'Cowboy Bebop' (2021) Season 1 - TV Review

Many years ago I watched the "Cowboy Bebop" Anime series (originally released in 1998, I watched it in 2011). Quite recently I watched the "Cowboy Bebop Movie." I didn't love the series, but it was fun. I was underwhelmed by the movie. Now Netflix has released a live-action series starring John Cho as Spike Spiegel, Mustafa Shakir as Jet Black, and Daniella Pineda as Faye Valentine, bounty hunters working the solar system in the future. All three have back histories they haven't entirely shared with their partners. Most of what I write about this will revolve around comparisons to the original series. The series seems to derive its name from their employment (bounty hunters are called "cowboys") and Spike's love of Jazz music.

The aesthetic when they're on the ground is essentially 1990s Cuba: old American cars, cigarettes, lovely old buildings, Jazz bars, big handguns. Except when it isn't: they throw in futuristic technology when it helps the plot, and yet police work seems to proceed almost exactly like a 1950s TV show. Filming apparently took place in Auckland, New Zealand (I wouldn't recognize it). But they also spend some time in space: Jet's ship is essentially Serenity/Firefly (old, battered, and occasionally falling apart) and we have jump gates and various colonies and space stations.

One of the original series' biggest problems is the rather abrupt shift in tone from mostly comedic action to violent and tragic death-fight at the end of the series: possibly the only improvement this series made was to start mixing in Spike's history almost from the beginning so you could see that coming. One of this series' biggest problems is that they apparently didn't realize that two solid, real, adult humans bickering like cartoon characters (Spike and Jet fighting as they did in the original Anime) isn't as funny as it is as Anime characters - and also leads to serious issues with suspension-of-disbelief. They do this less as the series progresses - but Jet's utterly ridiculous beard stays with us. It looked cool in the Anime with its spikes ... but in live action it's ludicrous. How hard would it have been to have him with a simple, currently fashionable beard? Credit to Cho and the costumers: Spike Spiegel looks almost as cool in live action as he did in the Anime, and that's an achievement. Pineda's outfits are less revealing than Anime-Faye's - but then, those were utterly ridiculous. Apparently this was partly a practical decision as well as a moral one as they needed to cover up stunt rigging with her clothing, and needed her not to freeze to death on cold shooting nights. Another thing that didn't make it from the original to this (and I feel like it's a loss): while they live by the bounties they retrieve, in the original they often gave up bounties to do the morally correct thing. In this series, they lose several bounties because the mark ends up dead (that happened in the Anime too), and they express some moral qualms, but they never give up a bounty for morality.

A major character in the original series was Ed the hacker. She's mentioned briefly late in this series, but doesn't show up until the last minute of the last episode. Ed was the comic relief to an already comedic series, an intelligent but weird and incredibly goofy character. And when they introduced Ed here, she's fully geared up in her most ridiculous clothing, on her weirdest behaviour, landing on a fairly tragic moment at the end of the series. Totally tone-deaf, and bringing too much of the Anime flavour of the character to live action. And of course her appearance will make absolutely zero sense to anyone unfamiliar with the Anime.

The single worst part of the series to me was Alex Hassell as Vicious, who spends most of the series clenching his teeth to show his rage. There was almost nothing good about his performance. Elena Satine as Julia (love interest of both Vicious and Spike) would have stood out too if Hassell's portrayal weren't even worse ... Not that anybody is going to win an Oscar for something that frequently reads like a farce.

Just as in the Anime, the big finale (this isn't a spoiler) is in a church. But the outcomes for several major characters are radically different. It makes less sense than the Anime ending ... but they're A) trying to be different from the original, and B) setting themselves up for another season. A second season they may not get and which I'm unlikely to watch even if it happens.