Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” is a Failure of an Adaptation

“Whatever happens, happens,” is one of the most popular phrases from Shinichirō Watanabe’s animated series Cowboy Bebop. It’s said by the protagonist, Spike Spiegel, a man whose entire aura is personified by a certain effortlessness. But this “Que Será, Será” attitude isn’t limited to just one character — it flows through the very way Watanabe approaches the series through episodes and incidents that are, more often than not, just random happenstance. Each episode takes the Bebop crew — bounty hunters Spike, Jet, and Faye; child hacker Ed; and data dog Ein — on adventures both deeply personal and entirely nonsensical, be it trying to discover what important message might exist on a Betamax tape or gambling your spoils away even in the face of crippling debt. People constantly float in and out of their lives, some just an amusing dalliance to fondly remember while others etch a deep scar in the psyche, reminding one of how inescapable the past really is.

With every single creative decision of Netflix’s live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop, showrunner André Nemec and writer Christopher Yost prove they have fundamentally misunderstood the series and its characters, butchering it more and more with each passing episode as they try to mimic a series that is, quite frankly, a masterpiece.

It was impossible to not find myself comparing the live-action series to its source text, as each individual episode is a loose remixing of any given animated Bebop episode, stretched beyond their original 20-minute runtime into something twice as long and not even half as interesting. Take “Cowboy Gospel”, Bebop’s premiere episode, which takes the plot of the anime’s premiere “Asteroid Blues” and stacks a number of diverging plot lines and scenes alongside it (including the haphazard introduction of Faye to its central duo). Or, say, “Venus Pop”, which takes the anime’s “Cowboy Funk”, strips it of its best character (Cowboy Andy, who was designed as a perfect and hilarious foil to Spike), and removes the humor inherent in sidelining its unhinged antagonist in order to focus on unrelated melodrama featuring the series’ “Big Bad.”

One of the anime’s greatest strengths is that, of its 26 episodes, supporting characters rarely showed up more than once, because their appearance in a single episode was enough to make them memorable. The briefest encounter with the original Bebop crew could be life-changing for these characters, whether they were a group of blaxploitation-inspired bounty hunters trying to catch a hallucinogenic mushroom smuggler (from “Mushroom Samba”) or a whacked-out indestructible assassin that goes by Mad Pierrot (from “Pierrot Le Fou”, its title a nod to Jean-Luc Godard’s film that, for the live-action remake, was bafflingly changed to “Sad Clown A-Go-Go”). By contrast, Yost and his writing team have designed live-action Bebop so that practically every on-screen figure must have a motivation that is tied to a grander, cross-season narrative arc involving Spike’s old enemy Vicious.

This is, to be perfectly clear, one of the series’ greatest offenses. The incorporation of Vicious and the Red Dragon Crime Syndicate as a narrative throughline for the series rather than as a personal, contained arc for Spike isn’t just misguided — it’s flat out stupid. His presence in the anime is sparse, peppered throughout the series between delightful adventures, bolstering the mystery that exists around him and Spike’s old flame Julia; they’re ghosts more than actual human beings, which is what makes them compelling figures. The live-action series instead positions him as a tortured, abusive, controlling bad guy, and her as his tortured, abused, controlled wife, with nothing but bad wigs and melodramatic scene after melodramatic scene to show for it. Any sense of mystery or danger is expelled through the airlock and left floating dead in space. Practically every episode actively spells out Vicious’ motivations, down to tying numerous random figures into his plotting, for no reason whatsoever.

This attempt at expanding the story ends up short-changing every actor in the production, including some of those positioned to take on the most interesting characters of the anime. Take Gren — a former associate of Vicious who has one of the most memorable arcs of the anime in both parts of “Jupiter Jazz” — being reduced from someone with a tragic history and tale of their own into what amounts to a sassy host and bartender who gossips with their clientele in the background. For a series declaring to be drastically reinterpreting the character (though this is apparently promised for season two), Mason Alexander Park is given absolutely no chance to flesh out this character beyond surface level “non-binary presentation” (which isn’t particularly groundbreaking when one considers the character’s transness has everything to do with their circumstances and not something as shallow as painted nails).

Its protagonists suffer just as much (Ein almost exclusively being used for cute corgi reaction shots and Edward nowhere to be found for almost the entire season), with each episode purportedly dedicated to their characterization and personal narratives being undercut by mass amounts of filler. To their credit, John Cho, Mustafa Shakir, and Daniella Pineda are all trying their damnedest to make the characters pop, but that determination to exude personality is a double-edged sword. Rather than embody Spike’s carelessness about whether he lives or dies, Cho’s every movement feels uncomfortably staged; there’s nothing natural or playful about him, and a character that once oozed intrigue is now bad cosplay. Pineda’s version of Faye Valentine, one of the original series’ most emotionally compelling characters, is, I’m convinced, written by someone who has never met a woman, but took a course taught by Joss Whedon on how to write Badass Female Characters. There isn’t an ounce of depth to her, just beat after beat of the character making half-assed quips or calling someone a dickhead as a showcase of how cool and tough she is. The only actor who escapes embarrassment more often than not is Shakir as Jet, whose talent goes beyond a pitch-perfect imitation of Beau Billingslea (who voices the role in the anime) and feels truly lived-in — despite working with bad writing.

Where Watanabe and his team approached their original series by creating a unique atmosphere for every single episode — even having composer Yoko Kanno creating the show’s marvelous music alongside the writers to ideally suit it — directors Alex Garcia Lopez and Michael Katleman fumble their adaptation at literally every turn. It isn’t just in the way they haphazardly insert new arrangements of Kanno’s music into scenes where they are ill-suited; it isn’t just that their incompetent filmmaking actively takes away from the often charming attempts at translating the fluidity of animated fighting into live-action choreography; and it isn’t even just that the production design for the series looks like they ran out of money the moment they started filming and had to steal props and sets from an unaired episode of Doctor Who. It is that the creative team behind this series has no reason for or interest in telling the story they’re telling.

Cowboy Bebop dreams of having the same vibrant aesthetic as Robert Rodriguez’s oeuvre, but Lopez and Kattleman don’t have the skill to take Bebop from animation to live-action. There’s something about the way Rodriguez embeds a cartoonish, comic-like sensibility into his realism that makes films like Spy Kids, Sin City, and Alita: Battle Angel work so well — professional while also having an air of being slapdash. Bebop, as an anime, constantly toyed with genre and cinematic history, resulting in episodes both whimsical (“Toys in the Attic” playing on Alien with expired food come to life in lieu of a xenomorph) and somber (“Black Dog Serenade” setting a standard neo-noir tale of betrayal between friends on a spaceship far from home). And, beyond this, it knew when to slow down and allow the viewer to take in its atmosphere. As cheesy as it sounds, it was like a great piece of jazz music: as easy to appreciate the craftsmanship that led to its existence as it is outright enjoyable to kick back and listen to.

Live-action Cowboy Bebop, instead, takes everything implicit and makes it explicit. The sly eroticism, subversive sexuality, and teases of violence beyond the cartoonish no longer exist, with sex and blood (and even Faye’s newly introduced queerness) now presented in the most juvenile manner and often played for laughs, be it in the condescending depiction of sex workers or people exploding while turning into trees. Genre isn’t toyed with but instead used for cheap pastiche, like using a sepia filter and having characters dress like detectives in seedy alleyways to represent a tribute to noir. And, yet, with all its nuance being made overt, the remake also manages to strip the show of most of its brilliant criticism of capitalism and the way the Bebop crew navigates a clearly dystopian future (in part because the showrunner naively believes the future should be “hopeful”). The anime rather explicitly confronts how many people within this universe are essentially trying to survive in a world that prioritizes money. Bounty hunters like the Bebop crew are no different than anyone else in the galaxy, including the folks trying to scam the system by any means possible, throwing their bodies and lives headfirst into danger just to score their next meal.

It’s a show that takes one of the most fleshed out-universes in a limited anime series — or, hell, in all of television — and strips it of everything that makes it unique. Rather than update what doesn’t need updating, attempting to reinvent a revolutionary series that needed no fixing, they could have simply taken what already worked and tossed these characters into wholly new and equally bombastic situations. Instead we’re handed one of the worst pieces of television to come from the streaming era, a remake that can only be described as a worthless endeavor from top to bottom.


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Juan Barquin

Juan Barquin is a queer Miami-based writer and programmer who aspires to be Bridget Jones.

Juan has written 1 article for us.

18 Comments

  1. This is genuinely the most accurate review. This series is badly directed, poorly written, Spike was miscast, Faye is no longer truly cynical, her sex scene with the mechanic made no effing sense at all, and there’s a serious overuse of dutch tilts. What works for anime doesn’t necessarily work for live action. Netflix has attempted to mimic the style but adapt the content, when they should have done the opposite. They should have taken a note from Legion’s cinematography/design.

    • Or to be more succinct Netflix as usual is just plain woke. Pushing all the usual virtue signals.
      This production was so limp and disappointing. A bit like a Will Smith film all the ingredients for a sumptuous meal just thrown into a microwave so as not to confuse those too useless to cook.

  2. Everything in this very well-written review just reinforces to me “if people want to watch a live-action show about queer space bounty hunters, Killjoys already exists!” Like, I read the review’s description of Gren, and it just sounded to me like the showrunner did a bargain bin imitation of Pree.

    One of the things I hate about the current age of prestige TV is how it has completely destroyed what I loved about genre TV. All of these filmmakers coming into TV are obsessed with everything being super serialized and cohesive, and they have no idea how to make something like a Xena/LotS, a Buffy, a Stargate SG-1.
    One of the things I especially loved about Killjoys was how it was a perfect middle between the old episodic adventure model and the more serialized character dramas, and this review only reiterates how it fails at what Killjoys achieved. Like Spike, Dutch was a person driven regrets, fleeing from her fears with aggressive bluster. Like Faye, she had to confront the unreliability of history and memory. Like Vicious and Julia, Khlyen and Aneela were larger-than-life figures from Dutch’s past, playing the politics that Dutch refused to participate in, having complicated relationships with her. And, of course, Killjoys often had pointed commentary about the space-cyberpunk-corporatist system, while respecting sex workers.
    But where the original CB anime stayed true to episodic Noir, with Spike remaining relatively static, Killjoys got to do more modern serialized character development. Dutch learned that she couldn’t keep running, and embraced her family to stand her ground.

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