences.

Sadly, the trailer doesn’t give us so much as a glimpse of my second-favorite Cowboy Bebop character, Radical Edward, the energetic young hacker who joins the team almost on a whim and lights up the whole show with their vivacious personality. But we do see plenty of Mustafa Shakir as Jet Black, looking very dapper in what are presumably flashbacks to his early days as a police officer on Ganymede before swapping out his suit and fedora for the more practical gear of a bounty hunter. Jet is the only member of the Bebop team who actively longs to return to his old way of life, and the way that the anime slowly disabuses him of that nostalgia is heart-wrenching to watch.

Cowboy Bebop
Cowboy Bebop | engadget.com

But personally, I hope that the Netflix series has new ideas for how to evolve the characters. They’re clearly sticking with the core elements of Spike’s backstory, as evidenced by the repeated appearances of Spike’s arch-nemesis Vicious in the trailer, but if Netflix plans for Cowboy Bebop to be a long-running series with franchise potential I assume that either the narrative won’t be structured exclusively around Spike and Vicious’ long-running conflict, or the showrunners have an idea for how to send their storyline down a different route than the original anime, which ended conclusively after just twenty-six episodes.

Speaking solely for myself here, I know that what I don’t want from this series is something that feels beholden to the anime by only revisiting areas we’ve already seen and retelling stories we already know, instead of honoring the adventurous spirit of the original series by exploring beyond its boundaries. This trailer is full of so much energy and potential, I’d hate to see that go to waste.

Trailer Rating: 8.5/10