Review: Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop Series Is All Heart And Humour In A Successful Adaptation
Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is the epitome of stories featuring the whole ragtag group of unheroic heroes that come together as a newfound family. It’s a formula we’ve seen over and over, namely in shows like Firefly. But this anime-turned-live-action show does it very well. And sticks to it, despite the obligatory warm-and-fuzzy that all characters usually revert to by the end. I’m being intentionally vague as this is a non-spoiler Cowboy Bebop review. However, there’s a lot to love in this new show that I can be very explicit about with complete details. So read on for my Cowboy Bebop review of the entirety of its first season, coming soon on Netflix.
OK. What Is Cowboy Bebop Really About?
Dead man walking! | Image via Netflix.
As mentioned in my review of the Cowboy Bebop premiere episode, the show is about bounty hunters that come together for convenience, but seemingly end up becoming much more. The opening sees Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir) and Spike Spiegel (John Cho) as two very different bounty hunters, together on Jet’s ship, the Bebop. Bounty Hunters in this chaotic future are Cowboys, hence, the name of the show. It’s a future where Earth became uninhabitable, so humans had to colonize the rest of the solar system. But with crime on the rise, the authorities devised a bounty system, so regular mercenaries can help catch the worst of the bad criminals.
Jet himself is a former cop, who, due to a blemish in his past, is now relegated to herding bounties for a living. While Spike has a more insidious and mysterious past, which might just cause friction between the two. Along with the ride, later on, is Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda), another bounty hunter who uses con-artist skills to get her bounty. When she’s left without much of her resources, and after teaming up with the boys a few times, Faye ends up forced to hang out with these two on the Bebop, with hilarious consequences. Add a genetically modified and cute as a button Welsh Corgie to the mix, and we’ve got our very own dysfunctional family of Space Cowboys.
The Character Dynamics Of Cowboy Bebop Are Awesome!
The keeper of secrets. | Image via Netflix.
The chemistry between these characters is one of the founding pillars of why Cowboy Bebop is so good. And that’s the thesis of this review, by the way. Spike and Jet are wildly differing characters. While Spike is seemingly carefree and aloof, Jet is very much the dad of the group; keeping the ship together, maintaining their finances, and bound by a strict cop-like code, which makes sense given his past. He’s also doing whatever he can to be in the life of his young daughter, whose mom he is estranged with.
Spike, on the other hand, was part of the Syndicate, which is the biggest criminal organization in this universe, responsible for most of the criminal activities. Thought to be dead, an accidental encounter with the Syndicate in the premiere episode puts Spike back on their radar. Namely, one of the head honchos, a man named Vicious (Alex Hassell). The majority of the show is about Spike’s past and how it comes back to haunt him. Also about how he has to hide his former criminal nature from his current former cop partner. And as we all know, secrets are the undoing of relationships.
Cowboy Bebop Does The Found Family Aspect Really Well
Face! | Image via Netflix.
When they add the third member of this group, Faye Valentine into the mix, the show really hits its stride. Faye’s story arc is a bit of a spoiler, so we’ll navigate around it in this review of Cowboy Bebop. But she’s more of an even wilder card among the three; untrusting, starts off by double-crossing the boys constantly, but eventually finds common ground out of necessity. Spike and her dynamic are super cute, as they spend an entire episode’s B-story trying to figure out which bounty to catch, and comparing war stories. At the end of which, Spike respects her, ending their bickering, while also learning something about shower-bath-showers from Faye. It’s honestly, life-changing.
It’s this found family trope that, to me, is the backbone of Cowboy Bebop. The anime did it really well, and the live-action show expands and compounds it that much more. While it’s not as dark and grisly as the characters in Firefly, it’s still very tongue in cheek and when they do eventually begin to care about each other, it’s not a cheesy or trite display of feelings, but a more organic progression of their relationships. All building to an ending that, leaves the audience kind of heavy-hearted.
Spoiler-Free Review Of Cowboy Bebop
Cinematic to the end! | Image via Netflix.
Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop series takes a lot of liberties with adapting the anime story. And I for one, am completely okay with it. Over 26 episodes, the anime has a lot of filler. The live-action version trims all the fat to focus the stories on Spike and his past while adding a lot of layers to Faye and Jet’s storylines. Certain events happen out of sequence, but the spirit of the characters’ journeys in the anime, are mimicked and reached by the end. The live-action show does imbue everything about the anime that made it so amazing; the tone, the mash-up of genres, the incredible music, the laugh-out-loud humour, are all intact, and at times, improved.
While the series doesn’t deal with the grander themes of existentialism, identity and other high concept ideas, it’s picks a lane and sticks with it. Overall, the show is much more lighter and has a larger emphasis on fun, than the anime. The anime was able to experiment and play certain aspects very seriously. Being a live-action series, it feels like this version didn’t have those freedoms. They had to pick light and easygoing, over dark and grisly. Even though there are still many heartwarming moments and emotionally significant sequences to satisfy the need for good storytelling. I’ve welled up in plenty of scenes if we’re being transparent.
The Action, The Story, The Noir-Esque Moments
Dead man walking! | Image via Netflix.
Ultimately, Cowboy Bebop is a pretty great adaptation of the anime. Like I mentioned in the premiere episode review, the show knows what to adapt and what to leave behind. The story is heavily modified to fit this new world. The anime series director Shinichirō Watanabe, who also consulted on the Netflix show, intentionally ended the anime series after 1 season, refusing to do any continuation. However, being a show on Netflix, in this day and age, franchise aspirations is always a driving factor. For that reason, much of Cowboy Bebop is changed to fit in with audience sensibilities today, and more importantly, the studio’s sensibilities.
Not to say that that takes away from the show at all. This is by no means a cash grab situation. Instead, it’s a great way to tell a new story using an existing IP, and take it to new avenues that the original didn’t or couldn’t go down. The performances by all involved are flawless. Pineda as Faye is a lot of fun, and definitely my favourite. While Shakir’s Jet is the perfect blend of grumpy but caring, and Cho embodies Spike by emoting more with his eyes and demeanour than dialogue or exposition. There’s tragedy, humour, betrayal and depth here that many adaptations, or even original shows in general, miss out on.
How Every Character’s Motivations Make Sense
A pretty ‘vicious’ villain. | Image via Netflix.
Another part of why Cowboy Bebop is so good is because of its focus on all the characters, not just the protagonists. Hassell’s Vicious gets a lot to do, and he does it so well. From being the cruel-hearted villain to someone with his own tragic backstory that makes him so, is amazing to watch. How Haskell can make Vicious a true villain in one scene, but also make you feel (kind of) sympathetic in another, speaks to his skill. And in many ways, Vicious’s motivations in the show make a lot more sense than Spike’s, and the object of both their affections, Julia (Elena Satine). Even the supporting characters like Ana (Tamara Tunie) and Gren (Mason Alexander Park) in their small appearances make you want to know more about them in the future. So here’s hoping that there is a season 2 of the live-action Cowboy Bebop.
Cowboy Bebop premieres on Netflix on November 19.
What did you think of this new anime adaptation? Not to mention the liberties it takes with its story from the original? Let me know in the comments below.
Featured image via Netflix.
Shah Shahid is an entertainment writer, movie critic (so he thinks), host of the Split Screen Podcast (on Apple Podcasts & everywhere else) and filmy father on a mission to educate his girls on decades of film history. Armed with uncontrollable sarcasm and cautious optimism, Shah loves discussing film, television and comic book content until his wife’s eyes glaze over. So save her by engaging him on his own blog at BlankPageBeatdown.com or on Twitter @theshahshahid.