Review: Netflix’s ‘Cowboy Bebop’ Is a Mixed Bag

Through the announcement, delay, sneak peeks, and the trailer, my anticipation for the Netflix adaptation of Cowboy Bebop has remained high. Now, I’ve finally had the opportunity to sit down and watch the premiere 10 episode season, and it’s safe to say I have some “feelings” about it. But let’s go through the happy stuff first.

Spoilers for season 1 of Cowboy Bebop are below.

Across the board, the cast is perfect. John Cho was born to play Spike Spiegel and hits every dimension of that character with straight-up excellence – melancholy, regret, passion, love – it’s all on point. Mustafa Shakir also does an insanely good job at bringing Jet Black to life, and together the two have great chemistry that succeeds in making the characters and relationship between them feel real.

All of the other characters feel like loose adaptations of their anime counterparts, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Daniel Pineda plays Faye Valentine with recognizable strength, humor, and attitude, while also bringing a new relevant aspect to the role. Vicious, Gren, Ana, and Julia are all given excellent performances; Alex Hassell, Mason Alexander Park, Tamara Tunie, and Elena Satine. The cast is talented, and I couldn’t think of a complaint with them if I tried.

The performances blend incredibly well with the style of the rest of the show, and I love the choices they made. The sets have a perfect blend of realism and believability combined with some almost meta “this is obviously a set” soap-opera stuff. That’s kind of a perfect interpretation of the whole show. 

COWBOY BEPOP (L to R) JOHN CHO as SPIKE SPIEGEL on the set of COWBOY BEPOP Cr. NICOLA DOVE/NETFLIX © 2021

The bright colors and the neon lights are an obvious win for me. I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff. Even with Attack of the Clones, one of my least favorite movies ever, I can still get a lot of enjoyment out of those visual choices in the beginning. Cowboy Bebop does get occasionally too brown and gross, and it feels like they weren’t as creative with some stuff as they were with others, but this show looks great most of the time.

The cinematography presented here is great, too. They make a lot of fun choices with their shots that actually managed to get a verbal reaction out of me. Near the end of the show, there’s a shot where Ana gets stabbed through the leg and the camera follows the sword through the chair she’s sitting in and reveals the blade dripping blood underneath. It’s really cool and really exciting and I hope that should Cowboy Bebop get more episodes, they go even further down that road.

Sadly, that’s all the good stuff I have to say about this show. Looking past the most surface-level stuff, this show gets muddled and confused and honestly kind of hard to digest. When I was preparing for this show, I talked about how they needed to be familiar but different, and they succeeded in that. The problem is that all of the adjustments and additions that this new show makes fail to add anything of value to the story or characters and mostly just feel like they get in the way.

One thing I noticed throughout the show was its failure to add value to bounties, which are essentially the driving force of the story. I don’t think we see the crew successfully nab a single bounty (maybe one) but we never feel the woes of that failure. They regularly miss out on bounties for other things (like a toy for Jet’s daughter), which add a lot to the characters, but it never feels like they’re punished for their choices. Bell peppers and beef, something in the original show that represented the feeling of constant loops of failure, is just shown in the new series as a reference to the original.

Taking away the main character’s driving force is kind of indicative of the issue with this new show as a whole. The main characters don’t do anything to move forward the narrative, and the story has to come to them. While we see them mess around and play with the characters doing random missions of no real importance, we see Vicious and Julia moving the story along until our heroes just happen to fall in their path.  

That’s right, Julia is alive and that’s easily the biggest change that this show makes. It’s not immediately a terrible choice either, as it adds a lot more stakes and fear in the story. You really begin to feel like her death is imminent, just due to it being an important part of Spike’s story. The writers do a great job manipulating that expectation.

COWBOY BEPOP (L to R) ALEX HASSELL as VICIOUS of COWBOY BEPOP Cr. GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX © 2021

But sadly, Julia and Vicious just spend a lot of time dealing with the politics of the Syndicate. It made me roll my eyes initially, but seeing Julia slowly figure out that Spike was alive was interesting and I was excited to see where it went. The problem is, that’s not the promise of the show. Fans are absolutely going to be disappointed, because this show relies entirely on a fan’s connection to the old show and characters and does no work to make you care about Vicious or Julia here, and it damages the experience.

This show fails to dig into the primal emotions of it all, which is what makes the original show work. It doesn’t matter that you see a futuristic spaceship going through gateways and people hanging out on space station casinos, because the emotions the characters feel along the path of the story are real and you can relate with those. Everything about this show is surface-level glossy soap operatics with no emotion, and that dampers the impact of everything.

Things like referencing the line “you’re going to carry that weight,” and having characters split up at the end, and having someone turn bad when you wouldn’t expect it; it all feels like cheap tactics to bring emotions out of fans of something else, and I don’t think it will feel rewarding for people who only experience this show.

So if nothing else, this show is a good advertisement to get people to watch the original, because that show is infinitely more sincere and fun and it’s everything this show strives to be.

Both versions of Cowboy Bebop are now available to stream on Netflix.

My rating for Cowboy Bebop:

★★★ / ♥♥♥

*The rating scale is out of 5 stars (filmmaking/storytelling quality) and 5 hearts (entertainment quality).

I love movies and shows and things. I like to write about them. It is fun.
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