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What’s the point of adapting Cowboy Bebop in live action? That’s the question I found myself asking over and over during the roughly 10 hours of Netflix’s new series, and it’s one I grew to suspect its creators had spent too little time asking themselves before they took the plunge. As far as it’s possible to tell, their line of thinking seems to have been that it would be cool if someone re-created the classic anime series in live action, and that those someones might as well be themselves. If there was ever any inkling of expanding or reconsidering the source material, not a trace of it remains in the final product.
In an apparent effort to woo fans of the original, the series is faithful to a fault. It’s to be expected that the new version would also focus on a ragtag team of intergalactic bounty hunters — ex-hitman Spike Spiegel (John Cho), ex-cop Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir) and amnesiac con artist Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda) — trying to scrape together a living in the near-ish future, while simultaneously wrestling with demons from their respective pasts. But it didn’t necessarily need to follow that the series would replicate the same job-of-the-week storylines, mimic the shots to a T, and set the same exact plot beats to the same (still catchy) Yoko Kanno tunes.
Airdate: Friday, Nov. 19
Cast: John Cho, Mustafa Shakir, Daniella Pineda, Alex Hassell, Elena Satine
Executive producers: André Nemec, Jeff Pinkner, Josh Appelbaum, Scott Rosenberg, Marty Adelstein, Becky Clements, Makato Asanuma, Shin Sasaki, Masayuki Ozaki, Tim Coddington, Tetsu Fujimura, Michael Katleman, Matthew Weinberg, Christopher Yost
The few deviations it does make seem primed to divide fans: Supporting characters like Spike’s former flame Julia (Elena Satine) have been given more screen time only for the writers to struggle to come up with anything for them to do, while another prominent fan favorite has been axed almost entirely. The series’ biggest sin, however, is that even as it dutifully retraces the steps of its predecessor, it captures none of the magic. The zippy pacing has turned leaden, the sharp visuals reduced to muddy CG, the playful humor translated as phony laughter, the lived-in grittiness replaced with shoddy-looking sets. It’s a Cowboy Bebop too fixated on checking off boxes to consider writing its own list.
Which, in turn, makes it difficult to imagine what the updated show could possibly have to offer nonfans. There’s precious little of Cowboy Bebop that feels either fresh enough to demand attention or sturdy enough to promise comfort. Its vision of a dinged-up future looks like nothing so much as a knockoff Firefly, made for a fraction of the budget. (Seriously, one of the show’s biggest shocks is how cheap it looks.) Its gestures at noir and Western tropes feel like little more than just that — gestures, not earnest attempts to embody or enrich them in any way. That laziness carries over to most of its characters, who may as well be bar napkins scrawled with adjectives for all the depth they’re given.
Spike, the lead, suffers the additional indignity of miscasting. Cho fills the role like it’s a Halloween costume he can’t wait to take off: He might be able to work that blue suit long enough for a few pretty shots on Insta, but the second he speaks or moves it becomes clear that he can’t get a handle on Spike’s youthful cool or his simmering self-loathing. He (along with most of the cast, to be fair) struggles to conjure any spark of chemistry with his scene partners — which, given how much of the series’ emotional effectiveness depends on the viewer caring deeply about Spike’s relationships with Julia and Jet, is a deadlier blow than any the villainous Vicious (Alex Hassell) might be able to mete out.
The series does have two bright spots. One is Ein, an adorable corgi who steals the show simply by being an adorable corgi. (Look, I never said my standards were high.) The other is Pineda. Though her Faye Valentine doesn’t show up until a few episodes in, her performance is the only one that feels of a piece with the world that the show has tried to build around it — hard and funny and a little bit cartoonish, but with an unmistakable undercurrent of sadness. When she’s onscreen, Cowboy Bebop nearly works. Her co-stars look more dialed in, and even the dialogue sounds wittier. (True star quality is being able to sell a line like “Welcome to the ouch, motherfuckers.”) No surprise the series’ single most enjoyable hour is the one most heavily centered on Faye.
It’s enough to make me wonder how a version of Cowboy Bebop centered on Pineda’s Faye might have fared. Perhaps that take could have made the flimsiness of those sets and costumes feel oddly charming, in a let’s-put-on-a-show way, or the artificiality of this universe feel more in on its own joke. It’d certainly have required rethinking some of the storylines or cooking up fresh ones, drawing different themes to the forefront or tipping familiar ideas on their head. Maybe it’d have found a better way to draw in a new audience of fans, instead of just appealing to the old ones.
But such creative reimagining seems to be exactly what this version of Cowboy Bebop is not interested in. I don’t doubt that the people making this show adore and admire the original; the meticulousness of its re-creation speaks to countless hours spent poring over every frame of it. What’s missing is any personal perspective on all that affection — any sign that the show inspired their imaginations to run free, instead of just inciting the mundane impulse to catalog all its details. In all my viewing, I never did come up with a single satisfying answer to the question of what the point of a live-action Cowboy Bebop should be. This one, though, seems to have no point at all.
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