Cowboy Bebop: Why the Netflix Series Failed

Netflix’s most anticipated Cowboy Bebop adaptation was canceled in less than a month of its debut. These are some of the reasons the series failed.

The live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop was one of Netflix’s most ambitious projects and one of the most hyped shows of the year. Netflix did everything to do right by the Cowboy Bebop anime from tapping original creator Shinichiro Watanabe as a consultant to hiring anime composer Yoko Kanno to score the new show. Despite the live-action series heavily homaging the original anime in its execution and earning a high viewership in the first week, Netflix cancelled the show after only one season.

While it’s easy to point to poor critical reception as the reason the show experienced a sharp decline in viewers in the subsequent weeks, there are other reasons the show failed to reach the desired viewership. Some of it has to do with the fact that it’s an adaptation of a beloved anime series from the 1990s. In addition to expectations being high, both Hollywood and Netflix have a notorious history of poorly adapting popular anime. Of course, there were also issues with the writing and the execution of the show itself.

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The Cowboy Bebop Characters Underwent Significant Changes

One of the major issues both American and Japanese anime fans vocalized about the new show is the significant changes that were made to the characters’ personalities and motivations. At best, fans in both countries appreciated the fact Netflix hired diverse actors to fully capture the diverse solar system Watanabe envisioned for the original anime. Beyond that, however, fans felt like they were following completely different characters.

While the performances of the American actors and Japanese voices actors were largely praised, at the same time, their performances couldn’t compensate for how their characters were written, which failed to meet fan expectations. Cowboy Bebop protagonist Spike Spiegel went from being a cool, laidback bounty hunter who only killed when necessary to being a former hitman who kills more casually, sometimes even eagerly. Vicious went from being a cold, calculating, ruthless killer to being an incompetent gangster with father issues. While Julia was even repurposed from being Spike’s Lost Lenore to becoming the show’s newest villain by the Season 1 finale. These character changes are only the tip of the iceberg.

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Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop Fails to Balance Story and Tone

One thing the original Cowboy Bebop anime is famous for is its unconventional story format. While the anime still has a main character and a primary antagonist whose shared history informs much of the series’ progression, at the same time, they are not the focus. Rather than tell a straightforward story about two former best friends who are at war with each other, the Cowboy Bebop anime chooses to largely focus on the day-to-day lives of three bounty hunters and one computer hacker. This includes their daily struggle to earn enough money to afford basic necessities like food, water, electricity and ship maintenance.

The struggles the characters undergo are often the source of narrative conflict and the source of the anime’s humor. The characters’ pursuit of strange bounties to make ends meet are also what allows the anime to dip its toe into various genres like Western, space opera and classic noir. The Netflix series tries to capture this same tone and style of storytelling, but fails to do it successfully for one reason: it does the exact opposite of what the anime does. Instead of focusing on the day-to-day struggles of three bounty hunters trying to make ends it, it focuses on the war that exists between two former best friends and the impact that has on the people in their lives. As such, the decision to focus on their struggles as a side piece to the main story tends to make the series feel unfocused and tonally inconsistent.

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Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop Lacks a Clear Target Audience

Finding a clear target audience was always going to be a major hurdle for the live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop, and the challenge here is two-fold: first, the original Cowboy Bebop anime was created for a Japanese audience, which informed the anime’s storytelling conventions. Translating that for an American audience while keeping it accessible to the original Japanese audience presented its own challenges due to the different expectations of both audience groups. Related to that first point is the fact Cowboy Bebop already has a passionate built-in fanbase, which presented a second challenge for Netflix to overcome: satisfying the needs of the built-in fanbase as well as those of Netflix’s own customer base.

On a business level, to capture the American audience, Netflix cast a well-known Hollywood actor, John Cho, to take on the lead role. Cho is primarily known for his role as Hikaru Sulu in the Star Trek reboot film trilogy, as well as his role as Harold Lee in the Harold & Kumar film series. To capture the original Japanese audience, Netflix’s dubbing department hired the original Japanese voice actors from the anime to dub their characters for the live-action series.

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On a creative level, Netflix attempted to engage Cowboy Bebop’s built-in fanbase by homaging the original anime as much as possible while avoiding replicating the anime’s story. The latter was where Netflix attempted to engage their own customer base, namely by diversifying the characters and improving those characters where they saw fit. While diversifying the characters still stayed true to the original anime, the Netflix series also took it a step further to be more inclusive. Some characters were reimagined as explicitly queer like Faye Valentine and Gren, while other characters like Jet Black and Annie were reimagined as people of color. This allowed Netflix to cast diverse actors like Mexican-American actress Daniella Pineda, non-binary actor Mason Alexander Park and Luke Cage alum Mustafa Shakir.

In planning, Netflix made all of the right moves to try and please four different audience groups. In execution, however, the series ended up sacrificing a solid creative vision that in turn failed to recreate the enriching experience of the original anime.

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