Early last year I wrote about Cowboy Bebop, an award-winning Japanese anime classic from 1998. It’s on my list of favorite things ever. It’s so rich on so many levels that I’ve watched and enjoyed it at least half a dozen times. For me it’s an almost perfect combination of anime, hard SF, music, action, and humor.
Late last year Netflix released a live action version with John Cho, Mustafa Shakir, and Daniella Pineda, as Spike, Jet, and Faye, respectively. I watched three episodes and bailed. It wasn’t just me. Netflix cancelled the series only a few weeks after its release.
Ever since, I’ve wanted to give it another try, see if it really is that bad.
And, well… yeah, pretty much. I think there’s a strong case that it’s objectively bad. Yet personal taste prevails, and viewed on its own in isolation… well, I have seen worse. Some parts I would go so far as to call not bad. It depends, perhaps, on how much one asks of stories.
We can’t view it in isolation, though. It has the presumption to call itself Cowboy Bebop, so it must be judged by that yardstick. There it falls woefully short. But almost anything would. Matching the quality and impact of the original, let alone bettering it, is a major feat.
One that developer Christopher Yost, with a background almost entirely in the comic book world, apparently was not up to. There are, in fact, two mistakes: thinking it was a good idea at all, and, committing the first one, then not hiring someone with a much richer background.
[It’s a pity our culture doesn’t view “Inspired By” or “In Homage To” as having the same attraction that a copy or sequel does. If it was an original work, it wouldn’t suffer in comparison or be seen as a copy.]
The third big mistake was making it live action. Anime and comic books have a unique reality all their own, and I don’t think it ever translates well to live action. (I think superheroes especially are ridiculous as live action.)
In a comment on last year’s Cowboy Bebop post I wrote:
There is a live-action version of Cowboy Bebop that should be released on Netflix this year. I’m not encouraged that it stands a chance of being any good, because it’s hard, if not impossible, to capture the dream-like quality of the original.
It’ll star John Cho as Spike, Mustafa Shakir as Jet, and Daniella Pineda as Faye. I’m already a bit iffy on John Cho as Spike.
I’m also wondering why Vicious and Julia are billed as main characters while Ed is hardly mentioned even as a recurring character. I suspect the live-action will change a lot, and I’m not sure such a classic series should even be attempted.
But it’s on Netflix (which could be good or, more likely, could be bad), so at least it’ll be “free” to watch.
In retrospect, good call. On all points. And now I know that Vicious and Julia have much larger roles in the live action series as well as that Edward doesn’t appear at all (although his name is dropped a few times). I thought both the enlarged roles, and the lack of Ed, were big mistakes.
Cho, indeed, was not a good Spike, but Shakir’s Jet was worse, and Pineda’s Faye wasn’t much better.
I put off giving the series a second chance because I had other stuff to watch. Recently I decided it was time. I’d had over a year to gird my loins for as objective a viewing as I could manage.
And I thought it would help if I drank several beers. I’m a positive happy drunk, so I thought a good buzz would incline me towards a kind view. I tried to just sit back and enjoy it.
Sadly, about the best I can say is that some parts, viewed in isolation, weren’t all bad. I watched four episodes one night and four the next. I decided that’s enough; I’m skipping the last two. From their description, they’re way “off book” anyway.
My (annotated) notes:
Bad. Cliched from the 1st scene. The casino scene. It was ridiculous in almost every aspect. Nothing but dialog and action cliches; things we’ve seen over and over. I had a similar immediate reaction the first time I watched.
Fights look like dance class — no real flow, no authenticity. Actors trying to be fighters. It always looks awkward. (Blame live action and our abiding thirst for fisticuffs.)
Live action comix = MISTAKE! I’m more and more convinced of this.
Jet buying doll is so bad. (cf. Worst Arnold movie!) Jet is awful!!! I’m sorry, but Mustafa Shakir was a terrible Jet on every level. Jet should be more a Zen monoblock. The doll-buying episode was idiot clown humor at its worst. The whole daughter thing was absurd. Per the episode descriptions, the season cliffhanger involves Vicious kidnapping Jet’s daughter in order to get to Spike. I can only say: Ugh!
OMG — cliche city! Ugh!! “Iconic” A sentiment throughout viewing. I use the term “iconic” as a pejorative. The metaphor I have in mind is a string of pearls, each pearl an aged empty cliche (think icon, like on a desktop). Many modern stories are just strings of empty cliches. Bits and pieces from other things. Like telling a story by assembling simplistic icons that refer to bits of other stories. (Ha! Sampling! And just as empty.)
Can’t decide between Idiot Clown slapstick and an action SF drama. Pick a lane! I thought this over and over. It’s kitchen sink writing with no focus.
It’s the half-assed lack of confidence. The characters often act like modern day snowflakes (because the actors probably are). Jet, Spike, and Faye should be characterized by their abiding confidence. (Hard to tell if it’s bad acting, bad directing, or actually a choice.)
Production values. Low Budget? A lot seemed like it was done on the cheap. The production design was weird, too. A strong 1950s gestalt and a surprising absence of SF trappings in many scenes. That approach is fine in steampunk or cyberpunk, but it’s not really the ethic of Cowboy Bebop.
Relation to CB is a joke! Children playing grown up. On its own, it’s cliched and trite but not awful. Mostly not awful. It really did feel like a bunch of kids playing “let’s pretend Cowboy Bebop!” It’s a reflection of the infantilism in culture now. Comic book boys like Yost are steeped in it. Far too much of the character behavior is childish — something Cowboy Bebop never was.
Blade Runner ethic, 1950s stuff, the old Macintoshes, UGH! Not just cliched going back to Max Headroom, but a wrong choice for Cowboy Bebop, which combines old American west with worn but modern technological bits. Very clunky production design.
Infants. Discommoded by adults or sex. (Three’s Company!) Rough and ready space bounty hunters and they get the vapors when things get adult. Snowflakes. One’s a former cop, one’s a former gangster, and one’s an accomplished con artist. But the live action versions are children. (Remember that show? Three horny young people obsessed with sex and utterly terrified of actually being anywhere near it?)
The lesbian mechanic and Faye’s first orgasm. I’m speechless on this one. The mechanical spaceship engines were pretty hysterical, though. Another empty icon. Firefly did it to better effect, although it was pretty hysterical there, too.
Apes the shape but misses the mark. Lots of fan service callbacks. Slavish remake or revisionary reboot? (Pick a lane!) It makes so many changes to the major characters, and only borrows from the stories, so it wavers back and forth between faithful and going its own way. Yet in other ways, it tries to be a perfect copy.
Jet’s daughter, Faye’s “mom” — WTF — they couldn’t tell the stories without extras? With regard to their source, adaptations have three primary axes: Changes, Deletions, Additions. It’s usually that last one that really breaks things for me. Often, I can’t fathom why an addition was necessary. Someone just had to make their mark?
Bad SF tech (e.g. holograms). CB was plausible. Too much Hollywood BS. The holograms were especially egregious. A bad guy hacks into their ship and triggers a never seen before or after holographic projector that provides two-way audio and video? Total bullshit. Even worse: Ein, the dog, turned out to have two-way holographic eyes. It’s too comic book.
Bad writing. Requires characters to be stupid too often. An epidemic problem with modern writing. In large part, I suspect, because so many writers are infantile idiots incapable of writing truly intelligent adult characters. You have to be an intelligent adult to write one.
So cartoonish (not in a good way) that I actually thought I was watching a photo-realistic animation at times. It was that bad. Like a half-assed cartoon. CB transcended animation, this live action version sinks to the level of cartoon.
So, yeah. Or rather, no. Even with a beer-fueled approach and determined to try to enjoy it. Netflix was absolutely right to cancel it. The surprising thing is that it was made in the first place. It was a risky idea, at best.
Add bad execution, and the result is a mess. I can only give it an Ugh! rating.
David E. Kelley. I really enjoyed his writing on L.A. Law (1986–1994) back in the day. (I’ve been into courtroom drama since Perry Mason.) In the DVD era I fell in love with Boston Legal (2004–2008), which he developed. More recently in the streaming era I enjoyed The Practice (1997–2004), which he also developed.
Boston Legal became one of my top favorite shows. I liked William Shatner’s Denny Crane even more than his Captain Kirk (and that’s saying something). I just finished what’s been a long and leisurely rewatch of the show on Hulu. The show held up for me. Still one of my all-time favorites.
Kelley is also behind Ally McBeal (1997–2002). Back when it aired, it was a water cooler hot topic show. “Everyone” was talking about it. I never saw it, so on the basis of Kelley’s other courtroom shows, I added it to my Hulu watchlist for a looksee.
And,… I don’t much care for the main character (Calista Flockhart). I guess in its time the show was “interesting” and “brave”, but it doesn’t really seem to have aged well. It’s less a courtroom drama than an adult melodrama. I’ve only watched a few episodes, and I’m having a hard time generating much interest in seeing more.
Speaking of Lucy Liu, I also finished a long and leisurely rewatch of the Sherlock Holmes variation Elementary (2012–2019). It’s another all-time favorite. Jonny Lee Miller makes a very good Sherlock, and Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson was a neat idea. In both cases here, I was reminded how much I love those shows.
Now I’m working through a rewatch of Castle (2009–2016). I enjoyed that show a lot, but it doesn’t quite make the top favorites lists.
Lastly, Hulu is doling out season two episodes of Only Murders in the Building, which stars Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez. It’s another season, and there’s been another murder (in the building). It’s a cute show with good stars who seem to be having an absolute ball. I recommend it.
Stay bebopping, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.