What happens when fans of Joss Whedon grow up and start working in television and movies? Netflix’s remake of Cowboy Bebop.
I can’t say for sure if the writers and showrunners on Bebop were, like I once was, huge fans of Buffy or Angel, the two shows that put Whedon on the map. Based on the way the characters speak, it sure sounds like it, though. Over the years, I’ve begun to notice more and more “Whedonspeak,” as the phenomenon used to be called, in mainstream television and movies. Describing the qualities that make dialogue sound Whedonesque is now difficult though, because those qualities are ubiquitous.
Before Joss Whedon was given the keys to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as director of The Avengers, long before his now ex-wife wrote a story calling him a “hypocrite preaching feminist ideals” and cast members spoke out about his abusive behavior on set, he was the showrunner for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The show is a cult classic whose reputation precedes it, inspiring not only burgeoning young people to become feminists but also inspiring future television writers to get into the business. It’s difficult to overstate how influential that show has been, not just in terms of its portrayal of women in science fiction, but also because of the particular quirks of Whedon’s dialogue.
Characters in Whedon’s shows talk a lot, and they talk in very particular ways. Characters are often imprecise in their language, letting sentences trail off as they struggle to articulate themselves. They turn nouns into verbs and vice versa. They say “thing” or “thingy” or “stuff” in place of more descriptive terms. Often these characters metatextually comment on their surroundings or the environments they’re in, usually in a sarcastic or snarky way. The tone of this is pretty “wink wink, nudge nudge,” as if the writers are speaking through the characters to the audience, rather than the characters commenting on the situation they are in.
When Buffy Summers says, “Well, if this guy wants to fight with weapons, I've got it covered from A to Z, from axe to... zee other axe,” that’s a prime example of Whedonspeak. When, in long-running BBC show Doctor Who, the titular Doctor says, “This is my timey-wimey detector. It goes ding when there's stuff,” that is also Whedonspeak. This clip, where the lead characters of Star Wars movie The Rise of Skywalker say “They fly now? They fly now!” to each other shows you how far the phenomenon of Whedonspeak has spread.
This is fine in Buffy, which is a show about teenagers in a heightened universe where vampires are real. When this style of dialogue shows up elsewhere, it’s not just incongruous, it feels lazy. The characters in Netflix’s remake of Cowboy Bebop talk in this way. It isn’t that the universe is more grim, it’s that the tone of the show, the actions of the characters, and the way that they all talk to each other don’t jive.
Whedonspeak is all over Cowboy Bebop, especially whenever Faye Valentine talks. In particular, the scene when Faye is handcuffed to the Bebop’s toilet in its opening episode has that particular veneer of insincerity that is endemic to this style of dialogue, especially when it’s done badly. The characters aren’t talking to each other—they’re speaking in quips and asides, lines meant to make the audience laugh more than they’re meant to convey who these characters are.
“Hey dick-hole!” Faye says, “Super cool accommodations, but do you think you could handcuff me to an even bigger, more disgusting toilet? Cause that would be great.”
Other scenes are also plagued by Whedonspeak. When Jet Black goes to turn in a bounty, he speaks to a police officer who apparently slept with his ex-wife.
“Personally, I wouldn’t cross the street to piss on you if you were on fire, but your ex-wife asked me to throw you a bone every once in a while,” he says.
“While you were throwing her your own bone, I bet,” Jet replies.
One scene between Jet and Spike on the ship has them quip at each other simultaneously in a way that makes the audience feel like they’re not even having a conversation. While investigating a bounty, Spike objects to going to New Tijuana.
“Do you know what I got the last time I was on TJ?” Spike says.
“Herpes?” Jet replies, while laughing.
“Stabbed,” Spike says. “You know what I was doing? Buying a churro.”
Some examples of this bad dialogue have gained ubiquity online. In one episode, when Jet calls out a woman for blackmailing him, she replies, “damn right it is because, Jet, you are Black and you are male.”
It isn’t that there aren’t occasions where characters should act detached or sarcastic in Cowboy Bebop. It’s just that when every character is this detached, all the time, it’s alienating. These characters aren’t being detached for a reason, but saying quippy things because it is the most clever or writerly way to say them. These are things you might put on a graphic T-shirt, not the way that fully defined characters react. Seriously, why is Jet even talking to that guy? Why does he just let that woman say that very racist thing to him?
It isn’t that the original Bebop was devoid of humor, but the humor came from the characters. There were more sight gags than one-liners. It’s expressed in things like Jet, Spike, and Faye running around all day looking for information on an elite hacker and getting conflicting information, eventually describing them as a “seven-foot tall ex-basketball pro Hindu guru drag-queen alien.”
My personal favorite joke of the original series is when Spike points out to Jet that he's told him that his three least favorite things in the world are pets, children, and women with attitude, right after all a pet, child, and a woman with attitude join their crew. These aren’t jokes for the sake of jokes, quips to get the audience to chuckle, but humorous situations that the characters are put into and react to. But Whedonspeak dialogue isn’t about characters and their reactions. It’s about the audience and its much more distant reaction. It’s a little like eating cotton candy; it’s enjoyable, but it disappears the moment it hits your tongue, and afterward there’s not much to say about it at all.