Cowboy Bebop, which premieres on Netflix on Friday, is at its best when it channels the same spirit as the original anime it’s based on: pulp fiction. It’s difficult to get it perfect because if you go too far, it’ll be obvious and you’ll lose interest. Cowboy Bebop, on the other hand, gets the pulpiness to a tee. When it comes to crafting a pulpy performance, getting the audience on your side early on is crucial. That’s what the Netflix series, created by Christopher Yost (Thor: Ragnarok) and showrunner André Nemec (Zoo, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), does. As a result, you want to go on a journey with the characters. It may be a lot of fun at times, and it can also be quite funny. Certain aspects are forgiven because it’s attempting to be ridiculous, similar to the anime. You expect less logical behavior from the events on screen.
Add in the minor details put in place by Cowboy Bebop’s two directors, Alex Garcia Lopez (Utopia, The Witcher, Daredevil season 3) and Michael Katleman (Utopia, The Witcher, Daredevil season 3) (Zoo, The Last Ship). Before the fight begins, they cut to a drop of water falling to the ground. In the middle of a conflict, a character compliments their opponent on a maneuver. A climactic samurai-style battle is set to shakuhachi and set against a big stained glass window. A character rushes to someone’s aid while clutching an unsightly doll that they spent a lot of money on for their child. While their partner watches a school concert, a complete action sequence takes place in the background out of focus. It’s bizarre — and it’s a good thing.
Cowboy Bebop was very costly for a Japanese company in the late 1990s, as animation has always been an expensive industry. As a result, the anime had a low frame rate — at times, it seemed like a flip book, and the action happened in bursts. Netflix isn’t short on cash, but the move to live-action means that everything is always in flux. Cowboy Bebop resorts to jump cuts to recreate the anime’s action spurts since it’s the only way to emulate the low frame rate.
Cowboy Bebop isn’t scared to change the furniture, even if it keeps the anime’s core. Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) is introduced early on as an amnesiac. However, another renowned anime character is revealed at the very end of the season, in what appears to be a clear setup for a possible second season. Netflix has yet to make any announcements.
However, the Netflix series directly borrows from the anime as well. Each episode is referred to as a session (the anime was fond of jazz music), it retains the anime’s end-of-episode subtitles (“see you space cowboy”) and the bounty-hunting infotainment show Big Shot, and the famous opening credits have been recreated and extended — complete with Yoko Kanno’s original theme song “Tank!” (Yes, Kanno reprises his role as a composer from the original, with anime director Shinichir Watanabe serving as a consultant.) Because of the jazz music and fancy design, you’ll want to stick around for Cowboy Bebop’s opening titles rather than using Netflix’s “skip intro” option.
Cowboy Bebop mixes genres fluidly with a combination of neo-noir, Western, and hardboiled detective fiction. It will give you serious Firefly vibes at times if you haven’t seen the anime original. The Netflix comedy is overflowing with elegance, with its bright production design — yellow is practically everywhere — and jazz roots setting it apart from the drab that we’re used to seeing on streaming. Cowboy Bebop settles into comedy rhythms that keep you hooked from episode to episode. (Season 1 has ten episodes, all of which I’ve seen.) You become invested in these characters and want to learn more about them.
Its dramatic beats, on the other hand, are less successful. Cowboy Bebop has a complex past for its main character, which it teases throughout the season before launching into a prequel episode at the last minute. Characters in the Netflix drama series, on the other hand, are less appealing and/or cartoonish. Cowboy Bebop goes off the rails here, tipping the scales against itself.
The first season of Cowboy Bebop on Netflix is divided into two parts. One follows the bounty-hunting crew of the BeBop, a rusted starship where things don’t always go as planned since the bounty hunters aren’t generating enough money. Spike Spiegel (John Cho, Star Trek) is a chain-smoking, collar-raised, blue-suited character with a tumultuous romantic and criminal past. Spike, a loner, is running from his past, his awful secret eating away at him from the inside.
Jet Black, an ex-cop with a bionic arm (Mustafa Shakir from Luke Cage), is his companion. Jet’s wife left him for an ex-cop pal, but he adores his daughter Kimmie (Molly Moriarty) and will go to any length to protect her. Jet is usually the calm, collected voice in the room. That leaves Faye, who has amnesia after being jolted awake from cryo-sleep and is now on a mission to discover who she truly is. On Cowboy Bebop, Pineda is amusing and riotous at times. Faye is introduced at the beginning of the series, however she is subsequently forgotten for a few episodes.
Ein, a Pembroke Welsh Corgi that was experimented on in a research facility, is the fourth non-human member of the Bebop crew. Ein is both useful and unhelpful; he occasionally saves the team, but he also leads them into trouble. In Cowboy Bebop, the dog has a minor part and, like Faye, is occasionally neglected or purposefully left behind.
Spike and Jet have one stipulation in their relationship: they must never get entangled with the Syndicate. That takes us to the opposite (more dramatic) side of Cowboy Bebop, in the form of the mafia Syndicate’s power-hungry villain Vicious (Alex Hassell, from Suburbicon). His entire story revolves around his fear about his manhood, which I must say I wasn’t particularly invested in. We’ve had enough of emotionally stunted white men who are immature. Vicious’ wife is Julia (Elena Satine, Revenge), a femme fatale who he doesn’t love as much as he loves having her around as a trophy. Oh, and he has a history with Spike. Everything about Vicious is over the top and on the nose (just look at the name).
While it’s initially driven by bounty hunting, Cowboy Bebop is increasingly engrossed in the Syndicate and Vicious plot as the season progresses. (Anime enthusiasts will understand.) As a result, the Netflix series is more entertaining in the beginning and becomes increasingly irritating as it progresses. In the conclusion, it makes some annoying and predictable decisions. The plot armour helps the main characters survive. Just so the TV program may set up a heroic turn of events, the Bebop team does not communicate adequately with one another. A minor figure switches their allegiance only because they share the victim’s gender. When a character’s move to the evil side isn’t adequately fostered, it feels undeserved when it finally comes.
When it takes a more cerebral, if goofy approach, Cowboy Bebop is considerably better in the emotional department. An AI attaches onto a character’s brain in one episode, attempting to reconstruct their consciousness. The character becomes trapped in a time loop, reliving the same incident as the AI tries to “tear them down.” The program becomes into a psychological investigation and a journey into their minds. It’s similar to the scene in Inception where Leonardo DiCaprio sees Marion Cotillard as he remembers her – you’ll understand when you see it.
I would have loved Cowboy Bebop to be more episodic rather than serialized as a season-long story, simply because their individual experiences are more entertaining than the big-picture story. Yes, I’ll be the first to concede that any show attempting to last numerous seasons requires season-long character arcs as well. Cowboy Bebop’s first season ends approximately halfway through the anime’s original run — I say original because Netflix recently re-licensed the anime in India, but the episode scheduling is all jumbled up — giving the Netflix series at least another season. Though with the late-game bombshell that (even anime aficionados won’t anticipate coming and) leads Cowboy Bebop down a whole different branch than the anime, it may easily continue on for even longer.
It’s exciting enough — largely because it’s more personal now — but I’m sure I’ll be tuning in for more bounty-hunting exploits if/when Cowboy Bebop returns to Netflix for season 2. That was the thing that made me smile. Space cowboy, I’ll see you (soon)!
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