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Bonding Season 2 Proves Good Things Come in Small Packages

The bite-sized episodes pack a lot of BDSM and some real heart, as well.
  • Bonding's Tiff (Zoe Levin) and Pete (Brendan Scannell). (Photo: Netflix)
    Bonding's Tiff (Zoe Levin) and Pete (Brendan Scannell). (Photo: Netflix)

    It's easy to get caught up in the buzz surrounding Netflix's biggest projects — its Oscar-bound movie slate, its partnerships with Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes, the latest Tiger King-like sensation — but the streaming behemoth has opened the door for smaller projects, as well. In this post-Quibi world, one might write off all shorter-than-a-half-hour TV shows as artifacts of a failed system, but Netflix has proven that series can thrive when given flexible episode lengths.

    In 2019, Netflix scored with a pair of comedies whose episodes clocked in between 15 and 20 minutes: Special and Bonding. The the latter returns this week with a second season of adventures featuring our favorite BDSM sex workers, Tiff (Zoe Levin) and Pete (Brendan Scannell).

    Bonding 's first season saw two former high school best friends reunite in their 20s; he needs money, and she's a fledgling dominatrix who goes by the moniker Mistress May, so he takes a job as her assistant. Calling himself "Carter," Pete awkwardly wades into the world of BDSM sex play and bondage (hey, like the title!), and ultimately he and Tiff bond (hey, like the title!). Created, written, and directed by Rightor Doyle, the series was originally meant for the short-form streaming video platform Blackpills when Netflix acquired it, and the episodes were indeed brief, punchy, and delightfully frank about the sex-positive subculture in which the story took place.

    By the end of Season 1, Pete and Tiff had a good little business going, even if the sitcommy scrapes they kept getting into (the Season 1 finale involved a stabbing and a hasty getaway) made them somewhat notorious within their industry. Season 2 feels less hijinx-y and touristy about its BDSM subject matter, as the show eases into being a relationship comedy, halfway between Broad City and something like The Other Two. With their reputation within the BDSM community bottoming out (so to speak), Tiff and Pete end up going back to basics. Literally, in this case, as they end up taking a Dom 101 course with Tiff's mentor, Mistress Mira (Nana Mensah), in order to prove they actually know what they're doing.

    But while Tiff and Pete are getting the fundamentals down, Bonding itself has managed to become quite the nimble comedy. Tiff gets rocked in the season's first episode when her affable bro boyfriend Doug (Micah Stock) ends up back in the orbit of his ex-fiancé, Gina (Vanessa Rubio). Meanwhile, Pete discovers that his boyfriend, Josh (Theo Stockman), isn't out at his workplace or to his family. You think you know where the storylines are going, but Doyle and the writers do a good job sending the show on odd and illuminating detours. For example, Pete's stand-up comedy career has gotten a huge boost from incorporating his dom persona into his act. Scannell plays Pete's awkwardness and his burgeoning confidence (sexual and otherwise) as a kind of internal tug-of-war, and it's especially compelling in Season 2.

    Both Levin and Scannell, in fact, are great at letting their characters burrow into their own crises while keeping the central Tiff-and-Pete friend dynamic at the show's center. The show would feel a lot more meandering if their performances weren't constantly grounding things in a friendship that feels deeply important to both characters. Does Tiff need to cut Pete out of her professional gig in order to take her own career as a dom more seriously? Is Pete feeling like a sideshow in his own life? The dominant/submissive themes of the show make it easy to interpret every character beat as a kind of power struggle, and the show takes that in some interesting directions.

    Occasionally the plotlessness gives way to a kind of position-paper treatise on the rights and dignity of sex workers. Not to say that such things aren't important, but Bonding at its best makes this argument self-evident. When a late-season argument crescendos with one character pretty much word-for-word saying "doms are people too," it feels both overly earnest and wholly unnecessary; especially when one of the season's strongest subplots lingers on Mistress Mira — the classic hard-ass mentor with a heart — and her struggles to keep her small business/sex dungeon afloat in trying economic times.

    Season 2 of Bonding feels less pressured to wow its audience with the ins and outs (so to speak) of the bondage industry, which gives the show a unique vibe as a kind of BDSM hangout show. And yet there's a quietly revolutionary streak running throughout that keeps insisting on queerness as a door towards problem solving in very fun and even poignant ways. An old friend of Tiff's seeks out her dominatrix expertise in order to help her achieve a long-elusive orgasm. Pete's straight roommate finds both solace and self-actualization by getting a job as a go-go boy at the local leather bar. Which isn't to say that queerness and an openness to kink is a cure-all, as Pete's own relationship woes end up hitting dead ends that even leather-bar twink incest play can't cure.

    It's that kind of sexually open but affably absurd humor that keeps Bonding Season 2 moving along over the course of eight zippy episodes. Nothing lingers too long or feels too drawn out. By season's end, you're left wanting more, but in a TV landscape where we're too often wanting less, that's a refreshingly good thing.

    Bonding Season 2 drops on Netflix January 27th.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Bonding, Netflix, Brendan Scannell, Zoe Levin