Tanner McEveety ‘22 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Cowboy Bebop (1998) and Cowboy Bebop (2021) are both exciting sci-fi romps through a dystopian world of spacefaring and criminal underbellies that follow a group of eccentric, closed-off bounty hunters, and both begin with similar barrages of imagery. Most notably, a rose, discarded like a cigarette butt, landing in a puddle. But there’s a key difference in how these flashes of Spike’s past are presented. In the original Bebop, they serve as a moody, tone-setting prelude presented without context. They have little to no bearing on the story of the pilot episode, separated from it by the opening animation. Meanwhile, in Netflix’s Bebop, the cold open is a zany casino heist that gets thwarted by Spike (John Cho) and Jet (Mustafa Shakir), full of quips and tensionless action. The opening animation plays and then comes that rose, presented as something that Spike is actively thinking about in the present. These images are already on his mind, and will come up later in the episode.
The difference in how these flashbacks were handled effectively sums up the difference between the original Bebop and Netflix’s Bebop. Like both versions of Spike Spiegel, this new interpretation of the story is obsessed with the past—Spike’s past in particular, though it makes room for Jet and Faye’s (Daniella Pineda) backstories as well. Those pasts often become a part of the characters’ present, making for a far more serialized story than the original. Unfortunately, it’s those exact serialized elements, coupled with an insistence on chasing the impossibly high standards of the original, that hold the show back from working as its own, separate story.
After countless disappointing adaptations, anime fans have learned to be wary of western remakes of their favorite shows and movies. However, compared to most live action remakes of animated media, this one is actually pretty good. Despite the longer episode length, the pacing is snappy and the storytelling is efficient. The look and feel of the show is a far cry from the embarrassing failures of other adaptations. The differences between the original and the Netflix version are not mistakes or accidents, but rather intentional choices on the part of the creators, and some of those choices are surprisingly functional.
Our new main cast is fundamentally different from the original Bebop crew, and each character is weaker than the original in their own way, but they aren’t necessarily bad characters in their own right. It helps that these new takes on familiar faces are so expertly brought to life by the cast. John Cho’s older, more mature Spike will grow on you quickly, Mustafa Shakir absolutely kills it as a divorced-dad version of Jet Black, and Daniella Pineda brings a fiery energy to Faye Valentine that’s very different from her original incarnation, yet has its own charm.
In keeping with the new show’s more serialized, protagonist-centric approach, the relationship between these three is much warmer than in the original, where a viewer would be forgiven for assuming they all hate each other’s guts—though subtle cues do inform an attentive viewer that they actually do care for each other. Instead, Netflix Bebop’s leads have an immediately inviting chemistry that really sings when they’re just hanging out, casually engaging in episodic plotlines.
What really drags the performances and character writing down is the bizarre dialogue. The original Bebop’s dialogue is slow, immersive, and measured. The dialogue in Netflix’s Bebop is quick, aggressively witty, and constantly winking at the audience. The humor in the original comes from absurd situations, visual gags, and carefully constructed punchlines, while in the Netflix version, the quips never stop coming. Every line is a one-liner, some of which are actually clever, but many are highly cringeworthy. Characters laugh heartily at utterly unfunny quips, and occasionally spout pure, inhuman nonsense that will completely pull the viewer out of the moment. Tonally, the dialogue asserts that the show is a comedic bout of fun and games, a poor fit for its more serious moments.
It’s an especially poor fit for the subplot with Vicious (Alex Hassell) and Julia (Elena Satine), two figures from Spike’s past. In the original, neither character was particularly prevalent or important. The show was focused on building a tapestry of themes, tones, genres, and details, which ultimately coalesced into a coherent overarching narrative, one that Vicious and Julia only played a small part in. Netflix took the liberty of making them a major focal point. This is a problem because Netflix barely expands on them as characters and undercuts what made them work in the first place. Vicious’s ominous quiet and Julia’s mysterious, femme fatale vibes are absent. Instead, the major role they play in this season is built on a scaffolding of backstory and cliché-ridden writing that collapses as soon as anyone places a single foot on it.
Other aspects of the show are on a sliding scale of quality. The filmmaking ranges from functional to great to abysmal. One minute it’s pulling back and giving action scenes clear geography and motion, and the next, it’s thoroughly misusing negative space. Not to mention, there are enough unnecessary dutch angles to make the viewer wonder if something was wrong with the film crew’s tripod leveler. The show has its moments, but compared to the distinctive and memorable cinematography of the original, it’s nothing special.
The production design also goes back and forth between excellent and lacking. In some moments, it captures the grungy, worn-in feel of the original show’s world with masterful precision, bringing enough tactile, cyberpunk-infused details to rival Star Wars. In others, the world feels too clean, too utopic, too mundane, or too modern. In particular, it’s very jarring when Jet steps off his spaceship with his mechanical arm and hugs his daughter in a house that looks like it was built in 2002.
Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is at its best when it’s doing its own thing. The moments and episodic stories that borrow the least from the original are consistently the most fun and engaging parts, and whenever the show tries to live up to the original, it falls flat. Which is a shame, because the fun, sci-fi dramedy underneath all the Cowboy Bebop imagery could have worked just fine on it’s own. The actual viewing experience is quite pleasant, especially when the characters aren’t talking.
If a second season does come along, the best thing the show could do is stop trying to be Bebop, because frankly, it isn’t. Cowboy Bebop (1998) is effortlessly stylish, boldly political, and masterfully directed and animated, managing to be simultaneously disaffected and honest, cynical and hopeful, subtle and big-hearted. Cowboy Bebop (2021) is something completely different, and that something doesn’t have to be bad.