tv review

Cowboy Bebop’s New Shine Can’t Replace Its Old Soul

Spike Spiegel (John Cho), Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda), and Ein the corgi all make the jump to live action with ease. The series around them, however … Photo: Netflix

John Cho’s unassuming magnetism is simultaneously well-established and underappreciated in his time. Consider the films that became commercial or critical hits (the Harold & Kumar franchise, Searching, Columbus) and the collection of TV series canceled too soon (FlashForward, Selfie, Go On, The Exorcist) — none of them suffered because of Cho. With his soft eyes and firm voice, he has the unique ability to ground an absurd premise but also rise to its ludicrous demands, and his duality is the most rewarding component of the uneven, much-awaited Netflix adaptation of Cowboy Bebop.

The animated series, first a hit in Japan in 1998 and then an anime gateway for American viewers when it aired on Cartoon Network’s freshly launched Adult Swim block in 2001, has reached rarified cult-classic status. Its 26 episodes and the 2001 movie Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door have been dissected, screenshotted, and GIFed. The Cowboy Bebop universe expanded into printed form with different manga editions in the late ’90s. As anime became more mainstream in the United States, in part because of Cowboy Bebop, the show’s appearance on best-of-TV lists and growing presence on streaming services drew in more viewers — creating its own kind of ouroboros loop. It wasn’t all a dream, as Cowboy Bebop’s Julia would muse, but a slow swell of popularity and praise building into a crashing wave of nearly universal acclaim.

All of which is to say that showrunner André Nemec has a long legacy to honor with Cowboy Bebop — and that his level of success varies. Adaptations are always a tricky business: strictly imitate the source material and be accused of a lack of creativity; veer too far away from what is perceived as the original’s soul, rhythms, or vibe, and be accused of missing the point. The first ten episodes of Cowboy Bebop, arriving on Netflix on November 19, straddle that too-close/not-close-enough line. Nemec, his writing team (including veterans from Lost in Space, Sons of Anarchy, Thor: Ragnarok, and Lost), and directors Alex Garcia Lopez and Michael Katleman (who split the first season) go the route of extrapolation and expansion. The musical cues are brassy, jazzy, and often directly evocative of the original, thanks to the return of Cowboy Bebop composer Yoko Kanno. The production design is colorful and CGI-heavy, with neon-hued opening credits that imitate the series’s predecessor (complete with Kanno’s “Tank!” theme); artificial-looking spaceship exteriors and skylines; and an array of visual details that pulls from Japanese, Latin American, and Middle Eastern cultures. And the original series’s fusion of the neo-noir, Western, and sci-fi genres is cinematically amplified with locations like casinos and dive bars, an episode in the style of a ’40s detective film, and shoot-outs galore.

Fans of Netflix sci-fi like Altered Carbon or Lost in Space who are new to Cowboy Bebop might be delighted by this adaptation’s similarities to those other series: a dystopian look, broadly anti-capitalist sympathies, and light consideration of sci-fi concepts like AI and virtual reality. But fans of the original might wonder if the adaptation’s wackier feel and perpetual high jinks betray its predecessor’s sense of despondency and ennui, and its awareness that sometimes the coolest guy in the room is also the loneliest. Most of that spins forward from the Spike character, which this Cowboy Bebop treats confusingly despite Cho being the series’s greatest coup. He wears his shaggy ’do, double-breasted blue suit, and chunky headphones with self-possessed style, and is believably brutal and graceful in the series’s many fight scenes from stunt coordinator Allan Poppleton. But Cowboy Bebop’s greatest error is shuffling Cho’s Spike to the side in favor of other characters whose arcs are mostly predictable, whose decision-making doesn’t make sense within the series’s interior world, and whose development suffers from laborious pacing.

The series is set in the somewhat near future, after Earth has collapsed and wealth inequality has destructively stratified all the planets to which humans fled. With the Inter-Solar System Police (ISSP) blatantly working for the rich, the violent criminals whom the ISSP won’t touch are tracked down and brought in by bounty hunters, or “cowboys.” Cowboys Spike Spiegel (Cho) and Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), partners for the last couple of years on Jet’s ship the Bebop, are united in their troubled pasts. Each day, former detective Jet works to clear his name and improve his relationship with his estranged daughter, who lives with his ex-wife and her new partner. Each night, former assassin Spike tumbles into hazy, murky memories of a woman’s face, a falling rose, and his own body tumbling off the side of a cliff. (It’s all very The Crow.) The men are hiding secrets from each other, and their relationship is complicated with the arrival of fellow bounty hunter Faye Valentine (a delightful Daniella Pineda), an amnesiac who can’t remember anything about her life before she was placed in a cryogenic freeze decades before. She’s cheeky and spontaneous, and her inclusion in their crew splits bounties three ways instead of two.

Their business partnership (and constant sparring) moves Cowboy Bebop forward into a mixture of self-contained episodes with one-off villains and mythology-focused episodes that return to the bad blood between Spike and the Syndicate, the shadowy crime organization in which he was once a rising star. As a Syndicate hit man, Spike was efficient, ruthless, and a brother-in-arms to Vicious (Alex Hassell), now a capo in the outfit. But something drove them apart, and in true noir fashion, that something was a someone.

The backstory of that someone and how they figure into this narrative will be one of the most jarring changes for original fans of Cowboy Bebop — an unexpected twist given how the series initially caters to IP-aware viewers. Various episodes, or “sessions,” of this adaptation are rife with re-created elements. As in the original series’s first episode, “Asteroid Blues,” Syndicate traitor Asimov Solensan is the baddie in premiere episode “Cowboy Gospel,” which starts things off with an ultrabloody jolt. The Teddy Bomber from “Cowboy Funk” causes chaos in “Venus Pop”; Dr. Londes from the original episode “Brain Scratch” creates an alluring alternate reality in “Binary Two-Step”; and Mad Pierrot from “Pierrot le Fou” pops by to quote Blade Runner and attempt to assassinate Spike in “Sad Clown A-Go-Go.” Episode end cards reference the anime; the adorable corgi named Ein stays adorable; Faye Valentine can still curse a blue streak; and Spike and Jet’s chemistry remains intact, like when they mock a criminal for letting his guard down (“Who takes a shit in the middle of a heist?”) or razz each other for not being prepared enough for a job (“You skimmed the manifesto?”). Cho and Shakir’s lived-in chemistry and contrasting wry and stern natures elevate some stilted dialogue, and Pineda’s combination of vulgarity and vulnerability draws out sarcasm in Cho’s Spike and paternalism in Shakir’s Jet. Those pieces are compelling enough for fans and newbies alike, and in true streamer-service fashion, make it easy for one episode of Cowboy Bebop to blend into another.

As the season continues, though, Cowboy Bebop becomes an imbalanced mixture of successful innovations and tedious experiments. Bright spots include Tamara Tunie’s Ana and Mason Alexander Park’s Gren, who are teamed up here to run the nostalgia-stroking jazz club that’s central to the Syndicate’s backstory; the take-no-crap Ana and glamorously, intentionally nonbinary Gren are expanded, nuanced improvements on their animated predecessors. Extra time with Vicious and other Syndicate capos doesn’t add much, though, especially when Vicious’s daddy issues are so thinly rendered and Hassell’s performance is so one-note. And although Spike’s former lover Julia (Elena Satine) is now less of a damsel in distress and more of a femme fatale, her motivations remain so opaque that Satine can’t quite find the character’s core; none of her relationships feel believable, and without that essential tension, Cowboy Bebop’s overarching plot just isn’t that compelling.

That inconsistency means that while Cowboy Bebop gains visual thrill in this live-action version, the motivations that should mold these characters into allies or enemies doesn’t always match the quality of the ensemble’s performances or the visual poignancy of the series’s cinematography. Cowboy Bebop was never just another anime, but in this new form, it flirts with being just another Netflix action series, with accompanying mid-season bloat, liminal dialogue, and sexless sex scenes. Once the excitement of recognizing the Bebop’s couch, Spike’s cigarettes, and Ein’s exuberant tail-wagging wears off, it becomes obvious what this adaptation is missing. Brought to life, Cowboy Bebop loses some of its melancholy soul.

Cowboy Bebop’s New Shine Can’t Replace Its Old Soul