Netflix's 'Bonding': 50 Shades of Cliché

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Zoe Levin and Brendan Scannell in “Bonding.”
Zoe Levin and Brendan Scannell in “Bonding.” Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Netflix has described “Bonding” as a dark comedy. They were half right: it really is dark as hell. Sadly, however, creator, writer and director Rightor Doyle was so preoccupied making sure his semi-autobiographical show was dark, that he appears to have forgotten the comedy.

“Bonding” is the story Tiff, aka Mistress May, a New York City grad student who moonlights as a dominatrix. She recruits Pete, her long-suffering gay best friend from high school, as her assistant.

In what can only be seen as a failed attempt to infuse his characters with depth, Doyle piles upon their poorly sketched narrative shoulders cliché upon platitudinous cliché: Tiff is studying psychology, but her own issues prevent her from opening up; Pete wants to be a stand-up comic, but doesn’t have the courage to stand up in front of an audience. It doesn’t take a psychic or showrunner to guess that, by the end, Tiff will share the secrets of her soul with anyone who’ll listen and Pete will deliver a killer stand-up set in the final episode.

It’s also fairly predictable that, given the premise of the show, there will be some fairly explicit sexual themes explored. In seven snack-sized episodes – at a mere 17 minutes, even the longest episode feels more like an amuse-bouche than a nourishing meal – the viewer is taken on a tour of some of the more peculiar sexual peccadillos.

Tiff’s clients enjoy an impressive range indulgences, from relatively tame BDSM and tickling to urolagnia and the use of sex toys that could probably take out a couple of White Walkers. Even Pete’s straight roommate end up paying him for the kind of sexual service that would get a proctologist struck off.

Sex and its myriad of offshoots are treated in highly matter-of-fact manner in “Bonding.” There’s no judgment – as long as everything is consensual and legal. The only opprobrium is reserved for the show’s two cartoon villains: a professor who propositions his female students and a potential client intent on physically hurting Tiff. In both cases, the character is a white, heterosexual male. This default choice of villains is the flip side of the show’s ‘wokeness’ – its hyper-sensitivity to patriarchal repression and other forms of gender-based discrimination – and it cripples the humor.

Similarly, the simplistic way that these two villains were dispatched was hugely disappointing. An off-screen chat with the college administrator was enough to see the professor frog marched out of the classroom, while Tiff stabs the creepy client in the back with what appears to be a left-over prop from on the “Kill Bill” movies.

A scene from Netflix's “Bonding.” Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Online, the show has been criticized for its inaccurate and misleading portrayal of the dominatrix community. Even in terms of the terminology, apparently, there were problematic lines. When Tiff says, for example, that she’s a “full-service fantasy provider, but not a prostitute,” some people pointed out that “full-service” is a euphemism for sex. The fact that she completed the sentence with “not that there’s anything wrong with that” will have given viewers of a certain age a flashback to the 1993 episode of “Seinfeld,” when the same phrase was used repeatedly about being gay.

As a viewer, however, the main criticism of “Bonding” is not its handling of sexual behavior that would, until relatively recently, been seen as deviant. Such behavior has been used by many much funnier shows (and movies and books), from Gene Wilder’s sheep-infatuated therapist in Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex” to “Soap.” The entertainment industry has always been in the vanguard of expanding what is acceptable behavior. From the underground to mainstream, everything passes through TV and movies. And when it’s done well, it can be groundbreaking.

It’s not enough, however, to push back the boundaries for the sake of pushing back the boundaries. “Bonding” provides very little beyond its woke handling of modern sexual mores. The plot is especially disappointing, the humor is MIA and the characters are, frankly, annoying. Even the creator’s misguided efforts to introduce a couple of tender scenes fell sadly flat.

Tiff is played adequately by Zoe Levin, but in terms of performances, Brendan Scannell, who plays Pete, steals the show. His portrayal of a sexually unsure gay man being sucked into a world he does not know was the most convincing part of an otherwise underwhelming show.

The seven snack-size episodes of “Bonding” make it a watchable show; the plot, such as it is, ticks along relentlessly toward the (ahem) half-cocked denouement and there’s never really time to be bored. But, like a series of one-stand stands, there’s nothing there of substance that would want to make me watch another season.