John Cho is funny and ultra-cool in a series that that won’t be for everyone. One thing, though, is certain. Cowboy Bebop has a rhythm and style all its own.
This review of the Netflix series Cowboy Bebop season 1 does not contain spoilers.
Boy, does Cowboy Bebop have a lot going on. The adaptation of the legendary anime that Americans found and embraced in DVD Walmart bins in the early 2000s has grown over time. An eclectic mix of genres and fighting styles that stays true to its jazz influences, not only in its soundtrack but its freelance narrative storytelling. You wouldn’t call it mastering a true virtuosity, but the men and women behind Cowboy Bebop have a storytelling style all their own.
The show is held up by a strong performance from John Cho, who plays the central character, Spike Siegal. A man who loves ramen noodles, jazz music, and the teachings of Bruce Lee. Hey, it’s 2071, and this man does everything retro — he’s the equivalent of a middle-aged white male who collects vinyl. He’s mysterious, stoic, and doesn’t talk about his past, even with his partner Jet Black (played by Mustafa Shakir). He’s a former dirty cop who now works as a cowboy bounty hunter. Like many men and women in Bepop’s universe(s), the ISSP has been empowered them to bring in criminals for a price.
There’s a backstory here that involves Spiegal’s former lover, Julia (everyone’s favorite femme fatale Elena Satine), that I won’t spoil for those unfamiliar with the story. The other is the influence of The Syndicate, a powerful crime organization that rules the galaxy and all the inhabited rock lenses and moons that humans have migrated to after most of Earth became unlivable (except, ironically, Tijuana).
The main villain is Viscious (The Boys Alex Hassell), who looks like a cross between Hugh Laurie and Cruella De Vil. He’s a Capo of the Red Dragon crime syndicate, a subsidiary of the Syndicate, distributing a drug called “Red-Eye” that is taking space by storm. He’s cruel, bitchy, and has severe issues with inadequacy.
The series is ten episodes long, and I had higher hopes since the trailer for Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop was so eclectic and unusual. Having never seen the original anime, I went in fresh. It’s such an unusual blend of Western, Scifi, and Bruce Lee influences that work had to be episodic, which is uncommon for a streaming show. Bepop’s first three episodes needed time to find their footing, or note if you will. Eventually, it sets aside individual bounty cases for bigger storylines.
For instance, the series works better with a third wheel. There is a lack of chemistry between Spike and Jet. They are a bickering couple without any entertaining friction or antagonism. They need a buffer, and bringing back Faye Valentine (The Detour‘s Daniella Pineda) from the pilot by the fourth episode was sorely needed. Pineda’s Faye brings another dimension to the other characters, particularly Jet, that brings out his caretaker side of the group. She is also sassy, funny, and creates that entertaining friction we talked about among each character.
She also brings a third backstory that doesn’t have to focus directly on Spike’s. She was woken up from suspended animation after 54 years. This was less than two years ago, and someone stole her “identikit,” so she has no memory of who she is. Faye’s character is central to some of the series’ most entertaining episodes. She provides much-needed comic relief, paired with Chao’s gifted delivery the show uses to take the pressure off the rest of the cast.
Why was it needed? To be honest, Cowboy Bebop is excessively violent. Particularly with its treatment of women. So, it’s a western. Anyone familiar with them knows the gratuitous nature of the genre and the setting is swapped out for the Wild West for space ships. Random people are killed for no reason. Here, there are an unusual amount of innocent or even sinful women who are shot, stabbed, and eventually killed. A majority of them have just armed bad
guys girls paid henchmen. You’ll ponder if this is a lack of respect for gender or a step in the direction of equality.
The series gets better with each passing episode where the writers settle in within the show’s mythology. Shakir’s Jet slowly becomes the heart of the show. Faye becomes well-rounded and conscious. And while you may be mystified by how Spike survived a ridiculous amount of falls without explanation, Cho holds the show up with his underappreciated, well-rounded acting ability. He’s funny, brings some much-needed depth, and also has to offer some impressive action based on Lee’s Jeet Kune Do.
Cowboy Bebop will not be for everyone. It can be frustratingly erratic with a lack of focus on the surface, but the underlying theme always stays true to the series of syncopated beats. Whatever you want to say about Cowboy Bebop, it has a rhythm and style all its own.
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