(This post contains no spoilers for the first season of “Cowboy Bebop,” now streaming on Netflix.)
Netflix’s live-action remake of “Cowboy Bebop” tries to be so much all at once, and appeal to so many different potential audiences, that it ends up struggling to forge an identity of its own.
For fans of the iconic, relatively solemn Japanese anime that inspired it, the show’s reliance on borderline whacky hijinks (think an R-rated “Scooby Doo”) will be nothing short of confounding. For newcomers, the show might also confuse as it hops across crisscrossing planets and timelines, weaving between vastly differing tones as it goes. Both parties might at least find some common ground in appreciating the core cast, since John Cho (as moody bounty hunter Spike), Mustafa Shakir (as his no nonsense partner Jet Black), and Daniella Pineda (as firecracker rival Faye Valentine) are at least sharp enough to shift alongside the series’ many scattered mood changes. And yet, the most striking part of the premiere for me was far more basic than any of that.
From pressing play to hitting Yoko Kanno’s jazzy ending credits outro, the most immediately damning aspect of “Cowboy Bebop” is the fact that it balloons an economical Western that tells sharp standalone stories in half an hour or less into a bloated dramedy that can’t quite figure out whether it’s a faithful adaptation or something else entirely. The pilot of the live-action version clocks in at a solid hour, and yet it finds far less intrigue and nuance than the anime did in less than 25 minutes.
This pattern continues as the show tries to expand the “Cowboy Bebop” world and mythos beyond the anime’s initial reach. Spike’s tortured backstory with nemesis Vicious (a miscast, or else strangely directed, Alex Hassell) becomes the clichéd arc gluing the season together. Weepy bombshell Julia (Elena Satine) hangs precariously between the two men without doing much of anything else, as the most basic of damsels in distress are wont to do. Jet’s absentee parenting becomes a larger consideration, but only when he doesn’t have much else to do in the story at hand. And Pineda’s Faye becomes a significant highlight when afforded the time, but episodes being as long as they are, it takes a few hours for that to become the case. On that front, though, “Cowboy Bebop” is far from alone.
As Netflix and other streaming services became bigger players in TV, attracting creatives and talent who’d only ever worked with networks with far more oversight and input, its content ballooned in not just quantity, but size. Absent the pressure to build in act breaks for commercials or stick to any particular runtime, streaming shows were welcome to break the usual rules. Sometimes, this results in truly exciting television that upends tradition to create bold new genres and structures. More often, this results in swollen episodes that seem to include more scenes just because they can, or even entire seasons that feel like what might have once been a single episode, now playing out in slow, slow motion. One informal term for this is “Netflix bloat,” rooted in the fact that countless Netflix shows have stretched their stories past their limits seemingly for the sake of retaining eyeballs for more minutes at a time. In truth, though, the phenomenon echoes across most streaming platforms to the point that it’s a genuine surprise when their shows demonstrate any sort of commitment to tighter editing. Taking a few more minutes to finesse a point is one thing; taking hours to get to the point is another, far more common approach.
So, yes, it makes sense that in getting to make a live-action version of such a beloved franchise as “Cowboy Bebop” for a platform that wouldn’t constrain its vision, the new creative team would want to go as expansive as possible. Unfortunately, straying so far from the original structural blueprint of the anime — with its self-contained, beautifully bittersweet stories — only makes it more obvious how unnecessary all those extra minutes actually are. The new “Cowboy Bebop” didn’t have to be a shot-for-shot remake of the original to work (and in fact, would have done a disservice to the anime medium to try). In trying to establish itself as something different and broader, though, this live-action version just ends up sacrificing depth for breadth.