When Bonding first hit Netflix in spring 2019, there hadn’t been much else like it in mainstream television. In its story of Tiff (Zoe Levin), a college student who moonlights as a dominatrix by the name of Mistress May, and her friend Pete (Brendan Scannell), a comedian who Tiff convinces to become her assistant, Bonding positioned itself as a stylish, funny, and sex-positive series that didn’t shy away from its kinks. Based on the real-life experiences of creator Rightor Doyle, Bonding set its odd-couple buddy comedy against the backdrop of the dominatrix community, hoping to turn stereotypes about BDSM on their head. But soon after the premiere, some viewers began voicing disappointment in how the show portrayed said community, propagating certain negative stereotypes, and taking a too casual approach to how its characters negotiated consent—a fundamental facet of any dom/sub dynamic—or any relationship, for that matter.
With sex workers and the BDSM community calling out Bonding’s inaccuracies and reprimanding its ultimately harmful portrayal of the industry, Doyle spoke with The Daily Beast, responding to the backlash: “I am very much listening to what the community has to say. The discourse happening on Twitter is important and I receive it fully. I am glad that these many differing opinions are being heard in an impactful way.” Acknowledging the series’ shortcomings, Doyle expressed interest in using it as a learning opportunity, to take a more conscientious approach should Netflix green-light more episodes. “Though it is based on a small chapter in my life and I did consult people in the community prior to filming, if given the opportunity to make more, I would be thrilled to invite a wide array of people into the conversation to deepen and enrich our knowledge of the world.”
Two years later, there still isn’t much like Bonding on television, and its second season (premiering on Netflix January 27) presents a unique opportunity to show what it’s learned, to do right by the underrepresented community at the heart of its story. Seconds into its first episode, it’s clear that Bonding isn’t going to let itself—or its characters—off the hook, sending Tiff and Pete back to “Domme 101” under the tutelage of Tiff’s old mentor, Mistress Mira (Nana Mensah). For star Zoe Levin, that meant learning more about the lives of dominatrices, and working alongside a BDSM consultant and intimacy coordinator, who would help shape Tiff’s story in season two. Levin continues to bring a sharp humor to Tiff both on and off the clock, and these new episodes are an even stronger showcase for the actor as Bonding peels back Tiff’s layers and examines how her vocation has led her to a more fulfilling life. Recently, The A.V. Club spoke with Levin about the comedy’s surprising evolution and how its more informed perspective on BDSM affected Tiff’s relationships, both with her friends and herself.
The A.V. Club: It’s been almost two years since the first season of Bonding hit Netflix, and you had filmed the season well before that.
Zoe Levin: Yeah, we shot in 2017!
AVC: Right, so it’s been a long journey! What was it like to jump back into the world of the show for season two.
ZL: This season was shot at the beginning of 2020, so we shot it January and February in New York City. I think I left the first week of March? Literally, a week before the city was shut down [because of COVID-19]. So I’m still a little flustered from that because, you know, I’m so grateful that we were able to make the show before the pandemic, otherwise I don’t know when we would have shot it or when it would’ve come out, because it’d already been so long.
AVC: Especially for a show like this, where there’s a lot of close contact.
ZL: It’s crazy because now when I’m watching TV—and even this show—I start to get anxiety about people being in crowds or too close together. I’m like, “Where’s the hand sanitizer? Where are the masks?” It’s kind of crazy how the world has just been flipped upside down.
AVC: It’s fascinating to see how Bonding has evolved. Almost immediately, these new episodes acknowledge the show’s past missteps and put Tiff on a path toward being a more thoughtful and safe dominatrix. What did Bonding learn from the season one feedback, and how did that change things for you as an actor on set?
ZL: One of the first things that we started to talk about when we found out we were going to shoot a season two was, “Okay, we need a consultant.” Because season one was really about telling a version of Rightor’s experience in BDSM, being his friend’s bodyguard, who was a dominatrix, when they were [younger]. And I came on to this project not knowing anything about what a dominatrix does—the logistics of it all, the legal side of it all—like, anything, really. I came in as an actress to tell this story. What we realized when the show dropped was that there was a bigger conversation to be had. So we really put our nose to the ground and worked hard to bring in real, professional dominatrixes and professional sex workers.
And we had a BDSM consultant, Troy, who was with us the whole time, and I was lucky enough to go to her studio where she has all of the pro dom equipment. She really walked me through the logistics of bondage, which I think is—it blew my mind. What was really cool about working with Troy was that it wasn’t just a conversation about, like, “Okay, how can we get this right? How can we bring in sex workers?” We had a lot of conversations about shame and taboo, too, and why people get into sex work. I feel like oftentimes it’s portrayed in television as either circumstantial or forced, like sex trafficking, but we don’t often see this choice to be a sex worker, and what that looks like. And I think that is really what we got to explore, because there’s this whole world where it’s a choice. You know, everyone has their own story, but I think for Tiff, it’s very empowering for her, and it teaches her a lot about herself and her relationships to her friends, her family, to the world.
AVC: So much of season two really is about relationships, in the broad sense, and the role consent plays even in a platonic relationship between friends.
ZL: Especially at this time in the world—I live with my boyfriend and it’s like, “Let’s talk about boundaries, let’s talk about consent, let’s talk about intimacy.” Like, “What does intimacy mean to you? What does it mean to me? Do I feel safe being intimate with you?” Intimacy is not always a sexual thing.
Pia Mellody wrote a book [The Intimacy Factor: The Ground Rules For Overcoming The Obstacles To Truth, Respect, And Lasting Love], and she’s a psychologist who talks about intimacy being the ability to share your reality with someone in a safe way—that really resonates with me. For Tiff, she never had a sense of safety to be intimate with anyone, and I think she found that sense of safety in Pete. And now she’s learning to kind of come out of her shell and learn what intimacy means with more than just her old best friend. But in terms of how she navigates all of her relationships in the world.
AVC: We do see Tiff start to find a community of her own, one that she’s comfortable with. That comes, in part, through her mentor, Mistress Mira, played by Nana Mensah. What was your experience like working with Nana?
ZL: Nana is such a calming force. When I was around her, I just felt so grounded. She’s so powerful, and it was so interesting watching [the season] back, because I think—for the first time—we see Tiff in kind of a submissive role. Rightor is, I would say, pretty good at casting [Laughs.]. He brought in Nana, and I thought she was so perfect for the role because she has this power, this authority, that makes you want to listen. I think Tiff is a tricky one to silence, and she comes back to [Mistress Mira’s] dungeon with her tail between her legs, having to work her way back into [her] good graces. With the power that Nana brought to the character, it just worked—it felt so natural. As an actress, sometimes it’s hard to separate yourself from the character on set, and I was like [In a hushed voice.], “Does she like me? What does she think about me?” I found myself thinking that, and I was like, “Well, that’s probably a good feeling to have.”
AVC: Nana is credited for co-writing some of the episodes as well.
ZL: Right! Rightor is all ears. He’s just truly amazing about that. Instead of reacting to the criticism from the sex work community, I think he really took the opportunity to shut up and listen. And Brendan and I really followed suit because we really trust Rightor, and because it was such a collaborative experience to begin with. And I think that was such a big theme of this whole year—just like, “If you don’t know, maybe just shut up and listen.” So there was a lot to learn.
When I got the scripts, I was like, “Whoa, this is different and cool and really interesting.” And then getting to set, having Troy there, having real doms there—getting to talk to them about their life, their work, and the restrictions that the law puts on them—it was so interesting. And I’m just really grateful that Rightor really took the opportunity to shine a light on things that are really unknown [to the general population] about the sex work industry.
AVC: The second season also further interrogates the not-always-symbiotic relationship between Tiff and Pete. You and Brendan first met on the set of season one, but you’ve become such close friends in the interim—how did that affect what you brought to these characters?
ZL: Brendan and I were talking the other day about the first time that we met on set and our impressions of each other. It’s funny because I think everyone expected me to show up and be kind of cold and standoffish and… dominant. Brendan’s character is a little bit more warm, friendly, and loving. But I think we’re pretty much the opposite. Brendan walked in [on the first day of shooting], I see him, and I’m like, “Oh, my god!” I gave him a huge hug, and he was like, “I don’t know you—what’s going on?” So that was interesting to me, that we were so different in real life from our characters.
But Brendan is one of my best friends—I have his sewing machine under my table right now—like, I see him most days, I talk to him every day. And it was hard because—I don’t want to ruin anything, but we had more time in the season and more storylines to explore, which meant that Brendan and I didn’t get to spend as much time on camera with each other. Whenever Brendan and I work together on set, we just get each other. We work so well together. We lift each other up. And that’s really all you can ask for in a costar. So it was also cool because I wasn’t there on the days when he shot all of his stuff, so for me, I got to watch this whole new show. It was all new to me.
But season one we were there together every single day. We didn’t have trailers. We were sitting on the cold ground in a shitty apartment where we were shooting in the next room. So, yeah, getting to shoot through Netflix was a little different.
AVC: The first season of Bonding was produced independently, so this time around, it feels a bit bigger. There’s definitely a Netflix budget.
ZL: The whole thing is crazy. It’s just crazy how, even six or seven years ago when I did Red Band Society, I think it was only House Of Cards on Netflix. There is just so much more opportunity now, so many more platforms to make content. I always had a feeling it would get picked up because Rightor’s so freaking talented, and Nate [Hurtsellers], the DP, is amazing. I walked into this set, and we had no money for season one, but Rightor made it look so beautiful. And the costumes—Lucy [Hawkins] was amazing. It was just incredible, we all worked so well together, and it was just such a fun, thrilling experience that I had a feeling something was going to happen. Luckily, it did. And, luckily, we got to do it again
AVC: For someone who might come to this show with only a surface-level understanding of BDSM culture, what do you hope they take away from the second season?
ZL: For me, the hope is that they see BDSM and sex work and bondage in a different light than they normally do. Because, what we have seen in TV and film is the very stereotypical version of what we only think BDSM is. But there’s really a whole world and community that I certainly knew nothing about, and I’m hoping that people open up their ears and listen. Because these pro doms and sex workers are working and struggling to fight for their rights just to promote themselves—to have a Twitter account, to have an Instagram account! Things we take for granted that they don’t have access to. And we just need to listen. You know, I still don’t know everything—I’m not a professional dominatrix. So we just need to listen to what the sex work community is saying.
AVC: Not to get too optimistic, but I’d hope that, with the new administration, there can be room for a more nuanced and informed discussion about sex work, to decriminalize it.
ZL: One thing that really struck me about the SESTA/FOSTA bill—that I previously knew nothing about, that was passed a year before Bonding came out —I didn’t understand what was happening at first when the sex work community was so irritated by the fact that Mistress May had a Twitter account. But now I really understand that these pro doms and sex workers didn’t have that right. It’s that a TV show—that is about what their life is about—was able to do that and not deal with the consequences. So that really opened up my mind. Like, “What are they fighting for? And how can I help? How can I be a voice? How can I lend a hand?” So it’s about trying to educate the general public about their struggles.
Zoe Levin in Bonding (Photo: Netflix), at a Bonding screening event in Beverly Hills (Photo: Presley Ann/Getty Images), and in Bonding (Photo: Netflix); Graphic: Natalie Peeples