Fans of the original have already noted an incredible fealty between the anime and the adaptation with some scenes copied beat for beat as if the original program was the storyboard for this one. And yet major design changes have definitely been made, most of them for the worse in ways that are hard to comprehend. Most of all, the world of “Cowboy Bebop” has been largely drained in its palette, taking a show that often used bursts of vibrant color and making it mostly drab and dusty. Twitter has already compared and contrasted shots from the show and program, and it hasn’t been positive. I don’t think a live-action show really should be a direct copy of an animated one, so my criticism isn’t that they failed the source but that their decisions in terms of design seem almost antithetical to what worked the first time. It’s somehow loyal but wrong at the same time, like a cover song by a band that’s not as talented as the original artists, and they chose to change a few words of the song in all the wrong ways.
What works best about “Cowboy Bebop” is the casting. The charming John Cho plays Spike Spiegel, a bounty hunter who was born on Mars and is considered dead by the group of mercenaries with whom he used to run. Also known as Fearless, Spike is charming but precise, haunted by the lost relationship with a femme fatale named Julia (Elena Satine), who is now with Spike’s nemesis Vicious (Alex Hassell). Spike now runs with the captain of the ship called Bebop, a tough-talking fellow named Jet Black (a great turn from Mustafa Shakir). Jet Black has a child he’s always getting pulled away from and is sort of the Han to Spike’s Luke in this dynamic—a realist to balance out Spike’s dreamy ideas. Finally, there’s Danielle Pineda as Faye Valentine, a third bounty hunter who was in suspended animation for decades and longs to know the truth about her bizarre past.
Cho, Shakir, and Pineda really hold “Cowboy Bebop” together. When the plot is spinning its wheels, spending time with three actors this charismatic trio goes a long way. Sadly, the design and the writing rarely match what they bring to the table, and the writing lags behind too. Fans of the show have already contrasted and compared the anime and series to startling results. Creator Christopher Yost seems to fundamentally misunderstand the visual appeal of the first show, and really the difference between anime and live-action. “Cowboy Bebop” often played out like animated comic panels—striking shots that convey information like a graphic artist—but that approach doesn’t work for much longer seasons of live-action television. Instead, it leads to a show with too many canted angles and self-aware close-ups. This version of “Cowboy Bebop” feels like it’s always calling attention to what it’s doing visually instead of world building.