Easy come, easy go.
After only three weeks, Netflix has decided to cancel their live-action reimagining of the beloved anime, Cowboy Bebop. It’s the first smart move by Netflix, but a telling one, and it has a lot of lessons to impart to studios if they’re willing to pay attention.
For those of you who aren’t caught up on the saga of Netflix’s Bebop, you can read my previous comments on it in the link below.
According to Deadline, the budget for the show was high which made the viewership bar it had to clear for renewal even higher. Usually, the company waits around 28 days to see if they attract the necessary eyeballs. On about the 26th day, they threw in the towel. The show wasn’t attracting viewers, instead, plummeting 59 percent in viewership after the first week, but it was definitely attracting a lot of anger and bad press. It wasn’t hard to see why either.
The show felt more like a parody of the original anime than a live-action retelling, and to the point where it actually felt disrespectful. It introduced modern concepts and warped characters until they were unrecognizable or made no sense. Just a few examples.
In the anime, the series lead villain was an organized crime syndicate leader named Vicious. He’s skilled, dangerous, cold, calculating, and inspires intense loyalty among his followers. More importantly, he’s absent for most of the show in order to solidify the fact that he’s a ghost that haunts the main character, Spike Spiegal. He’s sometimes alluded to, but when he does make an appearance, his presence has an intense gravity that sucks everyone and everything around him in. He has only one equal, and that’s the main character, Spike.
In the Netflix reimagining, Vicious is an over-emotional man-child who beats his wife and is always fighting off betrayals by those around him as he ambitiously carves his way to the top of the syndicate. The gravity his original had was replaced with annoyance and revulsion. The show always sank when he was on screen.
Then there’s Gren, a character that fought alongside Vicious in a war and had his life saved by him. He would later be tried after the war and sentenced to prison time. Later, he finds out Vicious was the one who testified against him, causing him deep emotional pain that would lead him to take an experimental calming drug that would have the unintended side-effect of growing breasts. Gren would go on to attempt to set up a meeting with Vicious using his feminine form from afar to disguise himself as a woman Vicious once loved, Julia. Despite luring him in, Gren fails to murder Vicious during their confrontation, becoming mortally wounded in the process. In his last tragic moments, he asks Spike to allow his body to drift in space until it arrived at the last place he had ever been whole and happy.
Netflix saw one aspect of Gren, the breasts on a man, and just turned him into a transgendered dude who helps run a bar…that’s it. They turned this amazing character into an LGBT pander bear.
Most egregious is the portrayal of the central driving force of both Spike and Vicious, the aforementioned Julia. In the anime, like Vicious, she rarely makes an appearance but when she does, it means something. Spike’s love for Julia and her love for him makes them ready to sacrifice everything and leave the life of the syndicate they both worked for behind. They are betrayed by Vicious and forced to part, with Julia going into hiding, but when Spike finally finds her after years, she’s taken from him by a syndicate goon’s lucky bullet. Spike’s last words to her are assuring her that it’s all just a dream. Her death becomes the catalyst for Vicious and Spike’s tragic final confrontation.
In the Netflix adaptation, Julia is the abused wife of Vicious who spends most of her time crying and plotting to backstab her husband, which she eventually succeeds in, even betraying her former love Spike at the end, shooting him out of a window and taking Vicious hostage so she can become the leader of the syndicate.
Netflix also might have miscast Spike Spiegal with John Cho, who doesn’t have the same cool-factor that Spike had. This may have been more the writer’s fault than Cho, but still, Spike’s were a big shoe to fill and Cho just didn’t seem like the right size. Moreover, they attempted to make co-lead character Faye Valentine more of a feminist hero than the fascinating character she already was. In the anime, she’s cool and clever but mouthy, confident, and forward yet hides a deep sadness underneath. The Netflix adaptation uses Daniella Pineda to do all this but strips Faye of her coolness but added feminism. Now she’s good at hand-to-hand combat and can hold her own against men twice her size. Oh, and she’s a lesbian now, too, because apparently sex between women is empowering.
To be fair, I have nothing bad to say about Mustafa Shakir’s portrayal of co-lead Jet. My only complaints about him come from the writing.
This is only part of the reason the show failed. The disrespect toward the original upset fans and, as a result, many of them tuned out and denounced it. The writing felt cheap and tried too hard to pander to socio-political groups than actually write a good story. This is the easiest part of the lesson to learn, but here’s where I think Hollywood will really struggle.
Hollywood continues to revive IPs in order to prey on our nostalgia but becomes angry with the property’s fans when they inevitably pipe up with criticisms. They begin attacking the fans of the IP, mocking them, and telling them this recreation of their beloved creation isn’t for them.
Then these revamps, reboots, and reimaginings fail to make money and end up being losses for the studios. They can come up with excuses as to why something failed all day, but the truth is that when you make something that has a wide fanbase, it’s the fanbase you have to get through first. This is because the fanbase holds the knowledge of the soul of the creation. The groove, the feel, the personalities in both show and characters are all known well by those who love the property best. They know why a show like Cowboy Bebop works, what made it tick, and why it still echoes powerfully after decades.
If the strategy is to not listen to and dismiss the fans to the point of actively taunting them and putting them down (as Pineda did) then you’re not going to get the full idea of what the property really is. It’s like trying to recreate a song without understanding what made the song great. You create something shallow, off-beat, and with no soul.
And that’s what troubled Netflix’s Bebop. It didn’t listen to fans. It lacked the soul of the original, and served up something flashy in looks but bland in taste.
A studio’s first concern when bringing something from the past into the present is to listen to what the fans have to say about it. They won’t please everyone, but it’ll at least give them a very good starting point to build off from. These are the people who know this property better than anyone else. You don’t go jumping out of planes without experts first showing you the ins and outs, and you don’t recreate properties without the experts doing the same.
Calling fans “toxic” or other deriding labels is a surefire way to have your recreation live in infamy and eventually forgotten. Studios need the fans more than they know. They’re the ones with all the passion for the project.
This is the hard lesson they’re going to have to learn, and it won’t get better until they do.