NOC Review: ‘Cowboy Bebop’ is a Mixed Bag That Will Test the Purists

So much like my review for Snake Eyes, I will set a disclaimer about the fact that I’m by no means a hardcore Cowboy Bebop fan. I’ve seen the full series once through in my life, and I do like it. And I’ve rewatched some of my favorite episodes numerous times, particularly in preparation for the release of this series. But I’m not as emotionally attached or invested in the series as many out there are.

That being said, at least coming from a background for what they’ve changed and what they paid homage to for this one really helps write this review, because I’m pretty confident hardcore purists are going to tear this one apart limb from limb. Not me, per se. I personally was mixed on some of what they changed (more on that later). But the purists are going to destroy this.

Now in my perspective, as a standalone show, it’s fun enough. As an adaptation, however, the liberties they take are hit and miss. I do think the showrunners are fans themselves. You see it in everything they pay homage to, from the opening credits, to the music from the anime being used, the lovingly crafted shot-by-shot recreations of certain scenes, the end cards on each episode (somewhat misplaced at times if you ask me), and the entirety of episode 8 being a reasonably loyal-ish adaptation of Pierrot Le Fou (one of my personal favorites). But I don’t know if the spins they take on the series’ classic moments and characters are really as impactful as what the original series did with less. Each episode of this Netflix adaptation is, naturally, double the length of an episode of the anime. But it doesn’t establish a lasting emotional resonance for any of its villains as much as each individual episode of the old anime does. They’re a bit more successful with the main characters, as Spike, Jet, and Faye are all great! But I think folks who haven’t seen the anime will be a bit more forgiving about one off anime characters like Asimov Solensan, the Mad Pierrot, or Gren not being as deep here as they are in the original show than the hardcore fans will.

COWBOY BEBOP (L to R) MASON ALEXANDER PARK as GREN in COWBOY BEBOP Cr. GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX © 2021

For me, though I’m not hardcore, I’m still a little less forgiving — particularly with characters like Gren. I think of all the Bebop characters from the original show that had a lot of depth and pathos, Gren was shortchanged the most here. It’s true the character has been upgraded to a supporting/recurring one rather than a two-part rogue of the week, as they were in the original. And the character they’ve created here is fun and funny, as is the performance by Mason Alexander Park. But the show doesn’t go into any of the backstory this character has with Vicious from the anime, and the way the show portrays them has, so far, made them a less interesting side-character.

And reducing how interesting these characters are is a recurring trend with characters like Asimov or the Mad Pierrot. For the Pierrot (who literally goes by the name Pierrot Le Fou in this), I felt a bit less sympathy for the Netflix version because it doesn’t really come off that he was the product of torture and experimentation at the hands of the ISSP. There’s quick cuts here and there, but no real exploration or empathetic beats to provide emotional context on how that affected him. In the original series, it’s more apparent that what was done to him was monstrous, so you feel some semblance of pity for him and why he goes mad.

COWBOY BEPOP (L to R) JOHN CHO as SPIKE SPIEGEL in COWBOY BEPOP Cr. GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX © 2021

Unfortunately, in cases like this, it demonstrates the Netflix series is too consumed with getting you from narrative point to narrative point about the Spike/Vicious series arc within each episode, that despite the longer runtime per episode, you lose a touch of the character development for each episode’s A-story antagonist. Because unlike the anime, the Netflix series is developing B-Stories per each episode to elaborate on Vicious and his coup of the Syndicate, it detracts a bit from each episode’s individual narratives and characters. And as a result, some of the one off characters that made it over from the original anime are much more shallow, and that’s unfortunate. Because as it turns out, the backstory they’re setting up for Spike and Vicious is somewhat more superfluous than it needs to be. It ultimately culminates in an unnecessary Pulp Fiction/John Wick rip off penultimate backstory episode that’s honestly less interesting than what the anime provided for us.

That being said, as previously mentioned, there’s still some good stuff in the series. Let’s start with the three main leads. John Cho is an excellent Spike! Aloof, but vulnerable; funny and badass. He works as well as any live action version of the character can! He’s complex. Dodges questions and bullets. Intriguing and compelling. And he looks perfect for the role! But if Cho’s Spike is the muscle of the team, the conscience is Mustafa Shakir’s Jet, and the heart is Daniella Pineda’s Faye. The three characters form a triad that you can absolutely root for.

COWBOY BEBOP (L to R) DANIELLA PINEDA as FAYE VALENTINE in COWBOY BEBOP Cr. GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX © 2021

Pineda’s Faye, for instance, starts out a bit grating and obnoxious. But by the end of the series, you end up loving her even if she gets on your nerves a bit! And given that’s exactly the point of Faye Valentine, mission well accomplished! That’s a testament to how endearing her performance is, and how well they treated her character. While in the anime we get a fair amount of answers near the series finale about Faye’s story, what they change and add to it here is much stronger. They effectively substitute a subplot about a con artist she falls in love with to a subplot about a surrogate mother. And that to me was a positive change, as it better drives home the theme of “the family we make” that the series is ultimately about. It’s good that they dispose of a cliched “guy rips off damsel” plotline in favor of the mother-daughter relationship between Faye and her “foster” mother.

Shakir’s also fantastic as Jet. The show puts more emphasis on his relationship with his ex-wife (it was his girlfriend in the anime) and his daughter, and creates its own spin on that story for the Netflix show that serves as a better explanation as to why he’s so paternal with Spike and Faye. It’s a bit cliched, but it works. His banter with Cho is hilarious. As are the times you see him get overly sensitive about things like his daughter’s recital or getting her a doll. But most importantly, Shakir sells the “gruff conscience” persona that describes Jet to a tee, doing everything he can to keep Spike’s soul intact.

COWBOY BEBOP (L to R) MUSTAFA SHAKIR as JET BLACK in COWBOY BEBOP Cr. GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX © 2021

In addition to the main trio, Alex Hassell and Elena Satine are quite good as Vicious and Julia. Julia really has an expanded role in this adaptation, and while I can see purists or internet trolls disliking it, I thought it really worked in terms of how they’re shifting the story from the anime a bit! Satine’s performance has a lot of layers to it, and without spoiling anything, the trajectory of her character through these 10 episodes makes sense and is incredibly strong.

Hassell, on the other hand, is a bit less menacing than his anime counterpart. Vicious in this interpretation comes across more as a spoiled and entitled, power-hungry man with an inferiority complex. I think there were layers to him in the anime that worked a bit better, like his backstory with Gren. It’s not Hassell’s fault. He hams it up and has a blast with the role, but the changes they’ve crafted for him don’t really allow him to do much more than scowl, yell, and stab.

COWBOY BEPOP (L to R) ELENA SATINE as JULIA in COWBOY BEPOP Cr. KERRY BROWN/NETFLIX © 2021

Aesthetically, the show looks great. There’s a lot of scenes directly lifted from the anime that will make the fans moderately happy, and a lot of the musical themes for different characters play as well. Like I said, the folks behind the show had to have been fans, to adhere so closely to the aesthetics of the original. Tonally, the show skews a bit more into the campy side than the original, and that’s even without the presence of Ed. The original is pretty campy as it is, but it’s also balanced by a lot of somber, melancholy notes, that provide a richness to it that’s a bit lacking here. Here, the camp is just a bit goofy at times. It doesn’t always translate. It just goes to show that sometimes looks aren’t always everything.

It does feel like I’m being a bit hard on this one. On in its own it’s a perfectly fun, imaginative series with love for the material. The action, visuals, and concept are great. And I think non-fans are going to have a kick out of it. But it’s very difficult for me to detach it from the original anime, and as such, I find myself constantly comparing what this did right and wrong. Still though, I love the leads and the main characters, and that’s more than enough for me to want to see where the story continues from there. Without spoiling anything the season does end on a cliffhanger, and a promise about what they have in mind, which I have a few issues with as well. But in a way too, it is nice to see things we like come to life in a different way. And if they make more of it, I’ll be there. I just hope they up their game a smidge more.

Until then, see you space cowboy!

Overall Score: B-

Cowboy Bebop hits Netflix on November 19!

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