Netflix’s ‘Cowboy Bebop’ Isn’t Supposed to Be Good

There was a time in my life when Netflix’s live action Cowboy Bebop would have offended and enraged me to no end. But if there’s one thing the original 1998 anime series taught me, it’s that sometimes you just gotta go with the flow.

This thought popped into my head over and over while I watched Netflix’s rendition of the classic series, which recently premiered on the streaming platform and is easily one of the most divisive adaptations in recent memory.

It’s easy to see why. The anime series has achieved sacred status among countless fans, and I’ve been one of them ever since the jazzy intro credits first flashed across my screen years ago. Through 26 episodes the series sways across a variety of genres and moods like a dusty old record collection, oscillating from slapstick sci-fi to spaghetti western to melancholy crime noir.

But the true magic of the original series is how it becomes far greater than the sum of its collective homages. Deep and memorable characters, masterful pacing and tone, and an unforgettable jazz soundtrack by Yoko Kanno all contribute to why the series still has so many diehard fans today. The show is just indescribably cool, and its influence can be felt across countless films and TV shows that have come since.

It’s a tough act to follow—arguably impossible when you’re making the jump from animation to live action.

Like many anime adaptations before it, Neo-Bebop’s sins are numerous, from the cringeworthy script to its awkward attempts at mimicking the animation’s original style. Much of it is painful to watch if you’re coming from the source material, and you can find plenty of video essays on YouTube where fans dutifully pick apart the new series and compare scenes to their original counterparts. Everything is dissected, from the terrible writing and character backstories to the poor use of lighting during the iconic church duel between Spike Spiegel and his murderous former comrade Vicious.

From watching these analyses, one gets the sense that the showrunners either don’t understand what made the original series special or are purposely not trying to capture it.

But decades after the original series left its mark, I simply couldn’t get mad at all these transgressions. I had a much better time watching the new Cowboy Bebop as a goofy, high-budget cosplay skit than wishing for it to be some high-minded and faithful adaptation. Instead of a slick and melancholy sci-fi tale, the new series is a wacky fanfiction.net fever dream come to life.

At times this dynamic is so ridiculous it just works. John Cho and Mustafa Shakir have plenty of on-screen chemistry as Spike Spiegel and Jet Black, and their banter often manages to capture the original characters while punching through the tedious script. The 10 episodes frequently veer into “so bad it’s good” territory, and I often found myself laughing through all the cringe and curious to see where the show would take my beloved space cowboys next.

It’s not High Art, and I wouldn’t necessarily even call it “Good.” But in its best moments, Netflix Bebop is a truly unhinged remix that puts classic characters through a nostalgic funhouse mirror you can’t look away from.

That’s definitely not what Cowboy Bebop was in 1998, but maybe it’s what it needs to be right now. In 2021, the world is on fire, climate change and failing institutions are upending our lives, and we are still living through the collective trauma of an ongoing global pandemic that has killed millions of people.

After the nightmare of these past few years, I would have welcomed the chance to experience a well-executed adaptation of the classic anime series. But I also welcome the opportunity to turn off my brain and just vibe with familiar characters in a flawed and ridiculous setting. I love Cowboy Bebop, but I’m also very tired and I no longer have the emotional capacity to get mad about my favorite anime on the internet.

And maybe that’s the lesson of Bebop’s controversial re-hash.

One of the original series’ overarching themes is about not taking life too seriously, going with the flow, and accepting things as they are. The characters frequently find themselves stumbling into things through dumb luck, only to lose it all before the episode ends. It’s a constant, poetic reminder of the fleeting nature of joy, and the need to embrace life as it happens—Easy come, easy go.

Maybe that’s why it felt silly and a bit ironic to get upset about the live action Bebop adaptation. It makes perfect sense that so many people are attached to the original series and disappointed by Netflix’s misfire. But sometimes you just have to embrace the world as it is and try to find the tiny nuggets of joy hidden within.

Whatever happens, happens.

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