Pete (Brendan Scannell) has found himself in a rut. Living in a cramped bedroom in someone else’s apartment, working in a diner and too nervous to fulfil his dream of being a stand-up comedian, Pete’s rapidly dwindling resources threaten his ability to live in the big city. In steps Tiff (Zoe Levin), Pete’s best friend from high school who’s studying psychology in grad school, with a potential answer to all his financial problems – assisting her in her BDSM/Dominatrix business.
Despite Pete’s squeamishness, their partnership proves to be financially rewarding and emotionally revelatory. However, as both pursue romantic relationships and old wounds from the past begin to surface, Tiff and Pete are forced to question their friendship as well as the emotional wall they’ve built between them since they were teenagers.
Its premise may sound like the set-up for a gimmicky joke, but one of the most surprising things about Bonding is that it embraces nuance at almost every turn. When the show resists the urge to go down more typical or predictable narrative paths, it seems less of an attempt to shock the audience and more about posing questions that have been ignored in other media.
Film and television are filled with depictions of women and their gay-best-friends (frequently in ways that flatten the characters into broad stereotypes), but Bonding examines this trope in bracing ways. Tiff and Pete’s relationship is alternately loving and cruel; a link to the past and a way of hiding from the future; a source of strength and a stick with which to beat each other. It’s a genuine exploration of how the people who know you best can also be the people who most quickly lose your frequency, if you will, as you attempt to evolve. It’s a balancing act that the show aces, and it will feel both bruising and heartening to anyone intimate with the emotional mathematics of the girl-and-her-gay-bestie dynamic.
Bonding is generally canny about holding key pieces of information from the audience and a late revelation about Tiff and Pete’s relationship shades and reconfigures what has come before it in interesting ways. The show successfully argues that the boundaries between romantic and friendly love are too prescriptive (or perhaps not useful at all) and that any truly fixed identity (friend, lover, dominatrix, dominated) can be empowering or dis-empowering – depending on its authenticity. Tiff and Pete’s love is presented as equally if not more important than the various romantic subplots of the show because it unpicks the painful ways that they must change to make their friendship last.
Bonding is often very funny and frequently genuinely surprising, but it can be read as a fairly linear love story about two people who must rediscover each other again after the world has forced them to shift their identities in both obvious and hidden ways. That’s part of what makes it so successful at being alternatively spikey and soothing; Bonding is anchored in the painful and liberating truth that, in order to love someone, you have to accept that you won’t always understand them.
Where Bonding most excels is in its funny and thought-provoking exploration of sex, sexual identity, and sexual power dynamics. The show is especially astute about the roles that sex play allows people to adopt and how those roles can act like spotlights to one’s true self – or as a means to provide hiding places. Pete discovers creative and romantic satisfaction by reworking his fearful approach to sex, whilst Tiff opens up to emotional intimacy by accepting that her performative sexuality may have become too static an identity.
Pleasingly, Bonding doesn’t pull any punches in unpicking the origins of both these identities; situating them within the larger cultural context. Tiff, like so many women, has been shamed by society for her young sexuality but also fed the idea that it is her most valuable commodity. Pete, in having to conceal his sexuality as a teenager, stifled his comedic voice and sexual agency in adulthood. Bonding offers its protagonists the chance to undo some of the damage that society has inflicted on them by embracing sexuality that is outside its dominantly accepted purview, making for a string of episodes that offer both gross-out hilarity and thoughtful character study.
It’s also refreshingly sex and sex worker positive. In one memorable sequence, Pete is surprised to learn that one of his clients tells his friends that he enjoys being bound and urinated on; the client offers with a shrug, “”Yeah, I’m not hurting anybody.” In another odd and oddly moving vignette, a client’s predilection for dressing like a penguin becomes a metaphor for his warring desires for aggression and intimacy. Bonding depicts these sexual desires as an external means of working out internal struggles – but not obliquely so. When Pete’s straight roommate, Frank (Alex Hurt), asks him to provide anal stimulation for a month’s free rent, the show frames Frank as refreshingly fluid with his sexuality and crafts a funny, awkward and intimate tone. Each of these incidents leads to emotional and physical revelations that reinforce the show’s philosophy; namely that consensually pushing your boundaries can mean breaking down the (stifling) walls that you have built to protect yourself, and thus liberate you.
Tiff’s job as a dominatrix isn’t positioned as a problem, but the fact that she is using that identity to distance herself from others and try to control the world is. The show frequently hints at a dark episode in Tiff’s past that it only alludes to, but it makes her ultimate revelation — that she can use her story and sexual agency to do good in the world — all the more satisfying. It isn’t an accident that Tiff is studying psychology, Bonding offers frequent and fascinating parallels between therapists and Tiff’s dominatrix alter-ego, leading to a layered discussion about the costs and benefits of role-playing.
Bonding‘s first season only runs for seven episodes, and each episode is less than 20 minutes, meaning that some of the most interesting aspects of the show can feel… suffocated. For example, Pete’s will-they-won’t-they with Josh (Theo Stockman) seems to happen at warp speed, rendering their romantic arc somewhat unconvincing. Equally, Pete and Tiff’s reconciliation after a potentially friendship-ending fight happens so quickly and so easily that it betrays the nuances of their argument.
Still, it’s remarkable how many tones and genres the show can juggle in such a short running time. Tiff’s burgeoning romance with her classmate Doug (a wonderfully oddball Micah Stock) plays like a genuinely affecting, dirty rom-com and the show is equally sure-footed when it switches into sex-farce and relationship drama modes. Bonding’s short length makes it eminently binge-able, whilst allowing it to skip the mid-season lull that plagues so many recent Netflix Originals; mostly resulting in a season that is light on its feet and spry.
Bonding wouldn’t work if it weren’t for such strong central performances. Zoe Levin excels in a difficult role that requires her to do much of the emotional heavy lifting. It can be tricky to play the emotional beats of a character who has a lot of strength yet has misinterpreted the source of it, but Levin offers real nuance to a character who doesn’t know whether, or how, to change. It is a testament to the writing on Bonding that Tiff has such a clearly defined arc, but Levin is the one who makes the transformation convincing. Levine subtly reveals the ways that Tiff’s dominatrix identity gives her a sense of control as well as how her performance puts her self-esteem on shaky ground. It’s a performance that’s prickly yet humanized; a mix that’s particularly appealing when Tiff’s relationship with Doug begins to blossom and she is forced to question some of her protective instincts.
Brendan Scannell as Pete, whom some may know from the fascinating but short-lived Heathers TV reboot (Paramount, 2018), is a full-fledged delight to watch. Pete, as the one introduced into the BDSM world, acts as an audience surrogate for many of the episodes and Scannell is excellent at showing the character’s reticence without making him look like a rube. It’s a funny performance, but not a cartoonish one. When the audience is introduced to Pete, he is somewhat of a sad-sack cliché, but by embracing the accoutrements of niche sex work he gains emotional and creative bravery. This could come across as a rote self-empowerment narrative, albeit in an unusual milieu, but Scannell offers enough shading that Pete’s journey is genuinely affecting and surprising.
Bonding‘s conclusion is obvious but refreshingly refined. Identity, Bonding assures the audience, isn’t a zero-sum game; you can want to dominate but be delicate, crave emotional intimacy but desire sexual anonymity, seek out restrictions in order to appreciate freedom. Here, sexual identities are outfits that offer pleasures and pitfalls, something fun and personal and experimental and the only wrong move is letting someone else pick the outfit for you.
Rightor Doyle, who works double duty here as director and writer for each episode of the show, has created something refreshingly complex; a sweet and salty show about the roles we assume in the world. Bonding is a funny and heartfelt story about living the life you deserve by shining a light on all the parts of yourself that you were told you had to hide.