Bob Ross’s public-access painting show, The Joy of Painting, ran for 400 episodes between 1983 and 1994, ending just before the host’s untimely death from cancer. Ross’s simple painting methods promised viewers that even they could learn to create gorgeous landscapes on canvas with simple, easy-to-learn strokes of the brush. The show and its soft-spoken creator have regained visibility in the past half-decade thanks to Twitch streams and viral memes. Naturally, Ross’s likeness and painting methods have become a commercial empire of bobbleheads, Chia pets, painting sets, workshops, clothes. The amount of Bob Ross merchandise extends to any conceivable product with room on the package for a little picture of his iconic perm and warm smile. But who profits?
Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, and Greed is a salacious title for what amounts to a 90-minute airing of grievances for his son, Steven Ross, who, in 2016, sued Bob Ross Inc. and the Kowalski family. The Kowalskis started the company with Bob and his late wife, Jane, back in the 1980s. After Jane died, the management agreement — which had split decision-making responsibilities among Bob, Jane and the two Kowalskis — created a power imbalance that left Bob without much influence over his own commercial affairs. After Bob died, the Kowalskis entered litigation to ensure complete control over everything with the Bob Ross name — excluding Steven, who went into exile for 20 years before mounting his lawsuit against them. In 2019, his lawsuit was denied, and he has since offered his own painting workshops.
The documentary promises new details about Bob himself, but the bulk of the running time consists of Steven speaking fondly of his father and owning up to some rockiness in their relationship that comes across as the usual sort of conflict between a father and a teenage son. By the time Bob passed on, he and Steven had a close relationship. Steven witnessed Bob’s growing distrust of the Kowalskis. Other interviewees have nothing bad to say about Bob. He was reportedly as big-hearted off-screen as he was on-screen. The only detail that comes out is that he once had an affair, but his marriage survived it and it was not, according to this documentary, a recurring pattern of behavior. One interviewee chalks Bob’s infidelity up to how the art community operated in the 1970s: “Everyone was sleeping with everyone,” he laughs.
Frankly, the most frustrating part of this documentary is that it presents Steven’s lawsuit at face value. It seems clear from the interviews that Steven was being used by an heir to the Weber company, a paint-supply empire, to make up for its loss of the Bob Ross license in 2016. There is also clear legal documentation available that Bob’s brother (to whom he left his estate) signed over rights to the Ross brand to the Kowalskis.
What happened with the Ross name and likeness really sucks for his heirs, but it’s also entirely legal and renders most of this documentary nothing more than visual frustration from the parties who wound up on the losing side. It’s such a guileless piece of filmmaking that it doesn’t even try to make a broader point about litigation surrounding famous figures. The lawsuit Steven was encouraged to launch when prepping his own line of paints for the Weber company was, capitalism-wise, as spurious as anything the Kowalskis have done with the Ross name. The impression the documentary gives, perhaps unintentionally, was that Steven’s partners in the lawsuit misled him.
So there’s really nothing here to warrant the documentary’s title, which is obviously designed to cash in on people’s fondness for Bob Ross. It will no doubt pop up in a “recommended” tab for those watching The Joy of Painting, which Netflix currently airs. Nothing here challenges the notion that Ross was a good person. All this documentary establishes is that Bob was swept up in the machinery of consumer capitalism and that his name, likeness and demeanor were posthumously converted into a lucrative empire, his son was left out of the proceeds, and a massive art-supply company tried to play hardball after losing a license to sell products using his name. Not very interesting.