Cowboy Bebop Series-Premiere Recap: Three, Two, One, Let’s Jam

Cowboy Bebop (Netflix)

Cowboy Gospel
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 3 stars

Cowboy Bebop (Netflix)

Cowboy Gospel
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 3 stars

So the premiere of the new Cowboy Bebop really has two functions. First: It needs to convince hard-core fans of the anime that this new adaptation understands what was great about the original series. Second: It needs to convince those that haven’t seen the anime, but who might take a flyer on a new sci-fi/action series starring John Cho, that this is a TV show worth watching all on its own.

When it comes to existing fans of the anime, “Cowboy Gospel” certainly does its best to win over skeptics. The show’s entire aesthetic — the opening credits, the main character’s hair and costumes, the interiors and exteriors on the Bebop — are designed to signal a deep reverence for the original. The plot is drawn directly from “Asteroid Blues,” the anime’s first episode, and some of the original’s most iconic images have more or less been replicated shot for shot. Most importantly, for both the episode and the season: The soundtrack is loaded with songs from Seatbelts, the Yoko Kanno–led band whose music was so essential to the original show’s style and tone.

But all this reverence does come at a cost: As a stand-alone episode, “Cowboy Gospel” feels just a little wobbly.

To be fair, the premiere has a lot of work to do to establish Cowboy Bebop’s characters, premise, and universe (though to be just as fair, the original series did the same job in an episode that was half as long). In a cold open, we’re introduced to Tanaka, a gun-toting gangster holding a casino hostage. “Shitbag corporations. They control everything now,” he complains. (Coming right after the Netflix logo, I’d like to imagine this line is a self-aware, cheeky wink at everyone who railed against a live-action Cowboy Bebop, but that’s probably reading too much into it.)

Tanaka’s big anti-capitalist monologue is interrupted by Spike Spiegel (John Cho) and Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), a couple of bounty hunters who riff while they blow away a half-dozen of Tanaka’s goons. When one of them finally draws a BFG-style gun and punches a hole in the wall, and it’s revealed that this casino also happens to be a space station — shaped like a giant roulette wheel, of course — Spike and Jet manage to capture Tanaka at the expense of some serious collateral damage to the architecture. This is Cowboy Bebop telling you what to expect from Cowboy Bebop: blood, banter, and big bangs (of both the firearm and celestial variety).

Other than that, the key takeaway here is that our colorful heroes have no problem shooting their adversaries in the head. When Jet objects to Spike’s kill-’em-all-and-let-God-sort-’em-out gunplay, it’s not on moral grounds; it’s because they can’t collect a bounty on a corpse. The show is telling the audience that this isn’t a show about good guys; it’s a show about morally dubious guys killing badder guys.

But it’s never that simple, is it? The casino sequence is just a stylish preamble for the episode’s main action, which sends Spike and Jet to a galactic settlement called New Tijuana and eventually reveals that Spike still has a heart in there somewhere. Spike and Jet head to town to locate a lucrative target: Asimov Solensan, a fugitive who stole a heaping pile of a drug called Red Eye from a Mafia-like group called the Syndicate. The catch is that taking Red Eye dramatically increases the user’s physical strength and endurance, which means that anyone who approaches Asimov risks getting ripped to shreds by him.

Jet pokes around at the bar where Asimov was last seen, while Spike — who, admittedly, has the twin benefits of wearing a very well-tailored suit and looking like John Cho — chats up Asimov’s pregnant girlfriend Katerina, who has no idea Spike is a bounty hunter on their trail. But Spike’s wheedling is interrupted by a purple-haired, gun-toting woman named Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda), who’s after a separate bounty on Katerina.

This is the first of several moments in which Spike’s cynical, devil-may-care demeanor turns out to be a front for the romantic underneath. When his squabble with Faye gives Katerina and Asimov enough time to get away, Spike chooses not to fire at their getaway car despite having a clean shot. Later, when they catch up with Asimov and Katerina — and it turns out her “pregnant belly” contained the rest of the Red Eye vials — Spike still does his best to talk her into surrendering before she chooses to keep running, knowing she’s doomed, and gets killed by the ISSP instead.

Why does Spike care so much? You might be able to glean some clues from the overheated flashbacks, but the most straightforward answer comes when he tells Katerina that she reminds him of someone. Her death, which comes at the hands of space cops as she’s trying to flee, is yet another thing for Spike to grieve over. When Spike tries to talk her down — and she tells him, sadly parroting his own wisdom earlier, that it’s time for her to wake up — he can’t really argue with his own advice about facing the world’s grim realities head-on.

But if this sad, failed bounty is the kind of thing that Spike, Jet, and their new frenemy Faye might prefer to put in the rearview mirror, it looks like the consequences won’t be wiped away so easily. A surviving Syndicate member managed to identify Spike as “Fearless,” a man the entire organization believed was dead. And now that they know he’s out there, they don’t seem likely to let him slip away again.

Stray Bullets

• Some housekeeping up front: As a rule, I’m going to do my best to avoid turning these recaps into a lengthy breakdown of the differences between the original anime and the Netflix series. I adore the original show, but I’m more interested in evaluating what the Netflix show is and isn’t doing on its own terms. And with new viewers in mind, please keep spoilers out of the comments section below.

• As for the enigmatic stinger featuring the guy with the white hair and the sword and his lover with the rose tattoo … well, if you’ve seen the original show, you have a pretty good idea where this might be going. If you haven’t, I’d be careful about what you Google.

• The Watanabe Casino seen in the cold open is named after Shinichirō Watanabe, who directed the original series.

• I particularly like the bit in the casino when the slot machine hits the jackpot and starts spitting out coins, which basically become bullets as they get pulled toward the hole in the hull.

• The show is so eager to introduce us to these characters that the exposition dumps are a little clumsy, but yes: In case you missed him explaining it in needlessly exhaustive detail, Jet has an 8-year-old daughter, and his wife is (probably) now shacked up with a mustachioed cop named Chalmers.

• Jet on choosing not to use future medicine to regrow his missing arm: “Sometimes when you lose something, there’s just no getting it back.” He quickly shifts into jokey mode, but for just a moment, there’s a look on Spike’s face that makes it clear that he understands.

• If you’re looking to build a playlist: The song Spike listens to in his headphones is “Spokey Dokey”; “Bad Dog No Biscuits” plays over the action in the casino sequence; and a new arrangement of “Cat Blues” plays shortly after Spike and Jet land in New Tijuana.

• The bill that reduced the bounty on Tanaka from 1,500,000₩ to 100,000₩ included 150,000 for an “astral fee,” 65,000 for a “criminal processing fee,” and 10,000 for an “accounting fee.” What, no convenience charge?

• I couldn’t track down a real-world equivalent of the Walking Sally doll that Jet’s daughter wants so badly, but this Sally Happy Talk ’n’ Walk is pretty creepy.

• Jet’s computer password is “BEAN.” Okay!

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