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Hear Me Out

John Cho Needs to Be the Next Big Western Star

The Afterparty star has been Cowboy Bebop-ing his way across the genre.
  • John Cho in The Afterparty (Photo: Apple TV+)
    John Cho in The Afterparty (Photo: Apple TV+)

    In Hear Me Out, Primetimer staffers and contributors espouse their pet theories, hot takes, and even the occasional galaxy-brain idea.

    John Cho is a man of many talents, a star in any and every genre he explores. He’s built to be a leading man, even making our list of actors who need to star in a romantic comedy (or in his case, another rom-com). Yet, in examining Cho’s impressive acting resume, his three most recent TV roles all tap into one archetype— that of the cowboy. From playing an intergalactic bounty hunter in Cowboy Bebop, to a tortured traveler in The Afterparty, or even a hunky farmer in Praise Petey, Cho is proving himself to be the modern Western hero.

    Cho entered this phase of his career with gusto. During a conversation with Kogonada for Interview Magazine, he explained, “I have always wanted to play the cowboy, and I’ve always loved Westerns. There’s a simplicity that I always admired about them, as an actor. Like, ‘Can I be that confident? Can I be that simple?’”

    In 2021, Netflix adapted Cowboy Bebop, the beloved 1996 anime series featuring a group of space-faring bounty hunters aboard the spaceship Bebop. Among them was Spike Spiegel (Cho), a brooding former mobster haunted by the shadows of his past. While the live-action series weaved in a variety of genres, the show’s heart resided in traditional Western themes of transformation and redemption. Spike’s character trajectory mirrors ones found in classic spaghetti Westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Cho was clearly delving into a genre that resonated deeply with him. As Kogonada said to Cho, the series felt almost like a “postmodern cowboy story — the cowboy is always the loner, and Spike Spiegel is the essence of that.”

    Regrettably, the live-action adaptation didn’t achieve the desired success, which led to its cancellation less than three weeks after the show’s release. The news was a painful blow for Cho, who had invested his heart and soul into the project, undergoing intense, superhero-type training that resulted in a torn ACL and temporarily halted production. Ultimately, the series fell short of the inevitable comparisons and soaring expectations set by fans of the original anime.

    [Brief spoilers for The Afterparty Season 2 Episode 7, “Ulysses,” ahead.]

    Despite this setback, Cho’s cowboy spirit endures — he literally dons a cowboy hat in Season 2 of The Afterparty, in which he plays the bride’s “Funcle” Ulysses. Episode 7 delves into his backstory, unfolding in the style of an epic Western tale. It’s revealed that Ulysses had an affair with his brother’s wife, Vivian (Vivian Wu), while they were competing together as ballroom dancers. After a devastating tragedy, Ulysses believed he would never be able to dance again. But Vivian brought meaning back to his life, and in the process of dancing together, he fell madly in love with her.

    When they weren’t on the road, the duo shared nothing beyond stolen glances and secret touches, as they were both bound by their loyalties to Feng (Ken Jeong). Eventually, the guilt became too much for Vivian, leading her to end their relationship. For the next six years, Ulysses found solace in his role as “funcle,” staying close to Vivian and convincing himself it was enough to make him happy. However, a near-kiss in front of the children led to an emotional confession in which Ulysses declared his love and admitted he had to leave. Unbeknownst to him, Feng had overheard the conversation and disowned Ulysses.

    It took decades for Ulysses to find some semblance of peace, as he traveled the world hoping to forget both dance and Vivian. But no matter where he went, memories of her face and their connection haunted his every step. He ultimately settles down on a ranch in Patagonia to live among the land, and it isn’t until Edgar (Zach Woods) tracks him down and raises the possibility that Ulysses could potentially be Grace’s (Poppy Liu) biological father, that he realizes the only way for him to find closure is to attend the wedding.

    Ulysses is a kind of a spiritual companion to Spike, given that both characters desperately yearn for their past great loves while simultaneously attempting to break free from their former selves. And in both cases, Cho sells himself well as the dreamy Western hero. While there are undoubtedly more flaws than strengths in Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop, much of that can be attributed to the challenges that come with translating nuanced anime characters to live-action. Nevertheless, Cho’s performance is still commendable, as he infused the hero with his own charisma while maintaining the relaxed confidence that defines Spike.

    The Afterparty takes a separate approach. Ulysses’ episode, written by Brenda Hsueh, pays homage to the 1994 epic Legends of the Fall while blending a variety of different influences within the Western genre. The show’s comedic structure also grants Cho that creative freedom to craft his rendition of a modern cowboy without the limits of an established character template, even if it does lean more towards parody.

    Even within the unconventional setting of a lost cult, Cho still manages to emerge as another handsome cowboy character. At first glance, Freeform’s Praise Petey might seem far removed from what makes up a classic Western tale. Created by Anna Drezen, the adult animated comedy revolves around Petey (Annie Murphy), a New York socialite who unexpectedly inherits her late father’s backwoods cult somewhere in the rural South. Cho voices Bandit, a former cult member and Petey’s nemesis/love interest who argues with her over her leadership methods. If you squint, you could potentially argue that a core Western theme — the conflict between civilization and lawlessness — is present within Petey’s attempts at modernizing the cult and bringing order to the society’s bizarre traditions.

    Cho has undeniably found his niche in the world of westerns (and western-adjacent storytelling), and it’s high time he receives the recognition he deserves. In a genre that continues to lean more white, it’s refreshing to see an Asian actor take on the cowboy archetype and bring his own unique flair. And when someone like Cho looks that cool in a cowboy hat, the least Hollywood can do is give him more opportunities to wear one.

    New episodes of The Afterparty drop every Wednesday on Apple TV+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums

    Dianna Shen is a TV Writer at Primetimer based in New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine and Decider, among other outlets.

    TOPICS: John Cho, Apple TV+, Freeform, Netflix, The Afterparty, Cowboy Bebop, Praise Petey, Chris Miller (showrunner), Ken Jeong, Phil Lord, Poppy Liu, Vivian Wu, Zach Woods