You have to love a show that defies expectations.
Bonding is just such a show, and trust me, it is a very easy show to love.
Set in the world of BDSM sex, where people pay to have their fetishistic fantasies enacted, Bonding tells the story of long time friends, Tiffany (Zoe Levin) and Pete (Brendan Scannell) who have both ended up in New York City after growing up in the far more conservative surrounds of the state of Georgia.
Have drifted apart somewhat after an awkward incident towards the end of high school that left an uncomfortable schism between them, the two besties reunite when Tiffany, a psychiatry student, daughter of born-again Christians (she makes a point of reminding Pete of this) and dominatrix known as Mistress May (helps pay the living and tuition) bills, employs her onetime gay BFF Peter, or Master Carter as he becomes known, as her assistant.
On the surface, the two couldn’t be more different.
Tiffany is, in her own words, “a bitch”, who works hard to repel all those who would try to get to know her, especially Doug (Micah Stock), a fellow student who appears to be your typical douchebag bro’ until a very emotionally-honest presentation in class reveals him to be nothing of the sort.
He admits, at one pint, that she kinda terrifies him, with her every utterance couched in a “don’t fuck with me!” tone that suggests probing too deeply could lead to your doom.
Pete, on the other hand, is as meek as they come, a personality trait that disguises someone who, as Tiffany observes, is braver than he thinks.
An aspiring stand-up comedian who has yet to take the stage, and who is facing some substantial cash flow problems after his parents turned off the money tap, Pete struggles to turn his inner ballsy, snarky gay into someone who is similarly prepossessed in the real world.
Bringing him on board will, Tiffany predicts, be good for him, and Bonding, loosely based on the experiences of creator Rightor Doyle, does a brilliant job, in short episodes that range from 12 to 17 minutes long, of conveying how this unusual arrangement proves manifestly powerful in the changing the lives of both characters, and the friendship they mostly enjoy, for the better.
Astonishingly, the show accomplishes all of this in very short, sustained bursts that never once feel rushed or half-done.
In fact, quite a few shows could learn a lot from the way Bonding delivers fully fleshed-out characters, plots that hit the heart and the head in equal measure, and salient life lessons that feel warm, human and very real, and as far from preachy as you can get. (For which Tiffany, sorry Mistress May, is no doubt supremely thankful.)
You never feel as if you’re getting shortchanged, with Bonding, which defies expectations at every single point in gloriously-watchable fashion, offering up storylines that speak to the need all of us have to be connected in a way that feels meaningful and sustained.
The show transcends any assumptions you might make about what a program in the world of the dominatrix might be like, starting with Tiffany’s strident defense that it isn’t about sex but liberation from shame.
That’s not strictly speaking true since many of her clients do get a sexual charge from their sessions with Mistress May, but her point is that overwhelmingly, seeing a dominatrix is about the freedom to be yourself, something that both Tiffany and Pete struggle with significantly at several moments in the immersively-good first season.
With the premise gleefully subverted, assumptions of the kinds of people Tiffany and Pete are, and what they want from life, are beautifully challenged, as they are for all the characters from Doug to star-of-the-class Kate (Stephanie Styles), Professor Charles (Kevin Kane) who teaches the class through to Josh (Theo Stockman) who ends up connecting on a profound level with Pete.
With elegant ease and warm, affecting simplicity, Bonding takes every expectation we might have about the show and its highly-likable characters, a narrative intent that extends even to the shocking final episode which does even come close to ending the way you think it might.
At every turn, this delightful show, and it is delightful in every single way, reaffirms the rich humanity of everyone involved, and that by making judgements about other people, we are robbing ourselves of truly getting to know them, and the objects of our judgement of the freedom to be themselves without censure, which is, if you think about it, all any of us want.
Bonding tackles this in an affecting but understated way head-on during conversation between Tiffany and Pete, who realise that each of them have struggled in different ways to be truly honest about who they are.
This mutual revelation, though not on the same level as a Damascene conversion, nevertheless plays a pivotal role in changing how they treat themselves, their interactions with others, and the future trajectory of their lives.
For a show about something ostensibly bold and brassy, and the subject, more often than not, of prurient fascination, Bonding is surprisingly intimate, heartfelt and emotionally warm, testament to the fact that our assumptions are worth little when it comes to how people actually are and how they lives their lives, and that we’d do well to get to know people first before judging, or better yet, not judging in the first place.