Great News! Bob Ross is Still an Unproblematic King

Netflix documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed doesn’t upend the wholesome vibes of the painting prince.

Bob Ross
Photo: Netflix

This article contains spoilers for Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed.

The trailer for Netflix documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed doesn’t say much but still promises a lot. 

Only a little over 30 second long, the teaser clip features creepy chimes, telltale black and white true crime imagery, and the provocative text: “We want to show you the trailer for Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed but we can’t. Find out why on August 25.”

Wow! Netflix, arguably the most powerful media entity on the planet, is so spooked at the raw truth of a Bob Ross documentary that it’s hesitant to even share it with the public. This is a streaming service that premiered Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness just last year. And in case you needed a reminder on that thing’s whole deal, that was a docuseries that began with someone having their arm torn off by a tiger and then got only more intense and weird from there. 

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Surely, this Bob Ross news is going to be so Earth-shattering that the pop culture landscape will never recover. Ross, the genial landscape artist who brought his love of art to generations with The Joy of Painting on PBS is a pop culture saint alongside the likes of LeVar Burton, Fred Rogers, and Shari Lewis. Uncovering any kind of dirt on the Bob Ross story would be akin to hiring a creep to replace Alex Trebek on Jeopardy!: unthinkable. 

Well, Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed arrived on Wednesday with little fanfare or buzz. And that’s probably because the big Bob Ross revelations that the documentary posits are as follows:

  1. Bob Ross was a sexy guy who had one (1) affair.
  2. The prices on his licensed merchandise were a bit too high.
  3. His producers are dicks who are trying to control his estate with an iron fist.

To be clear, the documentary is mostly concerned with that last bit. One can deduce that the reason why Netflix was hesitant to reveal a trailer was for fear of litigation. Much of the documentary surrounds the actions of Walter and Annette Kowalski, the producers who discovered Ross, exploited his labor, and who now control his assets against the will of Bob’s family. 

Still, in light of the influx of “this is the craziest story ever!” documentary filmmaking of late, Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed feels unacceptably sparse. There’s certainly a story about greed to be told in here, it just needed more time to develop (and for more subjects to feel comfortable to be interviewed without fear of legal reprisal). 

Ultimately, this documentary is more a failure of marketing than a failure of filmmaking. The doc, produced by husband and wife duo Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone and directed by Joshua Rofé, doesn’t set up the same sense of grandiosity as its trailer does. The film is surprisingly (and sometimes frustratingly) up front about its limitations. Its interview base is slight, its focus is narrow, and even its physical evidence is lacking – the story’s climax makes mention of tapes that Ross made before dying at 52 from Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma but never uncovers said tapes. 

It also must be said that the folks behind the documentary clearly have love for Bob Ross and the years of wholesome entertainment he provided. The screeners that Netflix provided for critics were accompanied by a 14-page document that featured a lengthy narrative quoting McCarthy, Falcone, and Rofé about why they wanted to make the film. Falcone and McCarthy recount how their difficulties in trying to find an original Bob Ross painting to give the other as a gift further intrigued them.

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“In today’s age, that made no sense to me, when you can find anything about anybody in four seconds, and I was looking for simple stuff,” Falcone said. “That spurred us into just being really curious about, ‘Why is there no stuff?’”

McCarthy, Falcone, and Rofé ultimately get Ross’s son Steven willing to speak on the record for the documentary. That is no small feat as the younger Ross has not made himself available for interviews before. But it’s still not enough to elevate non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma to required viewing.

The documentary, however, does something far more important than entertain or enlighten: it maintains the mythical legacy of Bob Ross. Because if the only skeleton in the perm-haired prince’s closet is the estate battle he left behind, then perhaps he really is the unproblematic king we all need right now.

Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed is available to stream on Netflix now.