Cowboy Bebop is now streaming on Netflix.
I knew I was going to have a tough one because my relationship to the original is…odd. While I only saw the series in full this year, I already had every single beat and major moment spoiled via cultural osmosis. Being friends with a bunch of anime-obsessed teens when I was a teen, and being a person who used to be really resistant to watching it, just resulted in me learning a lot about various series without actually watching them. I’m not one of those now, I finally decided to try Fullmetal Alchemist after high school and have seen more since. Cowboy Bebop, though? That was the holy grail of anime to my friends at the time. That was a literal holy text. I’m not going to say what about it I already knew, just that I was never surprised at the really big moments the fans go nuts over. To be completely honest, I’m a bit cold on it having seen it in full. That’s not to say that there’s nothing to write home about or that it’s overrated. Far from it. Sometimes, something everyone else loves is something you don’t entirely click with for whatever reason. I like quite a bit about it. Yoko Kanno’s score is immediately an all-timer, you actually go to The Hague if you dare besmirch her work in any way. My favorite character, which is going to be a surprise for the hardcore fans, is actually Radical Ed, who’s this very quirky and manic hacker type who gives the crew of the Bebop (the titular ship containing our futuristic bounty hunters) a hard time. That Radical Ed is nowhere to be seen in the live action adaptation (will Ed be featured in future seasons? I don’t feel like confirming or denying that) is telling of what we’re going to get here. But I can definitely see why this became so beloved. If you’re a teenager during our pre-internet era, or even now, Spike Spiegel seems so effortlessly cool and detached that you’re going to really resonate, even as most of the show’s ending goes over your head. A lot of the appeal was in Spike seeming above it all, the setting feeling so lived in and yet so close to our own realities. It’s a solar system of outlaws on every corner and space travel and combat that felt distinct. Every frame is dripping with detail and attention. Even when I would actively dislike some aspects of the show, I could hardly call it lazy. It’s possibly one of the densest pieces of media ever created when you take the time to look at how much they pack into just twenty-six episodes. That it speaks to a future crumbling to bits as much as our present only speaks more to the melancholy air it had underneath the detached humor. I think what’s most telling about the attitude with which this remake exists is a recent interview where Andre Nemec, the showrunner, talks about how he didn’t want the show to be seen as “dystopian.” It is dystopian, Andre. Dystopian fiction is always a reflection of our current reality rather than the future. To deny that, to pepper over it, that could be disastrous.
In the end, the only ones carrying that weight is anyone having to watch this.
Originally, the idea after watching on a source that was not Netflix per se was that I’d launch every bit of vitriol I possibly could at it. Just let the hate flow through me, really just let the creators of this absolutely have it for how horrible of a job they did. That feels like a huge waste of your time and mine. There’s enough anger in the world right now. I want to put in an equal amount of time criticizing this as was put into the quality of what we ended up getting. That much anger would be giving it too much credit. Besides, I wasn’t even all that mad upon finishing, though I did have to start digging around to figure out if I’d missed anything. Since it is a partially faithful adaptation, sort-of, I wasn’t missing too much. It’s never a good sign when something makes you bored and sleepy instead of mad. I could take a bit of righteous anger, or something immensely flawed that still had some energy or propulsion behind it. This feels like being promised a set of Hot Wheels and getting a plastic toy from McDonald’s instead, being expected to pay the same price.
Where could I go with all of that? The fluid and vibrant animation traded for soulless CGI with compositions tinted either diarrhea brown or mouthwash blue depending on the mood felt like a good place to start. It’s one of those cases where they had the money to make it look vibrant and just…decided not to. Because this is Netflix, they’re contractually obligated to have as low of a contrast as possible, make sure not one molecule of the frame is ever implied to have any kind of depth. I could make all the algorithm jokes I wanted, but it is funny how the live-action remake looks and feels the way something on the CW would. Live-action Bebop…does not seem to have been made by people who know anything about it other than Wikipedia entries. The resumes of the creative minds behind it speak to their ethos: we’ve got the screenwriter of the Michael Bay-created reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles over here, the writer of the second Thor movie over there. Really sending their best and brightest at Netflix. The grand idea as to how to possibly improve on what came before is by taking a genuinely good cast and giving them a live-action Bebop by way of Riverdale. I think that’s a bleeding shame, worse than if folks like John Cho and Mustafa Shakir and Daniella Pineda weren’t trying their hardest to make anything click. You can always tell when actors are trying in spite of the lazy material they’re given. A lot of people worried about John Cho being too old to play Spike Spiegel? Not to worry, he’s absolute gangbusters here. Not enough to even remotely make this enjoyable, but I have to commend the effort. He looks distinctly uncomfortable in the piss-poor cosplay they’ve got him in (truly Spike Spiegel by way of Archie Andrews), and seems a bit stiff in an outfit that doesn’t move with him. It all looks very expensive, but it seems as though our showrunners have forgotten a setting should look lived in. Everything looks far too clean and sanitized, in contrast to the dirty and disheveled world Shinichiro Watanabe and his team (collectively credited as Hajime Yatate) were able to craft. Not that I think Watanabe cares, given how only Yoko Kanno returns from the original series to give a score mostly covered over by just so much errant noise and chaos that it begs the question what she’s even doing here. Every choice feels coldly calculated to ruffle as little amount of feathers as possible, and thus both the fans will be left furious at how much of its thematic meaning is gone, and newcomers will largely wonder what all the hype was about. It feels like someone tried to build something with a blueprint and created the damn thing with its scaffolding gone. All frosting, no cake. Sickly sweet like cough syrup.
The other issue in adapting the Bebop is that so much of its animation was designed to be abstract and fluid in ways the human body can’t possibly replicate on its own. Spike is beloved because he fought like a dancer, limbs moving impossibly far to the tune of the music. In 1998, it was revelatory. It’s not even that John Cho is too old to convincingly try and stunt his way into anything similar: he couldn’t do this if he was 20 years younger. Not a single living human being could possibly do what they’re asking of him at any age. There’s a shot famous to fans of the series where Spike and his nemesis, the aptly named assassin called Vicious, twist and turn into a dynamic pose in front of a stained glass window. It’s a gorgeously rendered sequence, and the Netflix show tries to recreate it so awkwardly it looks like a cheaply made fan film. The entire series, roughly going through many of the same beats (the Bebop hunts down a client, gets screwed over, plus additional pointless backstory for each), feels like those cringey fan films where people would dress as the Joker and Harley Quinn and vaguely say all the things they usually say to each other. “Aw, I love robbin’ banks, puddin’!” That’s basically what you get here, as written. As for that stained window, all the color and light is given to the window itself so you can barely see Cho and Alex Hassell pointing their swords at each other. Twitter is already alight with fans of the original putting the two images next to each other and viciously (pun intended) mocking the remake for even daring to try. Why get Yoko Kanno if she’s just going to be elevator music for you? Why try to recreate scenes from the original if you don’t even know how to pull it off? It’s worse than incompetence, it’s apathy, on every level of production other than the performances and the score. Every fight scene clearly has a lot of expensive choreography but it’s damn near impossible to see with how deeply underexposed and desaturated everything is. Everything is tinted only one color so the frame has no vibrance or variety, and that’s clearly a postproduction choice based on what you can see when they decide to actually make a scene visible. Why are all the fight scenes in dimly lit areas or at night? Those are questions I don’t know how to answer. The minute Spike begins publicly executing people, you realize that it’s just edgy for the sake of edginess, something the original show never stooped to in spite of how graphically violent it could be.
Let me use the first episode as a reference for what I’m talking about. It’s almost identical to the first episode of the anime, with some key differences. The ways both the original and remake start also speaks to each of their priorities: the original opens with Spike and Jet eating dinner together so we get a sense of how they interact. The remake opens with a poorly lit fight scene in a casino. The original shows that in spite of how little money they make off their bounties, Spike and Jet barely cut even because the system governing their bounties is deeply corrupt. The remake shows that the reason they make so little off their bounties is that Spike is recast as such a violent psychopath that they keep refusing to pay for dead goons. Why are they giving Spike most of Vicious’ personality traits? Who knows! The remake still features this dinner scene, but it has changed from setting up their dynamic to the two viciously insulting each other over and over and telling each other how the other feels. It’s so deeply stilted and awkward, and both Cho and Shakir seem visibly uncomfortable in the way they’re carrying themselves. I can hardly blame them! I guess their characterization now is “generic mean assholes?” Most of that general meanness finds its way across the series, most characters have shifted to feel like clones of Vicious, who was already the epitome of douchey edgelord times a thousand. The vast majority of the dialogue are just the kind of insults you’d find in a studio comedy from the mid 2000s. Did I sign up for Epic Movie or the remake of one of the most beloved anime series of all time?
Both also involve a couple of criminals trying to sell a drug called Red-Eye on the black market, applied by, you guessed it, spraying yourself in the eyes with it. The drug drives you mad with rage and increases your strength. Even in the anime, this was never my favorite. In the original, Spike and Jet are already tracking Asimov and Katerina (the two drug dealers, here redesigned to look and act like the main characters of Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado). In the remake, Jet is told about it by his former police partner and the two are simply told where they are. In the original, Faye doesn’t even appear until the following episode. In the remake, she shows up right here without much context, hunting Katerina down because she’s now the daughter of a billionaire. In the original, Katerina is just a woman down on her luck and desperate. Now, she’s well-connected as an excuse for Faye to hunt her down. In the original, Spike lets himself lose a fight against Asimov to get a vial of Red-Eye he can use as leverage later. In the remake, Spike and Faye attack each other for no reason, so utterly incompetent and stupid that the two bounties automatically get away. Does the fight only happen for this forced cool factor that just feels incredibly cringe instead of impressive? You betcha. Instead of Katerina killing Asimov in a last-ditch attempt to survive, they’re both blown to bits by the Syndicate so Vicious has an excuse to enter the show far earlier. Without the dramatic irony in one of the two lovers having to kill the other, the show’s recreation of the fan-favorite shot of Katerina drifting in space no longer has any context. And in case you couldn’t already tell Vicious is evil under his ridiculous wig, we introduce him with the oldest villain trick in the book: killing one of his own henchmen with a katana. This logic follows every storyline the new show adapts: find the tropes most often used in media and replace what the show already did with that, and expand its original twenty minutes to almost an hour each. Which begs the question: why even adapt the same storyline of the original show at all? As for a particular character who only appears in bits and spurts in the original series? Said character is now a main character and inexplicably dating Vicious for no reason for the sake of creating a cheap love triangle with another character later. The sheer laziness and lack of effort is what does it in. Most of the series’ antagonists, who were all pretty distinct, now just feel like variations of Jared Leto’s Joker. Our protagonists are just constantly quipping at one another and show no emotions other than anger or cockiness. This all the way down.
I might be in the minority when I say that “Asteroid Blues,” the original pilot (not the generically named “Cowboy Gospel” of the Netflix show) is one of its weakest episodes overall. It definitely has aged badly in a lot of ways. Half of the main cast isn’t there at all, most of the exposition is delivered by a deeply racist caricature of an Indigenous character, and the ending does come out of nowhere. There are far better episodes out there, but the solutions they come up with just exacerbates the problem. Netflix has had enough sense to almost certainly hire sensitivity readers or whoever who looked into all of this. The solution: insert Faye in a way that makes next to no sense, removes most of the exposition instead of giving it to another character, inexplicably ties a one-off antagonist to a main character that makes just as little sense, and have Spike and Jet find their bounty by basically being lapdogs for a police department (which would never happen in the original). All three of our main characters are now willing to take a job on behalf of an interstellar government instead of for the woolongs, which feels so antithetical to the point of the anime that it’s almost funny. In searching for ways to not be racist (good), they ended up taking ten steps backwards for every single step forward (bad) and have their characters being on good terms with the exact entities that wanted them dead in the original (worse).
END OF SPOILERS FOR A TWENTY-THREE YEAR OLD SERIES
Every other attempt to expand on what came before just feels tacked on and half-assed. Jet Black, the pilot and father figure to the rest of the crew of the Bebop, goes from a gruff man with a softer side to your generic deadbeat dad, estranged from his biological family. Faye Valentine, a femme fatale with her memory erased and constantly compensating for it, is reduced to a whiny and immature child in an adult’s body. This is hardly an insult to Shakir and Pineda, who feel like they’re moving mountains to try and get anything workable with the rough edges sanded off their characters. Couldn’t possibly have any moral ambiguity or a moment to pause here. That might be too much for people. I don’t see any issue in changing these characters to have new thematic meanings, but those changes need to be made for reasons other than “well, we’ve seen someone else do this better!” If Jet is going to be a deadbeat dad who can’t get his kid to love him, is there a wrinkle there that hasn’t been a narrative crutch? If Faye is going to be this regressive childlike figure, is that a symptom of her memory loss? It’s not the changes to these characters I’m opposed to, rather the fear of putting even a toe out of a single audience member’s comfort zone. Spike comes across more or less the way he did in the original series, minus him being way more bloodthirsty for some reason. He comes with the added addition of another character as a foil that feels like such a lazy choice that it worsens both in retrospect. What little I’ve seen of the actors in conversation before this seems to show that they uniquely seemed really invested in making this something meaningful. If someone watches this and has a better reaction than I did, it is entirely on the backs of their efforts. Otherwise, everything else looks expensive for the sake of the expense. The film I kept thinking about while I watched this was Dragonball Evolution (yes, as one word, I did not make a typo), the other adaptation of a beloved anime whose creators seemed to have absolutely no idea how its source material worked. Both might as well be companion pieces to one another, though this does have the stronger cast of the two. The other film this could be compared to is another Netflix original: the live-action adaptation of Death Note. That film was so poorly made that only Willem Dafoe came out of it with his pride intact. What is fun is how our remake here seems to have the same naming conventions as that film. Remember when Light Yagami was recast as a white twink called Light Turner? Just in the first episode alone, Katerina Solensan is recast as…Katerina Montgomery. Jet’s partner in the original was called Fad, and here he’s called…Chalmers. After the superintendent of the steamed hams in The Simpsons. Why these name changes? The Death Note film had the slightest of justifications as they wanted all of those Japanese characters recast with white people (I didn’t say it was a good reason). I can’t figure out why the names are made so intentionally generic here. I think what might be happening is that our showrunners are terrified that people might tune out if someone has a name that isn’t Anglo-Saxon enough.
That might seem a really unfair comparison to some, but it’s the only one that kept popping into my head. It’s really hard to adapt one medium into another, as the barrage of failed video game movies have proven. There’s something intangible you need to be aware of in order to have even the slightest chance of doing it well. It does help to have actually watched the thing you’re being paid millions to recreate before taking a go at it. I don’t think your answer is to make everyone into a version of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia where you think the character traits of the Paddy’s Pub gang are endearing (and I say this as a big fan of that show). Is there any indication that anyone in this world actually likes each other? What’s missing, most of all, is any moment that establishes any basic humanity for any of these people. It’s heartbreaking because the original had plenty of these moments, showing that the external bluster and cool were all hiding deep insecurities on the inside. It took common noir tropes and twisted them in on themselves until something raw could be seen. Spike wasn’t the effortlessly cool guy because he was just cool: he was that guy because he had been psychologically shattered before the start of the series and didn’t value his own life anymore. Only a man genuinely willing to die would be that fearless in the first place. You don’t get that from only reading Wikipedia entries, sadly enough. And sure, the original has poorly aged in a lot of ways and it showed a sensitivity that this completely lacks. Both things can be true at the same time. Only correcting the most obvious issue with the original while creating an entirely new chasm in its place is not a solution.
The sad thing is that this series will probably do well, and it’ll probably go on for a while, and it’ll start souring on more people before it goes off the air. I can’t really say I’d be mad at the people who do end up liking it, though I’ll be annoyed at those who consider it a superior show only because it’s in live-action now. I have no idea if the longterm fans of the series or newcomers will like it more. Right now, we’ve got our second attempt at a Ghostbusters reboot about to hit theaters, and just from the trailers, I think they’ll both end up with the same ethos. Both are constructed mechanisms to hit as many dopamine buttons for people as possible. Both are essentially starting off their cinematic universes as if The Rise of Skywalker was filmed before The Force Awakens. Fractals of references and content without much context, all to serve the Great Algorithm. Here is a moment from the original you saw as a kid. Here it is again. Haven’t you always wanted this? I think media will continue to be what it is in spite of this constant franchise-building, it just means you’ve got to search a little harder to find the things that speak to you. I’m not one of those people who thinks “things used to be better when,” because I can track all sorts of trends in media from time past that I don’t like very much. The franchise-building could be replaced with something else. I like all sorts of things, things that are goofy and irreverent and things that are miserable and things that are darkly lit and things that are vibrant. I’m always afraid of seeming like a snob depending on what I like and dislike. Watch fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe throwing a collective hissy fit on social media because of the recent underperformance of the latest superhero flick and you can see that fandom as identity metastasize. Honestly, that’s much more interesting to me than most of the content itself. Fandom has always been this really possessive thing, even before the internet supercharged the process. A lot of Bebop fans will like this because it’s more of the Bebop, they will take what they can get, they have a scarcity mindset as far as I can tell. Maybe some are newcomers who were too put off by the original and finally have it in a digestible format. I’m sure some are going to be pissed that I took a crack at Riverdale back there. It can get really intense. An attack on anything created for the fandom can be an attack on the fandom itself. So the live-action remake has to be good, it has to! A lot of people will delight in how much more cynical and edgy it is, that the Bebop is finally for grown-ups, even if the original was very much not meant for children. It didn’t stop most kids of the 1990s, but that was the intention. I genuinely think the creators of this show thought the original was a children’s show before trying to adapt it, that’s the only reason I can think of as to why this setting is inexplicably so…edgy. Only word that fits.
And that’s the damn shame of it all. A perfect adaptation would have probably only featured the four main characters on a mission somewhere in the middle of the original’s timeline. There’s already a feature film adaptation (made by the same people who made the anime) that did this and it was pretty well-received. Even if you want to make it a series, having only the main cast without characters like Vicious (despite what a fan favorite he is) is probably the only way they could’ve gotten away with this. Frame it a little bit more like a noir story than trying to replicate the distinctive fight scenes in live-action, which should be perfect for something more serialized like this. That it tries to weakly just tell again what is already there, often with the exact same beats, just makes you think of Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. You can’t capture lightning in a bottle twice. The Ghostbusters nepotism empire couldn’t figure it out, and it seems like they couldn’t do it here either. The trick is going to work on a lot of people. It has to. The algorithm demands it.
I give Season 1 of Cowboy Bebop a D.