In 2001, the hit anime Cowboy Bebop premiered in the U.S. on Cartoon Network’s nightly adult animation programming block Adult Swim. The genre-blending series quickly became a success here in the U.S., and a full-length film followed shortly thereafter. Eagerly described by fans as a neo-noir space western, martial arts shoot-em-up with a jazz-inspired soundtrack, it may be easy for people unfamiliar with the series to assume that its stylishness is its primary draw. It’s a bonus, to be certain, but it would matter little were it not for its themes of found family, identity, vengeance, and lost love.
Sadly, the long-awaited live action series that premiered on Netflix last week is a casualty of that previously mentioned assumption, as it exerts all of its efforts on trying to splice those genres together without any of the sincere craftwork that went into weaving the emotional themes at the story’s center. The final result is a flat reimagining that provides little insight into its source material nor adequately expands on it. It’s as if an art history instructor took the Mona Lisa off the wall and placed it facedown on a Xerox machine to lecture on the pixelated photocopy instead.
Showrunner André Nemec has certainly tried hard to evoke the tone of the series. Unfortunately, among the many writers and executive producers there seems to be little agreement as to what that tone should be. There’s a prevailing cartoonishness which clashes with the seriousness it treats its source material, especially in the first half of the season. It spends so much time winking at the genre tropes it tries all too hard to evoke that it never allows us the luxury of believing in the world brought before our eyes. Instead of reading as light-hearted flair, it comes off as insincere. It’s a trait that feels especially disharmonious during violent scenes. But as off-putting as some of those moments are (a scene involving the slo-mo massacre of naked enslaved people is outright gratuitous), what truly damns it is the character work that happens here, most of which comes off as caricatures of the genres it insists on emphasizing. Bad guys gnash their teeth and growl. Helpless dames are all parted lips and batting eyes. So many of the performances are outright ham, and although some of that has to do with a few genuinely poor actors, I can’t help but wonder how much of it falls at the feet of what’s simply bad direction. I may have felt disgust when a hostage is grotesquely transformed into a tree, complete with spraying bits of flesh and blood (a horror that the show’s tone doesn’t prepare you for in the least), but nothing made me cringe hard enough to collapse in on myself quite like the majority of Vicious’ (Alex Hassell, going full Eddie Redmayne here) scenes.
Compounding the tone issues is the matter of the writing. At best it’s middling, consisting mostly of volleyed quips and declarations that contribute nothing to what’s happening on screen (it’s hard to believe that Thor: Ragnarok writer Christopher Yost helped pen this). But when the series decides to make a swing for the salacious, things go horribly wrong. There’s already been a bit of online buzz about the awkward scene with Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), who makes an accusation of blackmail to an amorous informant, receiving a purred, “Damn right it is, because, Jet, you are Black and you are male,” in response. Awkwardness of that come-on aside, the truly egregious moments happen when the urge to shock overcomes sense or taste. I don’t know who’s responsible for the line, “You’ll never know true power until you’ve tasted the testicles of a man who has wronged you,” but it should never have made it past the first draft stage, let alone into the final cut. Not every piece of dialogue is that extreme, though every time conwoman Faye Valentine (Danielle Pineda) lashes out at her unwitting partners with a “dickwad” or “nutbuckets,” it’s easy to believe the writers’ room was half-filled with chortling adolescents.
It’s a shame the script’s quality holds back the principal cast so often because there’s great potential there. When Pineda isn’t spouting childish insults, she’s frequently charming. Shakir and John Cho, as Spike Spiegel, have a harder time making it over the hurdles the poor script puts in front of them and are not immune to the sophomoric retorts that plague Pineda’s role (herpes jokes are still a thing in the distant future, really?). Overall, they’re still fun to watch, though a new storyline involving Jet’s daughter feels overdone, the sole payoff being a sight gag in which Jet two-way streams into her recital and cheers her on as his partner, Spike, can be seen out the window behind him struggling with a horde of goons on his own. Few of the actors are able to elevate above the script entirely (seasoned performers Tamara Tunie and Rachel House among them), though most are entirely hamstrung, especially Elena Satine as love interest Julia, who’s easily the weakest of the main cast. Her shortcomings as an actor aren’t helped by a last-minute twist either, which feels about as genuine as the wigs that she and Hassell are forced to wear.
As if the series doesn’t have enough problems, there’s also the issue of the production. Not only does the hair and costuming feel weirdly cheap, so does the entire set. The original series has an expansiveness that goes beyond just its genre shifting; the ability for humans to colonize and terraform various moons and planets offers opportunity for world-building inspired by the sights, sounds, and textures of Earth. The live-action version takes none of these inspirational cues, sticking to a one-note seediness instead. The sets feel constructed out of cardboard—despite the annoyingly jaunty camera work that tries to extend the perspective—and aside from the ever-present ships in the background, it offers little evidence of its sci-fi roots. There’s a tightness to the environment that feels constrictive when it should be otherwise. This isn’t outer space, this is a supply closet in the back of a high school stage.
Surprisingly, the series does manage to get a better footing in the second half of the season. Many of the issues are still present, but as the storyline deviates away from being a faithful retelling of the original anime, it starts to feel a bit more joyous. It’s as though once the serious business of conveying the original story beats is left behind, the creative freedom to pursue new stories lends a merriness that complements the cartoonish aesthetic far better. It’s also greatly improved by the increased earnestness, with moments of connection feeling much more gratifying than when it tries to impress. Faye confiding her sadness to a mechanic she’s just bedded or Spike and Jet bonding with one another is more pleasant to watch than any of the series reenactments.
Ultimately, the show’s greatest flaw is its overwhelming desire to emulate the original series. The devotion to the source material suffocates any quality work that actually is offered here, especially when any of the animation is directly translated into life (the less said about Ed, the better, as it’s almost enough to make one forget about Hassell’s wide-eyed buffoonery). The ending sets things up for a second season, should the Netflix Gods decide to make it so. If that happens, I hope Nemec and company take something from this experience. Mainly I hope that they come to the realization that replication isn’t the mark of a good adaptation, it’s whether or not it can stand as an independent work in the spirit of its source. If nothing else, hopefully this messy remake will drive new viewers to check out the original, which, at over twenty-years-old, is still a far superior exploration of genre and sci-fi than the one offered at present.
The entire first season of Cowboy Bebop is available to stream on Netflix.
Kaleena Rivera is the TV Editor for Pajiba. When she isn’t rewatching the original series (also on Netflix), she can be found on Twitter here.
Header Image Source: Netflix/YouTube