Why Cowboy Bebop’s Storytelling Works So Well

Yeah, it’s another ‘hey, I have this show/book/movie on the brain’ post.

So, I finally got around to watching Cowboy Bebop.  I’m now six episodes from the end, 24 hours after starting.  Not the fastest I’ve ever watched a show, but it’s certainly not too shabby, either.

And, because this is what I do, I’ve been thinking about what makes me love it so much.  Now, the simple answer is the characters.  I am now and always will be a sucker for vivid characters in the media I consume.  But just having great characters isn’t enough to make something an instant classic for me – there’s got to be other things as well.  So what is it that makes me utterly gleeful every time I start a new episode of Cowboy Bebop?

Let’s start with the first thing that comes on the screen every time you start an episode: The theme music.  Unlike a lot of shows, Cowboy Bebop doesn’t bother with a short recap or a plot hook before the opening music, and I think this is a very wise move.  The music that starts playing is just about impossible not to get into.  It’s jazzy, it’s catchy, it’s frenetic … everything that’s great about this show is encapsulated in this opening music.  As soon as that music plays, I’m ready to have fun with this show.

I also love that we’re fed backstory and plot in drips and drabs – at no point did the writers or producers or directors or anyone involved in this feel the need to sit the reader down and explain things like how the political system works, how the characters got to where they are (at least, not immediately).  They trust their audience to follow along and find out things as they go.  Now, I’m the sort of person this works very well on.  I hate long infodumps because they do slow down the story.  And while the world is obviously a really awesome place, I don’t mind not knowing everything about it, because what I do see is very internally consistent, and you can at least make some educated guesses from the info we’re given.

The other thing that impresses me is the range of tone this show has – it manages to move from the ridiculous (the whole crew is high on mushrooms) to utterly serious (heavy revenge themes and backstory issues) without any of it feeling out of place.

Partly, I think this is because it’s able to merge the humour with the serious – this is a show that makes chasing a corgi down the street into a matter of just as much importance as capturing a gang of eco-terrorists without detracting from the gravity of either.  One of the most horrifying episodes ends with it being because Spike is a slob, another takes place in an amusement park.  One of them, the tension was defused, the other, heightened, by the ridiculous situation.   All I can say is that these people knew what they were doing when they made this show.  They know it doesn’t have to be funny to be fun, and it doesn’t have to be dark to be dramatic.

And, of course, the characters probably play a whole lot of a part in it.  The way they interact with each other really keeps the story going.  They always feel genuine, and their dynamic is just a joy to watch.  And that’s where it is – nothing ever feels out of place, the tone always works, and it’s just so very, very fun.  And that is why it’s engaging enough to keep the audience there until it finishes piecing together parts of the plot.

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