Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

It’s Time For Big Shot

Hoi amigos, all 300,000 bounty hunters visiting the site today! How y’all doin’?!

Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop just dropped onto the bounty board! Announced in 2017, this ambitious adaptation of a beloved 90’s anime was met with some skepticism. Having been out for a couple of weeks now, the series is out, at least the first season of it, and the sheer magnitude of the undertaking is very obvious.

Set roughly in the year 2071 Cowboy Bebop follows bounty hunters Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, and Faye Valentine. This crew of misfits hunts fat bounties across the solar system, all while dodging responsibility and their pasts. From Venus to Titan, the trio racks up enemies, collateral damage, and a hefty amount of Astral Gate tolls.

The series is considered a classic, from the story to the music, and everything in between. While it is far from perfect, it still holds the test of time and is more memorable than many of its peers from the era. TANK!, the series’ opening theme, is one of the best all-time theme songs on television.

Bounty Details

This review will do its best to avoid direct comparison to the original series, focusing instead on the merits of this version. While avoiding comparison for purposes of reviewing, some references to the series are inevitable. This review will do its level best to avoid comparison-based review, but I’m sure some will stealth its way in. So, just sit back and relax buckaroos, have some Bell Peppers with Synth-Beef, some whiskey from behind the fridge, a side of Son Of A Gun Stew, and enjoy.

The Good

For the most part, the cast is phenomenal. John Cho as Spike is charismatic, snarky and has phenomenal timing, and brings the moves the character is known for. The wild hair and perfect costuming really amplify the vibe he gives off filling the character’s boots. He even went so hard with the role he injured himself on set, which isn’t really great itself but is definitely in character. For those who haven’t seen the original, Spike gets hurt. A lot.

Daniella Pineda as Faye is fantastic. Of the three primary bounty hunters, her character has undergone the most change, and personally, it is all for the best. She keeps the same classic snark while being less of a damsel or gaze-magnet character. Personally, I find nothing wrong with Faye’s original design, but the new one fits so well. The character’s arc and growth throughout the series are even better in many ways than her original.

Finally, we have the defacto-dad of the ship, literally a dad this time around. Jet is played by Mustafa Shakir, already well known in geeky circles for his role in Netflix’s Luke Cage, as Bushmaster in season two. Jet was always my favorite character in the original series, and Shakir’s casting felt perfect when I first heard it. He does a fantastic job not only portraying the attitude of the character but nails the look, demeanor, and voice too!

The visuals of the series are amazing, really laying down the jazz-vibe future of the series. A mixture of influences includes far-flung science fiction, westerns, pulp-noir, and a dozen other visual styles. It’s not uncommon to see a space casino, cars from the 1940s, and an eye-spray combat drug all in the same episode. The costuming is superb as well, not only for the principal characters but everyone on screen. They even have frequent appearances by three old men, who just talk nonsense. Keep an eye out for them.

Finally, the music is divine. The people at Netflix got the original composer, Yoko Kanno to come in and do music for the new series. The music is a huge part of Bebop, without this extra touch, the whole series would have felt off.

The Bad

No adaptation can be perfect, even the best has its issues. Normally there is a push and pull with these adaptations; how much do you keep, and how much do you change? Bebop sometimes feels hollow with the parts they decided to keep the same. For the most part, some of the changes work, like Faye’s “Mother”, or Jet being a father just trying to do right by his daughter. Other changes, including some names and character professions, felt wrong.

For example, one of the characters in the live-action series, Mao, is one of the sub-leaders of the  Red Dragon Syndicate. She’s played amazingly by Rachel House, who you may recognize from Thor Ragnarok or Moana. The problem isn’t the change to her gender, or even that she works in a massive metal forge as I guess a hobby? The problem is how she’s utilized in the series. She is part of Vicious’ plan to overthrow the elders and is in the room when Vicious takes them down. Her portrayal is ruthless and unyielding, even using Julia to embarrass Vicious.

Speaking of the primary baddie,  Vicious is easily the weakest element of the show. Part of it has to do with the connection to the original, but more with the portrayal in the live-action version. The white-haired swordsman is played by Alex Hassell, and while he does the best he can with the character, there are deep issues with how Vicious is written. Instead of a deadly swordsman with few words, and uncaring for the world around him, this Vicious is a whiney, entitled, privileged sociopath who winces at the slightest inconvenience. Not to mention the purely invented daddy issues, that forced John Noble into a role that didn’t exist. If only to give Vicious motivation that he didn’t necessarily need. I mean, come on, his name is Vicious.

The Ugly

Vicious is bad, but he’s not the worst part of this series. There are some character portrayals, that are so egregious that they defy comprehension. I told you at the beginning I would try to avoid direct, heavy comparison to the source material, and I’ve failed so far, pretty epically.

That is about to get so much worse.

Gren, from the two-part arc Jupiter Jazz is a great character. Gren is an old war buddy of Vicious’ that is imprisoned for espionage after the Titan conflict. While in prison they are the subject of some truly sick experiments. Gren was a tragic character that showed the kind of fallout Vicious left in his wake, helping to build a loathing for the power-hungry blademaster and bird enthusiast, while also helping the viewer understand the truly flawed world of Bebop.

In the Netflix series, Gren is a bartender. They’re primarily there to make snarky one-liners and fill in some deeply problematic tropes for the series. They play up Gren’s androgyny as more of a side note, and while it may not have been the intent, the character feels almost like a joke. Which is wildly unfortunate.

Gren is played by the amazing Mason Alexander Park, best known for Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, and will be playing Desire in the Netflix series Sandman. They do an amazing job with what they have, it just feels like a character kept for the sake of the name.

This is indicative of what is the most wrong with Bebop. They make huge sweeping changes, many good, many worse, instead of using some of the really great material that was already there.

Though as a less troublesome ugly, there was not nearly enough Ein. The cutest and most talented cast member is in only 7 of the 10 episodes, and maybe only a few minutes of each episode. You can’t get some very talented pups to play the smartest and goodest doggo only to barely use them.

That is ultimately the biggest crime this series has, while it does amazingly with the three primary characters, it absolutely wastes, or mishandles the rest of the characters.

Roundup Remix

Overall I really enjoyed Bebop. The series does its level best to change enough to make a new series worthwhile while trying to maintain the tone and feel of the original. There are mistakes, sure, but you feel like the people behind the creation really love the material. The cast seems to have a good time, and the tone holds strong for the most part.

There is a deeper discussion to have about the role of the live-action from anime adaptation in contemporary entertainment. With upcoming Netflix series like One Piece and Avatar: The Last Airbender, this era of entertainment is starting to feel like the late 1990s again. Just swap out anime adaptions for video game adaptions.

For comparison in that realm, Bebop is a lot like the first Mortal Kombat; it’s fun, honors the spirit of the source material, but is kind of cheesy and eye-roll inducing.

For those familiar with the source material, and maybe love the original Bebop dearly, I have some advice. Don’t look at this as a direct translation, or even as the kind of adaptation you would see from novel or comic book movies. Instead, consider this version of Bebop to the original like you would the Final Fantasy 7 Remake to the original Final Fantasy 7. Bebop does a lot of what the Final Fantasy 7 Remake does; there are changes, updates, and expansions to the storytelling. However, the real soul, the core of what makes Bebop a beloved series is still there.

At the end of the day, Bebop is about a crew of outcasts and misfits. They form a kind of dysfunctional family and help each other find who they are. The Netflix version does a much better job of leaning on the family element. At times the crew really feels like they actually like each other.

Even with all of its flaws, the series is deeply enjoyable. Check it out! Whether you’re new to the system, or you’ve thoroughly researched the Astral Gate accident of 2022.

Here’s to hoping a season 2 is around the corner because the show left off on a cliffhanger. There are still so many amazing characters, locales, and scumbags to see.

Check it out today, I give it 8.5 out of 10 million woolongs.

See you later, space cowboy.

Update (12/9/2021):

Netflix has canceled Cowboy Bebop after one season. While sad, this is wildly unsurprising.

About Joseph Davis

Joseph “Joe” Davis has love for all things in pop culture. From Alignment charts to Zombies, he’s always up to chat about the weird, wonderful world of geekdom. When not indulging his inner nerd, Joe is a husband and has far too many cats, living in a suburb southeast of Houston, where he almost constantly plays video games, board games and tabletop roleplaying games, which he’s done for almost his whole life.

View all posts by Joseph Davis

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