Netflix’s Bob Ross Documentary Is a Giant Bait-and-Switch

"Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed" doesn't unveil any major scandal related to Ross himself

August 26, 2021 11:52 am
Bob Ross
Bob Ross in "The Joy of Painting"

You’d be forgiven if upon hearing the title of Netflix’s new Bob Ross documentary, you expected a salacious revelation or two about the genteel host of The Joy of Painting. Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed sounds ominous, and the streaming service went out of its way to keep the film shrouded in mystery up until its release this week.

The trailer for the film, which was directed by Joshua Rofé (the man behind recent docs Sasquatch and Lorena), doesn’t reveal much of anything. Instead, it shows a black-and-white still photo of Ross over some creepy-sounding music, while text overlaid on top of the image reads, “WE WANT TO SHOW YOU THE TRAILER FOR BOB ROSS: HAPPY ACCIDENTS, BETRAYAL & GREED, BUT WE CAN’T. FIND OUT WHY ON AUG. 25.” A man’s voice in the background can be heard saying, “I’ve been wanting to get this story out for all these years.”

Given the truly damning scandals we’ve seen so many celebrities find themselves entangled in recently, viewers are naturally going to assume that the big bombshell teased by Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed actually has something to do with Ross himself. That would be a shocker, considering his on-screen persona; can a guy who used to serenely coo about “happy little trees” on his television show really be some sort of monster in real life? What sort of demons or heinous transgressions were we so blissfully unaware of for all these years?

It turns out none, really. Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed does delve into a few alleged marital affairs Ross had (though all of those relationships were, by all accounts, fully consensual and not anything that would seriously tarnish the painting instructor’s legacy) and reveal that his famous curly hairdo was actually a perm. But mostly it focuses on the shadiness of his business partners, Annette and Walter Kowalski, and the way they allegedly bullied and sued their way into controlling his empire.

Ross co-founded Bob Ross, Incorporated with the Kowalskis after meeting them at a painting workshop. They encouraged him to break out on his own (leaving Bill Alexander, whom he’d been apprenticing for, behind) and helped broker the deal with PBS for The Joy of Painting, which ran from 1983 to 1994. However, the doc alleges that the couple began insisting Ross prioritize profit over everything, and after his cancer diagnosis, they allegedly spent the final year of his life trying to get him to sign over the rights to his name and likeness.

Eventually, they sued and secured those rights — meaning Ross’s son Steve, who appears in the documentary, has not seen a penny of the millions of dollars generated off of his father’s name and legacy in the past 26 years, even though Ross apparently intended for Steve and his half-brother to be joint beneficiaries of his intellectual property rights. (Steve Ross sued the Kowalskis but lost and is now left with little-to-no legal recourse.)

It’s an interesting (and of course, maddening) tale of a celebrity being taken advantage of by those looking to profit off of their success. But it is also not at all what we were led to believe we were getting. Netflix likely knew that they’d get more people to tune in if they let them believe that there was something unseemly (or potentially even criminal) buried in the past of the man who always presented himself as a nice, harmless hippie who just really loved painting landscapes. But by baiting-and-switching viewers, they’re taking away from what is otherwise a perfectly watchable documentary. It’s impossible to fully enjoy something when you feel like you’ve been tricked into watching it. The way they chose to market this film was no happy accident, and it reeks of the same greed that the doc accuses the Kowalskis of giving in to.

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