Netflix‘s Cowboy Bebop takes pains to bring the iconic characters of the popular anime series to life. John Cho colors in every shade of grey in Spike Spiegel’s heart. Mustafa Shakir nails Jet Black’s warm growl and Papa Bear energy. Daniella Pineda throws herself into Faye Valentine’s strength and vulnerability. And Ein the corgi is played by a real damn dog. One of Cowboy Bebop‘s biggest strengths is the way it focuses on what makes the characters tick, but that’s also one of the show’s most pernicious weaknesses.
Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop cares way too much about its villain Vicious (Alex Hassell) and femme fatale Julia (Elena Satine). In the anime, Vicious and Julia were enigmas from Spike’s past, propelling his decisions and haunting his nightmares. They were used sparingly in the storytelling and to devastating degrees. In the live action version, they arguably take up more time than the Bebop gang’s actual bounty hunting missions. There’s an attempt to make Vicious pitiable, if not redeemable, and to turn Julia into a complex schemer. Neither choice works, thanks to laughable styling and poor performances.
Cowboy Bebop seems to think I care about Vicious and Julia and the problem is I really don’t. That doesn’t matter, though, because Cowboy Bebop the show wants to shove these characters down my throat at every turn. Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is hampered by many flaws, but its weird obsession with Vicious and Julia is its worst.
Cowboy Bebop is set in an interstellar future that looks more like the Wild West than 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bounty hunters known as “cowboys” zip from planet to planet, moon to moon, and to every satellite in between in pursuit of dangerous criminals. Spike Spiegel is one such cowboy. When we first meet Spike, he’s partnered with former cop Jet Black. It soon becomes apparent that one reason why Spike is so hush-hush about his own past is he used to be an assassin for the Syndicate, a cruel crime empire. The other reason is the man had his damn heart broken.
Eventually, Cowboy Bebop Season 1 spends its penultimate episode taking us back to Spike’s life as the assassin, “Fearless.” He’s best friends with his nemesis Vicious and, worse, wears his hair in a ponytail. Fearless is the best assassin the Syndicate has. He has a cool head in a crisis, a devastating ability to kill, and is shockingly not a sociopath. (You would think that last quality would bar him from a life of such wildly criminal activity, but alas, he was raised within this world.) It’s only when Fearless and Vicious fall for the same girl, Julia, that Fearless’s life comes crumbling down. Vicious believes he has offed his romantic rival, but Fearless survives the murder attempt, only to be reborn as the Spike Spiegel we know and love.
Here’s the thing: nothing in that last paragraph really matters to the success of Cowboy Bebop. What matters is that Spike Spiegel is a bounty hunter with a broken heart of gold and an enigmatic past. What matters is what unfolds in real time aboard the Bebop. The show is not purely about Spike Spiegel, but about the found family that emerges when five lost souls — Spike, Jet, Faye, Radical Edward, and Ein the dog — come together. Indeed Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is at its best when the gang gets to just…hang. When they get to work together for a common cause. Cowboy Bebop is at its worst when it obsesses about its characters’ pasts.
Unfortunately, Cowboy Bebop keeps trying to make Vicious and Julia happen. If Cowboy Bebop Season 1’s ending is any indication, the showrunners have no intention of stopping in a potential second season. So we must endure Vicious and Julia. Vicious, a craven loser of a man with terrible hair, and Julia, a pretty cypher who puts herself first at all costs. Great characters you’ve got there, Cowboy Bebop. And by “great characters,” I mean great characters for me to personally hate.