Review: Netflix’s series ‘Bonding’ is derivative and unnuanced

by Lex Kang | 5/21/19 2:06am

BDSM is a topic of fascination that has been rising bit by bit outside of the shadow of stigma in recent years. With videos like Buzzfeed’s “Couples Try Bondage For The First Time,” released two years ago, and “I Became A Dominatrix To Control My Anxiety,” released just a year and a half after — with plenty of other tangentially related videos in between — it’s clear that BDSM is no longer something people are ashamed of talking about. If anything, kinky has become cool, and there’s a large market of people who want to know more. 

This budding interest in an alternative sexual lifestyle is where the Netflix original series “Bonding,” written and directed by Rightor Doyle, tries and fails to find its niche. Considering that the target audience seems to be people who are eager newcomers to the concept of BDSM — the kitschy, overly-explanatory dialogue between the dominatrix character and her comically sexually inexperienced friend makes it clear — “Bonding” doesn’t answer any questions someone new to BDSM might have. In fact, you could argue it simply produces more questionable moments without any satisfying resolution. The show unapologetically breezes past opportunities to stage a teaching moment and destigmatize sex work. It sometimes does the opposite, failing to provide sympathetic characters or a believable and compelling plot. In essence, “Bonding” doesn’t have much else other than its risqué subject matter to make it a compelling series, and the initial appeal of the topic dies within the first few episodes. 

First, “Bonding” represents BDSM in an unnuanced, one-dimensional way that puts sex work in a questionable, if not downright negative, light. One of the protagonists, Tiff (portrayed by Zoe Levin), is a grad student by day and one of Manhattan’s most successful dominatrixes by night. She enlists her high school best friend Pete (portrayed by Brendan Scannell), whom it is implied she has not kept in contact with after high school, as her assistant to help her with her taxing job. The show does well in portraying what being a dominatrix could look like and introduces audiences new to the subject to a modest breadth of kinks that a client might request satisfaction for. However, it fails to dignify the tasks as actual work that deserves respect, is worth the money and is a legitimate need for many clients. In turn, since the work seems undignified and illegitimate, Tiff, as a dominatrix, seems equally unprofessional and unimportant, making it difficult for audiences to connect with her and see her as a real figure with compelling problems. 

For example, the show begins when Tiff hires Pete to help her with her work. Without any formal screening or interviewing process, Tiff, a supposedly successful and respected dominatrix, hires someone who is basically now a stranger to her — even though Pete seems entirely reluctant to take the job because he knows nothing about the world of BDSM and frankly seems terrified or disgusted by it. He takes the job out of desperation to make ends meet, and just like that, with no experience or qualifications, Tiff offers him 20 percent of her earnings for his “help.” This plotline completely skimps on the trust and professionalism that sex workers build in the world of BDSM and makes BDSM seem like a joke or some sort of wild, unsavory and perverse sexual deviancy — a stereotype that not only should be eradicated but also makes the characters unlikeable. 

Furthermore, Tiff and Pete, despite having a safe, clean office with bodyguards and other dominatrixes, take clients at home, something unsafe and uncommon in the industry. In the final episode, they even accept a client without screening them for safety just because they were offering more money. The show also never shows Tiff working with her clients to get full informed consent and establish boundaries. This is unrealistic and can give people who may potentially want to try amateur BDSM in their personal lives the wrong idea about what behavior is acceptable. None of these actions make BDSM look safe, professional and systematic, and since the entire premise of the story is treated with such lightheartedness and lack of attention-to-detail, the characters and their story, too, seem inauthentic and unimportant. 

Not only does “Bonding” not do the world of professional BDSM justice, but the plot itself is also fairly lackluster. Tiff and Pete both fit neatly into some tired old tropes: Tiff is guarded, cold and pushes people away because she’s been hurt before, and Pete is an invisible outcast who is trying to learn to love himself and be more confident. Sound familiar? It’s in every John Hughes movie ever. Additionally, even though their relationship, rather than BDSM, is the secret main focus of the show, their dynamic as best friends-turned-strangers feels awkward due to choppy dialogue and lack of chemistry. The show’s failure to build a believable rapport and history between the two protagonists is likely because the show was simply too short to have the space to develop and demonstrate their connection. Regardless of the reason, in the end, “Bonding” turns out as some wonky high-teen movie that tried to be edgy by adding in sex work. The show doesn’t lack potential; perhaps if it weren’t a laughably short mini-series consisting of seven episodes ranging from 13 to 17 minutes that tried to fit in too many subplots and be deep and fail to accomplish either goal, it might have been more light hearted and entertaining.