Bonding: Sex and life lesson from a dominatrix

Review: Netflix’s new micro-dose series sees a dominatrix and a comedian grapple with the wounds of adolescence

Zoe Levin in Bonding. Photograph: Netflix

Zoe Levin in Bonding. Photograph: Netflix

 

Netflix’s Bonding is more light comedic spanking than full on slap and tickle, with an average episode length of less than 20 minutes. But these micro-doses prove surprisingly potent as creator Rightor Doyle shifts through the gears from spew-in-your-drink chuckles at the expense of the dominatrix industry to a devastating inquiry into the plight of being young, single and misunderstood.

The title is of course a pun. Nervy comedian Pete (real-life American stand-up Brendan Scannell) takes up a job offer from high-school best pal Tiff (Zoe Levin) as assistant to her dominatrix business. He’s a jangling pocketful of jitters – out of the closet yet not really at peace either with his place in the sexual food chain or his career prospects (Pete is a stand-up whose deepest fear is having to go on stage and tell jokes).

Tiff, wielding the bondage whip to pay for her psychology course, is no less troubled we learn by increments. In school she and Pete were the unpopular kids struggling to fit in. His coping mechanism was to retreat within himself; hers’ was to sleep with football players. Neither has emerged from that time intact. Bonding is fundamentally about how you can spend your 20s papering over the psychic wounds incurred during adolescence.

But it is, in addition, a body-horror comedy spattered in fluids of every hue and with set pieces involving sex toys and see-through tarpaulins for cleaning unsightly messes (and a cameo from the Good Place’s D’Arcy Carden). Thus, mileage may vary depending on the viewer’s tolerance for jokes about businessmen who get off on being kidnapped and objects wedged into various dark and cobwebbed places.

Even at its ickiest, though, Scannell and Levin ground Bonding in real human pain. He’s a mess who knows he’s a mess. She, more tragically, is a clutch-purse of hangs-ups and resentments oblivious as to how much pain she is carrying around.

Showrunner Doyle is also an actor, best known for a small part in the HBO hitman-who-wants-to-be-an-actor hit Barry. That series’s dark tone is clearly an influence. Bonding isn’t quite as groundbreaking and at its basest feels like a millennial take on the Farrelly brothers school of 1990s gross-out. Yet it is anchored by sincere performances and, episode by episode, is revealed to be a wrenching drama with erectile dysfunction gags nailed on rather than the other away around.

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