April 29, 2015
About the author : Project manager by day, crazy cat lady by night. Emily's first love is J.R.R. Tolkien. She's also into Walking Dead, video games, Doctor Who, and anime. When she isn't knee-deep in her latest fandom, she's usually sleeping.
I’m a late-comer to a lot of fandoms. I didn’t play my first “real” video game until I was 14 or 15 (The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker). I was resistant to anime until freshmen year of college. I didn’t start watching Doctor Who until 2013. The same is true for both Firefly (which I watched in 2013) and Cowboy Bebop (which I didn’t see until shortly after it came out on Blu-ray).
I’ll admit that I started watching Cowboy Bebop already having heard it compared to Firefly (or rather, vice versa), so I can’t claim that I came to this conclusion all by my lonesome. Still, it’s an interesting topic worth exploring.
Of course, I have no idea what Joss Whedon was thinking when he came up with the idea for Firefly. I don’t even know if he had ever heard of Cowboy Bebop. I’m not here to accuse anyone of copying anything. All I want to do is point out similarities and discover which show had the better execution.
Pretty floral bonnets aside, Spike is a much better-dressed hero. They both seem equally competent, although Spike has worse luck. (Seriously, it actually gets kind of annoying how much bad luck Spike endures.) Mal also follows a moral code, whereas Spike seems to be motivated primarily by his stomach.
These two are the competent, but considerably less-interesting, second-in-command. While Zoë is clearly Mal’s subordinate, it’s less clear with Jet and Spike–they’re more like partners. Jet has a much more interesting back story: he used to be a cop, got dumped by the girlfriend he adored, was shot, and so on. Zoë, on the other hand, doesn’t have much history aside from her long friendship with Mal and her initial dislike of, but eventual marriage to, Wash.
Winner: Cowboy Bebop
Ah, the sexy ladies. I was never found of Inara–I found her boring and too calm. Despite the sparks between Mal and Inara and the show’s attempt to glamorize her lifestyle, Faye is considerably more interesting. While it’s clear that Faye’s primary motivation is her love of gambling, she’s also looking for somewhere she can belong. Her deeper motivations aren’t always clear; she keeps the viewer guessing.
Winner: Cowboy Bebop
Lots of similarities here, except that Ed is able to care for herself, whereas River seems incapable of doing so. (Of course, River has been tortured and Ed just seems to be odd by nature, so a comparison isn’t exactly fair.) Ed may be more charming but River’s story is much more intriguing and tragic. She also shows more insight into those around her, remnants of her former genius. Ed, on the other hand, is really only useful if info needs to be found or a database needs to be hacked.
Firefly actually has a fairly large core cast. While Mal is clearly the main character and the central thread is figuring out what happened to River and why, none of the other crew members feel like secondary characters. We hear some back story about all of them (with Shepherd Book’s being the most intriguing and maddeningly unfinished!). Cowboy Bebop, on the other hand, sticks with a very limited cast. You get a pretty good understanding of where each person came from, but you don’t always feel like you know them; it’s more like you admire them from afar.
With anime, you don’t typically get an explanation about why things are the way they are. Most anime don’t waste time giving you history and back story–it just plops you in the middle and focuses on the characters and plot. Firefly makes you sit through a summary of the world at the beginning of every episode (instead of an awesome James-Bond-esque, jazzy, big-band intro).
Firefly‘s world is pretty straight-forward: earth is a mess, so everyone leaves. There’s the big, bad government and the rebels who just want their freedom. The Chinese culture has become so prevalent that it’s pretty much everywhere–one of the more realistic and unique touches. (Yes, I know Blade Runner did it before; Firefly did it much more effectively.)
Cowboy Bebop has more depth–partially because the world isn’t explained. There’s so much that the viewer is left to wonder about. What exactly is the Syndicate? If the meteor showers on earth were so bad, why were there still a good amount of people living there? How is it that people live on other planets, planets that shouldn’t be habitable?
Of course, Cowboy Bebop‘s writers had the time necessary to tell their story, whereas Firefly was cut tragically short. It isn’t quite fair to compare the depth of each show.
The Reavers are a bone-chillingly terrifying enemy that Cowboy Bebop lacks. Overall, Spike’s world feels much safer than Mal’s. As long as you don’t cross the Syndicate, you’ll probably live a pretty decent life.
One of the interesting similarities between these two shows is the lack of aliens. Most space shows survive on alien cultures, the threat of alien attack, alien tech, green-skinned alien chicks, and so on. The lack of aliens creates a much more focused story for both shows. Viewers aren’t distracted by weird aliens or multiple foreign cultures–they only have the main characters to care about.
The two shows definitely have a similar tone: an Old West-inspired future, a group of outcast Bad Luck Brians in a derelict ship picking up odd jobs or bounties. Both shows mix action and humor with sci fi (although Firefly has more drama and suspense).
The Old West theme is much heavier in Firefly. Really, aside from the name and the incomparable Andy, the Old West doesn’t really exist in Cowboy Bebop. While Firefly stood out from the crowd and initially attracted interest with its blend of past and future, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. While human culture does tend to be somewhat cyclical (and history repeats itself), it got to be a little too much. I mean, the accent even comes back? Wouldn’t people have had Chinese accents?
Because the Reavers have no counterpart in Cowboy Bebop, it’s a much lighter story. Not only does this make for easier viewing, but it makes for a more consistent tone. You have lines like, “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!” and then you hear about people being raped to death. While these shifts aren’t exactly bad, they can be a shock to the system. (At the same time, there are probably plenty of people who like Firefly precisely because of these shifts.)
Winner: Cowboy Bebop
Cowboy Bebop offers a well thought-out world, intriguing characters and a perfect blend of action, humor and just a little tragedy. Firefly thrives on balancing extremes–Old West and technology, humor and horror–and does so successfully. All that being said, I think Cowboy Bebop is the better show.
I have to add a caveat: if Firefly hadn’t been cancelled so early, it might have ultimately been better than Cowboy Bebop. CB had the advantage of, you know, actually finishing when the writers intended to finish.