Golden showers, anal fingering and erotic tickling all figure prominently in “Bonding,” Netflix’s short-form series steeped in BDSM culture. Though creator Rightor Doyle wanted the new comedy to be freewheeling about sexual proclivities some may consider taboo, he had one unlikely stipulation.
“There’s no nudity in the show,” Doyle, an actor currently seen as Nick Nicholby on HBO’s “Barry,” told HuffPost. “I was trying very hard to talk about sexuality and about people’s internal needs, and I felt like exploiting people’s external bodies would be beside the point. What you actually end up with is a story about two flawed people who are just trying to understand themselves and each other.” (Catch the series trailer above.)
“Bonding,” which debuted on Netflix last month, follows Tiff (played by Zoe Levin), who is a psychiatry student at a New York-based university by day, but a dominatrix known as “Mistress May” to her clients by night. At the start of the pilot, Tiff is newly reconnected with Pete (Brendan Scannell), a gay pal from high school. An aspiring comedian, Pete finds his efforts to break into Manhattan’s stand-up circuit thwarted by stage fright.
Things begin looking up once Tiff enlists Pete to serve as Mistress May’s assistant. Reborn as “Master Carter,” Pete’s confidence in both his sexuality and comedic talents is renewed. Tiff, meanwhile, discovers her alter ego pays emotional (and academic) dividends by day, too. Whether or not their friends and prospective partners will embrace their dabbling in sex work, however, is another story.
Doyle — who wrote, directed and executive produced all seven “Bonding” episodes —drew heavily on personal experience when developing the show’s concept. In 2006, the Louisiana native spent six months serving as the bodyguard for a dominatrix friend shortly after graduating from New York’s Bard College to supplement his income while searching for work as an actor.
As his career began to take off, Doyle relocated to Los Angeles, where his brief bodyguard stint “became this thing I kept secret for a long time.” The short-lived gig, however, left him forever changed — for one thing, he came out to his family as gay at around the same time.
“I began to see how much it had shaped a lot of my ideas about sex and sexuality and what people hold inside of them and what they choose to reveal about themselves and how freeing that can be — to release yourself from shame in some way to someone,” he added.
Over time, Doyle recalled the experience for a few friends and his manager, and by 2015, he’d firmed up the idea for “Bonding.” The show was unabashedly queer from the get-go; not only is Pete a vibrant gay man, but several episodes feature supporting characters having sexual experiences with both male and female partners, regardless of how they identify.
“I do feel like I have a responsibility to tell queer stories, and I want to,” he said. “I love talking about gay men and straight women — though that’s been an often-discussed, stereotyped relationship, I like seeing what’s really there. I don’t feel like a stereotype with my best girlfriends, and I don’t think they feel that way either.”
For a visual template, Doyle referenced photographer David LaChapelle and director Pedro Almodóvar — surprising influences, given that their bright, colorful aesthetics seem at odds with the darkness associated with sex dungeons.
“My general idea was that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” he recalled. “I wanted to create a fantastical version of that world, so that the tropes and stereotypes around it would be dismantled a little. So if the room is pink, maybe an audience who didn’t think they would connect to this type of content would walk into that room.”
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In spite of Doyle’s efforts to be “as palatable as possible” in his exploration of sexuality and sex work, “Bonding” encountered a fair share of detractors immediately after its debut. An IndieWire article published in April cited a number of dominatrixes who criticized the show, both in interviews and on social media, for what they described as its inauthentic portrayal of the BDSM community.
“Don’t fucking write a comedy where you haven’t consulted sex workers clearly on the writing,” Jessica Nicole Smith, a dominatrix based in Montreal, said at the time. “No sex worker would write comedy like that. You want a funny comedy? Get a bunch of sex workers to write down the shit they talk about in strip clubs.”
Doyle likened the response to that toward HBO’s “Looking,” the acclaimed Jonathan Groff-led dramedy about a trio of gay men in San Francisco that sparked heavy debate and criticisms from many LGBTQ viewers during its 2014-15 run. Though he hopes “Bonding” will avoid the fate of “Looking,” which was canceled after two seasons, he’s taken note of the critiques, vowing to “broaden the scope of the story” by exploring deeper issues pertinent to the BDSM and sex worker communities in future episodes.
“I have to go with my gut and write from my heart, and try to have a larger understanding while also trying to tell a story that’s true to me,” Doyle said. “I think that any sort of defense of my intentions with the show belittles what [critics are] trying to say, so I’m here to listen. It can only further educate me and the audience as we move forward with the show.”
“What I try to do with the show is make people understand that though they may not have an exact sexual proclivity, they have some version of it in their life,” he continued. “It’s a way of talking about power — particularly sexual power — in a small, intimate setting. Ultimately, I’m so proud of the conversations we’ve started.”