If you’re one of the millions who tuned in to the last season of Game of Thrones, you might be looking to binge something a little lighter. Maybe a show that doesn’t follow the trauma, politics and dragon-slaying of a dozen or so characters.
In the past few months, Netflix has released some shows with 15-minute episodes—the perfect length for those recovering from GOT fatigue. I recently binged three of these series. Together, they consist of 21 episodes and clock in under 6 hours. The short runtime makes for a refreshing break from intense, hour-long dramas. However, two of these shows also have to tackle the challenge of building plot and developing characters within a tight space. The question is, are these shows even worth the short time commitment? Let’s see how they did:
Special tells the story of a gay man with cerebral palsy navigating new friendships, a job, his desire for independence and his disability identity. Oh, and it stars Ryan O’Connell, a gay man with cerebral palsy who also wrote the show. This is big, like, really big. In recent years, we’ve seen Hollywood take some baby steps to becoming more inclusive of people with disabilities, such as in the casting for A Quiet Place and Speechless. But boy, these are only a couple exceptions to a gross pattern of disability representation.
With Special, we get a semi-autobiographical portrayal of Ryan’s experiences as a gay man living with cerebral palsy, not some hoky inspiration porn written from a nondisabled person’s perspective. The show explores the intersection of sexuality and disability in truly unforgettable scenes, while also examining the nuances of disability identity.
But unfortunately there’s a lot to be desired from Special. O’Connell is the sole writer of the show, which is dumb. Seriously Netflix, how did you let that happen? There’s a reason why shows have teams of writers, people to bounce ideas off of so that the end product actually works. O’Connell’s humor is defined by witty wordplay, which really shines when he’s lampooning the blogging industry, but sometimes his cute puns don’t allow the interactions between characters to come off as authentic.
The show’s biggest struggle, however, is being the first of its kind. O’Connell had an unfair burden on his shoulders to provide the representation that the disability community has been craving, and he sadly failed to deliver. As a 20-something virgin with a clingy mother, the protagonist plays into stereotypes, yet some have found this portrayal realistic to the experiences of many people living with cerebral palsy.
It’s impossible to please everyone, particularly a group as diverse and outspoken as the disability community. But hopefully the show will come back for a second season with a team of writers who can help O’Connell flesh out his characters and delve into the complex issues surrounding disability representation. Maybe longer episodes could also give the show more room to fully explore some nuanced themes. Still, the first season has enough humor and original moments to make it well worth a couple hours of your time.
Cake Rating: Imagine getting the last sad cake available at the grocery store for your mom’s birthday only to realize when you bite into it that there’s a delicious, surprising filling inside. That’s what this show is: disappointing and not fully thought out, but there’s something good here.
Similar to Special, Bonding is a semi-autobiographical series that tackles an oft-misrepresented topic, in this case BDSM. Created by Rightor Doyle, Bonding follows Pete (Brendan Scannell), a struggling gay comedian who gets sucked into becoming an assistant to Tiff (Zoe Levin), a dominatrix. Sounds like a fun concept; it certainly had me hooked. But unfortunately, this series left me cold.
If you thought I ripped on Special’s inauthenticity and stereotypes, get ready. Though I find the relationship between the protagonists compelling and complex, everything else in this show is grossly oversimplified. Some of the worst stereotypes about sex work and fetishes stay firmly intact in a show that tries really hard to come off as progressively sex positive. The dominatrix was sexually abused, because pop culture seems to think all sex workers have experienced sexual trauma. And every single one of her clients comes off as sex-crazed, two-dimensional weirdos. Sure, we shouldn’t not laugh about sex, but we also shouldn’t treat people with fetishes as jokes—especially ones that aren’t funny or at all realistic. We do at least get some moments when we see how the protagonists are empowered by their work, offsetting the ridicule of their clients a little bit.
Don’t even get me started on the creepy professor. Everything about how they treated Tiff’s professor, the sexual harassment of one of his students and his punishment was ludicrous. There isn’t a single classroom scene that comes off as even remotely realistic. An issue as serious as sexual harassment shouldn’t be reduced to false moments of female empowerment and reckoning.
This show has a strong premise, and I enjoy Brendan Scannell’s performance, but everything else about it hits a false note. Like Egg Woke, the online publication in Special, Bonding’s “wokeness” is merely performative. It desperately wants me to believe that getting in front of a classroom in a dominatrix outfit is empowering, but it needed to put more work into creating a believable story, rather than try so hard to pay lip service to progressive sexual politics. Maybe a half hour is necessary to give them more time to fully develop the creepy professor storyline or show a different side to Tiff’s clients, but I think it’ll take more than an extra 15 minutes to make this show as exciting as it thinks it is.
Cake Rating: To make up for the I spent binging this show, I’m going to binge a giant chocolate cake faster than a BBW, and you’re not going to shame me or laugh at me about it, Netflix!
I Think You Should Leave
The second a rowdy crowd booed and yelled expletives at a baby, I knew I was in love. A sketch comedy show is perhaps the most fitting format for 15-minute episodes. There’s no character development or storylines that need time to take shape—just a bunch of jokes, and this show does not fall short on laughs.
Starring and created by Tim Robinson, the skits in I Think You Should Leave are mostly about oddballs who take things way too far. Like most sketch comedies, the show tackles ridiculous societal customs and pop culture tropes, from party gifts to game show gags. What makes this show stand out is its ability to keep you guessing. Right when you think you know where a sketch is going, it takes a sharp left turn into astounding levels of absurdity.
Like any sketch comedy show, some skits fall flat, going on too long or not landing the punchline. But more often than not, they work and occasionally make me laugh so hard that my cat stares at me judgmentally.
How it managed to land on Netflix rather than Adult Swim is a mystery to me, but I’m glad this bizarre series found a home. Look out for special appearances from Andy Samberg (one of the show’s producers), Steven Yeun, Fred Willard and more familiar faces.
Cake Rating: I liked this show a lot, so I really didn’t need anything sweet to help me get through it. But it might be nice to have some stale cookies to throw at people who I want to leave, like an organist who plays cheerful songs at a funeral, someone who doesn’t like my present or a passenger bothering me on an airplane.