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There’s So Much Potential in Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop but It Doesn’t Stick the Landing

2.5/5 walks in the rain.

Bebop crew

Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop has all of the odds stacked against it. I’ve said as much in nearly every write-up I’ve had for the series thus far. As our Dan Van Wrinkle writes:

Live-action anime adaptations are perhaps the only onscreen endeavors that rival video game adaptations in sheer odds against success—and in the incredibly thin tightrope they must walk. Stray too far from the source material in an effort to set it apart, and you alienate people who just want to see their favorite thing in the “real” world. Stay too faithful, and you’re all but guaranteed to wind up a pale imitation of the original.

It’s a real damned if they do, damned if they don’t situation. Everyone knows that Cowboy Bebop is a highly regarded anime series. On top of that, everyone knows the reputation live-action anime has, especially productions of it here in the U.S.

Netflix is not gonna be forgiven for that live-action Death Note adaptation anytime soon.

There’s a lot to live up to with Cowboy Bebop, and I feel like, at the end of the day, we got something from a group of creatives who adore the property, but waffled between “staying true” and “doing our own thing” and “staying true AND doing our own thing at the same time.”

The part where we get the beef with the peppers (the good stuff)

John Cho (Spike), Mustafa Shakir (Jet), and Daniella Pineda (Faye) have this chemistry onscreen that makes the series for me. The parts of Cowboy Bebop I enjoyed the most were when these three were onscreen together. Cho and Shakir, especially, play well off each other, as Jet continues to be the tired, grizzled Bebop captain who has to remind Spike that if he wants a better meal, they have to go after some bounties, and those bounties kinda have to stay alive.

When Pineda joins the two, she adds a hilarious amount of frustration—mostly for Spike, who gets a taste of what Jet has to put up with from him.

Not that Spike ever realizes that, though.

While the three are fantastic together, they’re also great when they’re apart from each other. Bebop shines brightest when we have them as a trio, but it’s good that these three also work well on their own, as their characters have their own motivations. What I like about this is what I’ve always liked about Cowboy Bebop: This team clearly comes to care for one another, but they also have lives (and secrets) that make them, occasionally, do things for their own sake.

This adaptation gives a bit more weight to that, especially with Spike and his past, so while you know he’s keeping secrets for a reason, you get why his crew is frustrated with the secrecy. 

Outside of the Bebop crew are characters like Ana (played by Tamara Tunie) and Gren (Mason Alexander Park), who I found myself wanting to see more of. Ana is the wise woman who dishes out advice like a Black mother who knows these kids are hardheaded and, frankly, won’t listen to a damn word she says, but she’s still gotta try. And Gren? Gren is a stylish delight who needs to let us in on their beauty regimen.

The daily bounties and the way the Bebop crew approaches them offer some highly entertaining scenes depending on the vibe of the episode, and as to be expected from a group that can’t afford to get the actual mechanical part they need for the ship, they don’t always succeed. The episodes are, of course, backed by a stellar soundtrack, where the new tracks blend in well with the ones anime fans will remember.

The katana to the throat (the bad stuff)

The way the first episode of Cowboy Bebop opens is the way I wanted the entire series to be. We get to see Spike and Jet being Spike and Jet, the music is spectacular, and the action keeps you on your toes. That’s not to say I didn’t want the series to ever slow down. After all, the original has its moments where things get more serious, but as I watched the first episode, I realized, to my dismay, that this was going to be an adaptation that tries too hard to please everyone.

There are parts in the series that are exactly the way they are in the anime … sort of. Fans will recognize the antagonists and the backdrops, but occasionally the Netflix series will go in a different direction with them. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if that direction is an interesting one, but there are a couple of times where it feels like they forced certain characters into the overarching plot because they knew it would get Bebop fans on board when they saw them in the trailer.

The problem is that they don’t always handle these characters in the best way. I don’t care that they took an iconic antagonist and added more content with them; I care that the content they gave them was so bland and predictable at times that it diluted their intrigue—and I’m saying that as Bebop fan and as someone looking at this as a series you decide to randomly click on when scrolling through Netflix.

Vicious (played by Alex Hassell) is a prime example of this.

Unlike the anime, we get a lot more of Vicious in the Netflix adaptation, which means that they have to make him a believable threat throughout the entire series runtime. I have to actually believe that this man is such a threat that an entire Syndicate (full of some very intriguing baddies, btw) fears him. Furthermore, I have to believe that Spike, a man who can kick your ass while hungover, would have trouble fighting him.

That’s not what we get with Vicious, which is unfortunate since he is a major component in the main plot of the series. I know Vicious is threatening because I’ve seen the original anime, but in regards to THIS interpretation of Vicious? Not so much.

The same can be said for Julia (played by Elena Satine), who I’m glad gets more than flashbacks and a handful of episodes, but the way she’s utilized is pretty dull.

That is, until it all comes together in the end, but by then I was left wondering, “Did we earn this moment?”

Some of the plot reveals reminded me of what tends to happen with anime adaptations: those moments where a studio feels the need to make the content “easier” to digest. In Dragonball Evolution, instead of being a trained warrior who likes a good fight, Goku is suddenly a high school boy with a crush. Why did the studio think we wouldn’t be into a guy who just likes to fight? Who knows? But I got the same vibe with some of the shocking twists in Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop.

It’s a shame because I really do feel like this could’ve been a pretty solid adaptation. It just feels like the creatives behind this didn’t know which direction they should go in regards to delivering this series to us. I feel like they tried to figure out a way to do something that would make everyone happy, from the casual viewers to the diehard fans who could point out how yellow Faye’s jacket was supposed to be.

In the process of trying to include what everyone wanted, we kinda got a mess where you can spot moments of great potential that get left at a spaceport in favor of doing the church scene because that has to be in the series, right?

What does this mean for the future of Bebop?

I’m at a bit of a crossroads with this, because while I found myself befuddled with some of the decisions made, I’m actually curious to see where Bebop goes from here. I liked the ideas they had, and the ending is unique to this adaptation, but the series does the irritating thing some shows do where things feel tacked on because they’re trying to set up for a second season.

As interesting as those lingering plot threads are, when we got to them, I thought, “Wait, where did this come from?”

That being said, I think if everyone took a step back and stopped trying to do so many things at once, a second season could be a lot stronger. As far as anime adaptations go, I am a fan of who we have portraying the Bebop crew. John Cho being someone’s first introduction to Spike Spiegel is wonderful, in my opinion, and I have the same feelings for a lot of the cast.

Is Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop a bad time? No. I very much enjoyed a decent amount of the series. However, there are some baffling choices that make for a bumpy ride. The potential is there. The execution, however, is like an order of beef and peppers that’s missing the beef. It’ll do, I suppose, because I’m hungry, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be.

(Image: Netflix)

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Briana (she/her - bisexual) is trying her best to cosplay as a responsible adult. Her writing tends to focus on the importance of representation, whether it’s through her multiple book series or the pieces she writes. After de-transforming from her magical girl state, she indulges in an ever-growing pile of manga, marathons too much anime, and dedicates an embarrassing amount of time to her Animal Crossing pumpkin patch (it's Halloween forever, deal with it Nook)