TV: Baby Reindeer

So, wow, Baby Reindeer is making all sorts of noise lately. Not all of it is positive, but it’s definitely a singular viewing experience worth chewing over. Written by and starring Richard Gadd, the series dramatizes events of Gadd’s life, here in the fictional guise of Donny Dunn. Donny’s an aspiring comedian from Scotland living in London. His career isn’t taking off, so he works a day job pulling pints at a pub, where a chance encounter introduces him to Martha Scott (Jessica Gunning). When Martha perches on a nearby barstool in a clear state of sad loneliness, Donny takes pity on her, offering a cup of tea on the house. This spontaneous act of charity turns out to be the first step on a slippery slope, as Martha—a former law student—is a convicted, serial stalker. She takes an aggressive shine to him, one that ultimately threatens to derail every aspect of his life even as it draws out his deepest fears, issues, and insecurities.

There’s no denying the compelling, trainwreck energy of Baby Reindeer, which for all Gadd’s comedy background is more of a dark psychological thriller-drama. It is, first and foremost, a confessional, as Gadd channels horrific lived experience into artistic narrative, publically coping with the events that shaped him. Those events extend far beyond Martha’s stalking to other traumas, driving him in his desperate quest to channel insecurity into class-clown notoriety. His experiences are truly tragic, but there’s something unappealingly thirsty about the project too, a woe-is-me undercurrent that, while admittedly part of the self-critique, is rather off-putting. Donny is accessible, but he’s not particularly likeable, nor is he meant to be—but that does make the affair a difficult, cringey watch. Fortunately, Gadd is a much better actor than Donny is a comedian, and in his own weird, self-serving way he issues a powerful treatise on shame, self-judgement, and the consequences of an ambitious pursuit of fame and acceptance. Gunning gives a tour-de-force performance as the catalyst in his life, bringing fierce intensity to her toxic devotion while also seeding her miserable character with sympathetic shreds of emotional fragility. As Donny’s trans love interest Teri, Nava Mau provides key, insightful support, her character’s therapist background bringing Donny’s psychological turmoil into clearer focus.

For all these plaudits, it’s difficult to know how to feel about Baby Reindeer. It’s a painful watch at times. There’s something shamelessly manipulative about it. Is Gadd having his cake and eating it too? There’s also unseemly controversy around the project: viewers have been digging into the real people behind the story, calling Netflix’s ethics into question for not better safeguarding identities, while the “real-life” Martha has come forward to decry Gadd’s story as a defamatory lie. All in all, there’s something sus and sordid about it all, yet perhaps that’s why it strikes such a chord; the very backlash exemplifies the sleazy cultural messiness that feeds into the neuroses and psychological baggage of its people. I can’t say I loved the show, nor can I wholeheartedly recommend it, especially given the content warnings (sexual assault, self-harm, and psychological abuse abound). But there’s no denying it is an enthralling, thought-provoking experience, for those with the stomach for it.

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