'Bonding': TV Review
In Rightor Doyle's shallow, semi-autobiographical Netflix series, a pair of BFFs work out their issues through BDSM.
Pete (Brendan Scannell) and Tiff (Zoe Levin) were best buds in high school, but have drifted apart. Rightor Doyle, the creator, writer and director of the zippy if strained new Netflix series, Bonding, introduces the pair at the awkward moment their friendship is rekindled — in the basement of a Manhattan BDSM club where Tiff is now a dominatrix. It's a fortuitous reunion. Pete, an aspiring, stage-fright-prone comic, just happens to need some extra funds, so Tiff conscripts him into service as her leather-wearing, riding-crop-brandishing assistant.
Doyle based this scenario on his own experience, and the seven episodes of Bonding, none of which run over 15 minutes, are at their infrequent best whenever dealing with Pete's exploits. Even at their broadest and bawdiest, these scenes feel informed by something authentic. Is it strange to find a level of truth in a dom guy's inability to urinate on his sub client until he sings "Happy Birthday" to himself? No odder than the BDSM world in general, which the series unfortunately tends to treat as either a wacky milieu to gawp at or as an overall malevolent place that attracts the damaged and the despondent.
Tiff gets the worst of that. She doesn't only work in a dungeon, the series appears to be saying. She also lives in one of her own creation. Her steely demeanor and choice of career are strongly suggested to stem from a sexual assault many years before. We never see that incident onscreen. But there is an encounter our protagonists have at one point with an American Psycho-like businessman (Stephen Reich) that plays as a wish-fulfillment redo of an attempted rape scenario. Since Pete is at Tiff's side, the worst is avoided. Yet the implication, sadly, is that every flawed woman needs a good man at her side (a queer one, best of all!) to take down the bad guys and lead them to the light.
Doyle isn't interested in exploring the BDSM world or Pete and Tiff's knotty friendship (of course they have an abortive hookup in their past) with any complexity. He instead privileges his own point of view, via Pete, as the sassy outsider who's above it all (though Scannell is talented enough, at least, to make the character's bug-eyed tsk-tsk-iness tolerable).
Nate Hurtsellers's cinematography ably apes the saturated, sultry vibrance of an Almodovar or Araki joint, but can't counter the overall aura of patronizing squareness. Bonding plays a lot like the stand-up set that the until-then unnerved Pete finally delivers, in full dom regalia, near the series' end — notes from the underground for an audience primed to condescend.
Cast: Zoe Levin, Brendan Scannell, Micah Stock, Theo Stockman, Alex Hurt, D’arcy Carden, Gabrielle Ryan, Charlie Gould
Creator-director-writer: Rightor Doyle
Executive producers: Rightor Doyle, Dara Gordon, Jacob Perlin, Tom Schembri, Nina Soriano
Premiered: Wednesday, April 24 (Netflix)