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Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is a Show with a Serious Identity Crisis

Cowboy Bebop is bad, but you knew that already. You knew that before clicking on this review and you probably knew that when you saw the promotional material. You may have figured it out when you noticed Netflix brought on Shinichirō Watanabe (director of the original anime series) as a consultant, whatever that means. If you’re lucky, you knew the minute they announced this was going to happen in the first place. But there’s something to be said about being optimistic anyway. After all, many things that are bad can be, at the very least, enjoyable in a way that makes time pass just that much quicker and inspires shared laughs among friends. Unfortunately, Cowboy Bebop manages to elude those pleasures and instead is just an all-around bummer of a show brought to actualization by people who have completely misread what makes the seminal anime it’s based on good. I wish it weren’t the case, you have to believe me. I’m sure the creators and everyone involved feel as though this is for the fans, a get-out-of-jail-free sentiment widely used to escape any form of criticism, but they’ve missed the mark completely. 

When I was given the go on writing my thoughts about the first season — ten hour-long (!?) episodes — I made an active decision to not rewatch the original anime. I feel as though this may have been the correct approach, allowing me to go into this series with an open mind, and not one fueled by my enjoyment of the original anime. I let the faint and hazy memories of me staying up late as a kid watching it on Adult Swim remain faint and hazy. Why ruin those cherished memories; a compare and contrast review, this is not. But it’s not like I needed the anime to help express what’s bad about this show, because it’s present in every creative decision. It wants to be a genre-bender but it can’t seem to get neither the noir nor western aspects of the story straight. It wants to be cinematic but it also wants to be cartoony and over the top. It wants to be mature and serious, but it also wants to be cool for the older teenager crowd. Cowboy Bebop doesn’t know who it’s for, and that confusion gets embedded into its very framework from its opening scene all the way to its inert season ending. 

COWBOY BEPOP (L to R) JOHN CHO as SPIKE SPIEGEL in COWBOY BEPOP Cr. GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX © 2021

It’s the poor production design and terrible effects whenever any ship is flying through space, the way the cinematography comes across more like a CW show than anything resembling a big-budget production which I have to imagine this is, the fight scenes that resemble Power Rangers and Daredevil (because every action show needs a John Wick-esque oner) more than the Bruce Lee inspired choreography of the anime, it’s the writing filled with terrible subplots and shallow attempts at empowerment, it’s the acting that’s inconsistent and baffling, and it is definitely the directing of which there was no care placed at all. Any good decision that may have been made during the course of this season gets derailed by trite writing, cliche storytelling, the clunky merging of genres, or Daniella Pineda’s Faye Valentine swearing like a twelve-year-old who just learned what curses were. 

Still, credit where credit is due. John Cho and Mustafa Shakir as Spike Spiegel and Jet Black are excellent companions, playing off each other’s attitudes very well. It’s fun to watch Spike’s devil-may-care freewheelin’ attitude compared to Jet’s more stern and level-headed approach. Despite the writing doing neither of these characters any favors, Cho and Shakir play them well enough that when they’re together you forget the burning wreck that surrounds them. Their backstories get delved into with their own respective episodes that feel clunky but passable given the actors’ charm.

Daniella Pineda as Faye Valentine gets some pretty poor writing by comparison to her crewmates, her character is meant to convey a sense of badass and headstrong ambition, but can’t seem to carry nuance or weight to her character. Pineda holds her own against Cho and Shakir and for the most part, they make a watchable team and Pineda is charming enough to forgive many of her written sins, but for the most part Faye feels like a character that I’m sure Joss Whedon would herald as a feminist revelation because she kicks and punches and doesn’t take shit. Main antagonist Vicious, played by Alex Hassell, doesn’t fare any better feeling like a character designed to appeal to the Loki fan demographic more than being an adept villain. A monologuing wordy soft-spoken villain with daddy issues and a short temper, Hot Topic t-shirts will get a boom in market sales when folks get a look at him. 

COWBOY BEBOP (L to R) JOHN CHO as SPIKE SPIEGEL, MUSTAFA SHAKIR as JET BLACK, DANIELLA PINEDA as FAYE VALENTINE and EIN in Cowboy Bebop Cr. GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX © 2021

But of all the characters, Julia may be the most underwritten of them all. Her character who appeared only in two episodes of the original series, gets transformed from femme fatale love interest to caged songbird trapped in an abusive relationship with Vicious. A majority of her scenes have her reacting to things around her; a damsel in distress, with a lot of her power and agency stripped away until the writers decide “wait she can be a girlboss too” towards the end of the series. It never feels earned, and while the show may be filled with some of the most unoriginal characterizations this side of Netflix, her scenes prove to be the rock bottom. Her scenes with Vicious bring out some of the worst aspects of the show and while Hassell seems to be having somewhat fun with his performance with his wide-eyed violent glee, Elana Satine brings very little. Julia never feels like a character as a result, and more like the vague idea of a character the writers thought they knew. She simply exists and that may be the biggest crime of all.

There are some side characters like bar owner Ana and right hand Gren played by Tamara Tunie and Mason Alexander Park respectively who help fill in the jazz-inspired noir vibes of the show but are given very little to do. Still, they are a bright spot in a show filled with a lot of dullness, and any moment we get to spend with them in their bar is time well spent. They’re fun in the ways this show should have been as well, leaning just the right amount into the camp and noir silliness this take on Cowboy Bebop seems to perpetually miss. A special shout out to Adrienne Barbeau (Escape from New York, The Fog) who makes an appearance as Maria Murdock, one of the bounties the crew of the Bebop go after who seems to be having fun at least. The rest of the bounties don’t really have much energy to them or seem worth talking about at all as the show seems far more interested in some cliche subplot like Jet’s estranged relationship with his ex-wife and child, or Vicious’ lackluster bid to be head of the Syndicate. One episode has Spike and Jet going after dog-napper Abdul Hakim, a character that in the anime was designed specifically as a reference to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who turns out to be a white man with an identity changer. Make of that what you will. 

COWBOY BEBOP (L to R) ALEX HASSELL as VICIOUS and JOHN CHO as SPIKE SPIEGEL of COWBOY BEPOP Cr. GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX © 2021

But more than anything within this show, the most egregious act done upon this show is Netflix’s attempt to make this a shining example of the power of diversity and progressivism in the age of streaming. Despite being a big-budget show based on a beloved property starring three people of color in the lead roles, I fear Netflix may be hiding behind that distinction to avoid the criticism that this show is just another piece of content for them to tout. That to me is a greater sin than anything within this show; it’s hard enough to get representation within shows these days, and we don’t need terrible shows like Cowboy Bebop posturing under the diversity banner making it harder. Even worse, Cowboy Bebop takes much of the central iconography of the anime in the hopes that it’ll be sufficient enough to keep people around; It doesn’t. Having Yoko Kanno providing the jazzy score (a highlight of the series by the way) isn’t going to make me forgive the series any more than seeing images from the anime getting replicated in the show. Sure, the image of Spike and Vicious in a standoff underneath a stained glass window may raise the pangs of nostalgia, but upon further inspection, one finds that it’s merely a tracing which may sum up this show far more succinctly than anything anyone could say. Cowboy Bebop is nothing but a tracing, shoddily done, rushed, and unnecessary. One Piece fans looking forward to Netflix’s live-action take, you’ve been warned.