2071. A hyperspace gateway accident has made Earth almost uninhabitable, scattering humanity across the Solar system, with huge centres of population to be found on Mars and Ganymede, whilst Venus is being terraformed. Ex-crime syndicate member Spike Spiegel and ex-cop Jet Black are "cowboys", bounty-hunters working from the Bebop, a spacecraft with aquatic capabilities. They're happy working alone, but soon find themselves reluctantly acquiring new recruits: a strangely intelligent dog called Ein, an amnesiac con artist named Faye Valentine and a brilliant young hacker, Ed. Together they get into strange adventures from one end of the Solar system to the other as they try to get a big score...and forget their pasts.
Cowboy Bebop originally aired in Japan in 1998 and received significant critical acclaim, which has only increased in the last two decades. It's an anime (animated Japanese series) that draws on large numbers of influences, including significant western ones such as film noir, Westerns and jazz. Its acclaim and place in the anime pantheon is down to its accessibility, the relatively straightforward storylines and the very fine characterisation.
At first glance Cowboy Bebop adheres to the "small dysfunctional group of people on a small ship" paradigm previously seen in TV shows like Blake's 7 and Red Dwarf and films like Star Wars, and later employed by the likes of Firefly, The Expanse and Farscape, not to mention novel series like Chris Wooding's Tales of the Ketty Jay. Generally, each episode revolves around Jet and Spike picking up a bounty contract and trying to take the target down, usually through escalating and increasingly riotous complications. Several key episodes eschew this format in favour of exploring our heroes' backstories, with tinted flashbacks revealing how they got from where they were to hiding on a starship at the arse end of space. Cowboy Bebop has been called a coda or epilogue to a story that we never got to see, which is an interesting approach to a narrative but also one that works really well.
The show is rooted in its four characters: Spike is disinterested and apathetic until he is either annoyed or he is drawn back into his criminal past. Jet is more empathetic but, as the Bebop's owner, is often distracted by their always-precarious financial situation. Faye pretends to be too cool to be concerned about anyone else, but as the series continues we learn more about her insecurities and her missing memories. Ed is...thirteen and strange, and "data dog" Ein steals most of the scenes he's in. These initial characterisations are deepened as we explore more about their past episode by episode.
The show is unusual for eschewing anime's love of deep serialisation and increasingly convoluted long-running story arcs and focusing more on adventures of the week, with the occasional "arc episode" with longer-term ramifications. This allows for a lot of tonal variation. Some episodes are very bloody and action-focused, others are very comedic, others are romances or noir mysteries. At least two episodes are outright horror (Alien gets a homage), and the series as a whole can be seen as something of a tragedy, with the ambiguous finale approaching with gruelling inevitability. But there's also lots of good humour, some non sequitur moments (one episode seems to be one of the writers getting his obsession with the VHS/Betamax wars off his chest) and a commitment to character that is highly successful.
The animation is, mostly, excellent. There's some outstanding compositions and imagery throughout the show and the production design of the spaceships and future cities is top notch. More variable is the CGI, which was in its infancy at the time. There's not much of it, but it varies from the outstanding (the CG Mars the Bebop flies over several times is fantastic) to the patchy and risible (a background shot of Jupiter looks like a late-1990s screensaver).
One of Cowboy Bebop's greatest strengths is its music. The title theme and the outro song are both very good, but every episode is packed with songs from multiple genres including blues, jazz, rock, country, heavy metal and, in one Shaft-riffing episode, some R&B. Legendary composer Yoko Kanno is responsible for the show's soundtrack which must have a serious claim on being the best soundtrack for a single season of TV, animated or otherwise, ever made.
On the negative side of things, some episodes are a bit lacking in exposition, but usually if you wait long enough all of the major plot points are explained and the character arcs make sense. More of an issue - for some viewers - will be that the characters are mostly dressed sensibly for the dangers they are facing, but Faye is near-constantly portrayed in revealing outfits. It's odd because the show not only lampshades this a couple of times (showing they're aware of it), but even goes out of its way to present less-prominent female characters in a less exploitative manner. One episode, about a female space trucker with a love of heavy metal music, is particularly welcome for its exploration of a "non-standard" (at least from the perspective of the time it was made) female character. Faye is certainly a very strongly-characterised figure with an interesting backstory, but you have to put up with some silly outfits to get to that part of the story.
Nevertheless, Cowboy Bebop (****½) is a very strong show. It's tight and constrained (consisting of only 24 episodes) with some of the best and most memorable characters you'll ever seen in a TV show. The worldbuilding is excellent (excepting the fact it's unlikely we'll have colonised the entire Solar system in just seventy years), the stories are well-written and the thematic explorations of love, loss, redemption and family are highly successful. It also makes a great gateway show for those unfamiliar with anime's tropes and ideas. It is available now on Blu-Ray (UK, USA) and is available to watch on Netflix in the UK as well.