See You, Space Cowboy
Netflix has canceled the live-action Cowboy Bebop, which debuted only three weeks ago.
I found the show disappointing and am not surprised. It looks like it cost a ton and Netflix is pretty brutal in following its metrics as far as what to finance.
Having loved the anime for 20 years, I always feared that whoever made a live-action adaptation would miss the point. I thought that way when there were reports of a Keanu Reeves feature in development maybe 10–15 years ago.
Then a few years ago when the Netflix show was announced, I was like, “Please don’t miss the point.”
There were some hopeful signs. The cast was strong, and they got Yoko Kanno (!!!).
Alas, my heart sank when I saw it.
They did miss the point, pretty much for the reasons the reviews pointed out: it was sophomoric, overly faithful in some visual elements, and spent way too much time with Vicious and Julia (who were boring).
Every franchise has a fundamental appeal to it. I saw an interview where somebody asked Peter Dinklage the appeal of Game of Thrones. He thought a moment, then said (this is from my memory), “Sexy, sexy, sexy...stabby, stabby, stabby...sexy, sexy, sexy...stabby, stabby, stabby...beautiful, beautiful language—and a joke.”
That’s pretty much it.
For Star Wars, for all the talk of Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey, it’s really about a fantasy galaxy of adventure—which is what The Mandalorian does so well.
Star Trek is a salve for the anxiety that children have, what will happen to me when I grow up? Star Trek says, don’t worry—the universe will take care of you.
Superman is not, as people might think, a fantasy about a guy having amazing superpowers. It’s the fantasy that a guy could have all those powers—and still be a good person.
Batman is about a weirdo billionaire who likes to dress up like a bat and beat the shit out of people even weirder than he is.
James Bond is a male fantasy about glamour—traveling to exotic places, killing bad people, and screwing hot chicks (sorry to be a little crass).
X-Men is about being hated because you’re different/special.
I could go on.
So what’s Cowboy Bebop’s fundamental appeal?
It does have one, but it’s very subtle and offbeat. It’s not merely that it is about a super cool mash-up of genres (though it is, and the design and music and sheer artistry is magnificent).
It’s about finding family and belonging when you’re alone in the universe.
The new show paid lip service to this...but they didn’t really get it. It’s not about belonging in a sit-com way. It’s about relationships in a surprisingly adult, sophisticated way—tormented, passive-aggressive, aloof, annoying, selfish. Real.
I wish I had saved the review of the new show that wrote about this, but it’s about beginning to care about other people while pretending not to care. And it’s the push-pull of slowly opening your heart as this happens. Slowly.
It unfolds in a special, almost magical way.
And it’s about youth. Spike is a youthful character. As much as I like John Cho, I do think he was miscast (he’s pushing 50).
I rewatched a few episodes of the anime to see what exactly it did that Netflix didn’t do—and I was immediately taken by Spike’s youthful appearance.
Spike is tormented by his past—but that’s not all that he is. He is mirthful. He has moments of joy, whether he is tracking down a bad guy or enjoying a fight. He delights in life.
When Spike says, “Whatever happens, happens”—he kind of has a death wish—it feels sad because we want him to want to live as much as we want him to live.
For this to work, you have to see the youth on his face. The lines on John Cho’s face tells us that he knows better. He is an old soul.
But Spike is a very complicated character of an old soul with a young man’s invincibility.
Of course a live-action show has to be different: animation moves faster, and doesn’t need to be restricted to standing sets.
But tone is everything. You have to nail that special something. Nail it, and you can get away with murder. Miss it, and nothing else matters.
All they had to do was make the whole thing smarter and more adult.
I wish they could have thought through the process of finding belonging as an adult, and being careful and meticulous about what it’s like to open your heart to new people in your life once you’ve already been hurt so much.
Use that as your roadmap, and have everything else follow it.
I watched an interview with the new show’s showrunner (head writer), Andre Nemec, to see if he mentioned anything along these lines—thinking it would be so obvious, of course he would mention it...right? I mean, it would be the first words out of my mouth.
I would also like a pony.