‘Baby Reindeer’ Is TV’s Latest Tortured-Poet Show

‘Baby Reindeer’ Is TV’s Latest Tortured-Poet Show

This post contains spoilers for Baby Reindeer, which is now streaming on Netflix.

It takes less than two minutes into Netflix’s Baby Reindeer for the words “this is a true story” to appear onscreen. This simple phrase, when used in pop culture, adds an extra level of emotional weight that tales sold as wholly fictional don’t get: Sure, your imagination can invent something crazy, but can you believe this thing actually happened to someone?!?!

The lure of Based on a True Story is so powerful that many film and television executives consider it to be another form of IP. It’s so powerful that creators occasionally get caught claiming they’re adapting something real, when instead they made up most or all of it. A Million Little Pieces author James Frey was kicked out of Oprah’s Book Club for just such an offense, and Hassan Minhaj lost the chance to host The Daily Show for it.

The notion that Baby Reindeer is inspired by events in the life of its creator and star, Richard Gadd, has been a big part of the miniseries’ explosion over the past two weeks. It arrived on Netflix with minimal fanfare — no real marketing campaign, no review screeners sent to critics in hopes of generating advance buzz — but word-of-mouth grew, and it remains at the top of Netflix’s daily charts at this writing. Viewers have been transfixed by Gadd and co-star Jessica Gunning’s performances, and by the relentless nightmare atmosphere of the story, which sees struggling comedian Donny’s life unravel due to the obsessive attention of convicted stalker Martha, as well as his ongoing trauma from having been repeatedly raped by comedy writer Darrien (Tom Goodman-Hill). But audiences seem even more fascinated with where the line exists between what happens to Donny and what happened to Gadd, and with figuring out who the real-life versions of Martha and Darrien are. It reached a point earlier this week that Gadd took to social media to beg his new fans to stop searching for these people.

Going back to when he first performed Baby Reindeer as a one-man show at Edinburgh Fringe in 2019 (and, before it, 2016’s Monkey See Monkey Do, which focused more on the sexual assault), Gadd has been clear that, while much of this terrible story did happen to him, he has altered details regarding the actual Martha and Darrien to protect their identities, and he’s also incorporated related events that happened to other people he knows. This is a true story, but it is not a documentary, nor a true-crime saga meant to inspire a public lynching of either of his tormentors. It is Gadd doing what so many artists have done for millennia: telling a fictionalized account of a true thing because he finds it interesting, and/or because turning it into material is a way of working through his complicated feelings about it.

On that level, Baby Reindeer is tremendous. With or without the opening credits of each episode reminding viewers of the show’s origins, it’s a riveting and nuanced(*) psychological thriller. The flashback episode where Darrien grooms, drugs, and repeatedly assaults Donny is harrowing without feeling exploitative. And the show skillfully intertwines the two stories, as Donny’s history with Darrien makes him less willing to take definitive action against Martha, while also forcing him to reevaluate his sexuality. (Martha helps drive away the person Donny believes to be the great love of his life, Teri, a trans woman played by Nava Mau.) As he grapples with his experiences on both fronts, he seems at a loss to properly understand his own feelings.

(*) Well, mostly nuanced. Gunning is wonderful; the show doesn’t work at all without her being so magnetic and scary. And throughout, Gadd both attempts to find sympathy for Martha, and to show the many ways that Donny is at fault for how things escalate. But it’s also something of a tell that Gadd and company cast a plus-size actress, and even more that they gave her such unflattering clothes, hair, and makeup. Martha is depicted as a grotesquerie — someone for whom Donny could obviously only feel pity at the start. Her belief that they are an actual couple is always presented as delusional, because, the show implies, how could Donny ever desire such a person? And later, when she grows more invasive, and eventually violent, her size only adds to her monstrousness, as if nothing can stop her from attacking Teri, or really from doing anything she wants. There’s a tired and self-congratulatory tradition of stories about men being stalked by women so gorgeous, it’s difficult at first for the guys to recognize the threat standing in front of them. This characterization perhaps goes too far in the other direction.

Ed Miller/Netflix

These seven episodes also fit into a particular 21st-century TV tradition: the half-hour confessional show where the star is also a creator, and where the material is often, but not always, autobiographical.

Arguably, the most famous of these is the Phoebe Waller-Bridge masterpiece Fleabag. Like Baby Reindeer, it began life as a one-person show at Edinburgh Fringe. And like all the series that fall under this umbrella, it feels so intimate and knowing that of course viewers assume Waller-Bridge invested much of her own life into Fleabag and her story. But she has said that it’s “a definitive plot based on characters I’ve invented.”

Other shows of this type have explicitly blended lots of fact into their fictions. Michaela Coel channeled the pain of having been drugged and raped into her excellent HBO miniseries I May Destroy You. Like Baby Reindeer, Netflix’s Feel Good featured a very lightly scripted version of its star (Mae Martin in this case) as a comedian grappling with questions of both identity and past abuse. Pamela Adlon’s wonderful FX dramedy Better Things was transparently about her entire life and career, to the point where Adlon would have guest stars re-enact conversations she’d had with them in the real world. Even if you go into any of these series not knowing that some version of these events happened to the actors you’re watching, you can feel it(*).

(*) On occasion, you will also see projects use the “This is a true story” conceit as a stylistic flourish, like Fargo as both a film (where many audience members assumed it was inspired by a real kidnapping and murder case) and TV series (where everyone understands now that the label is a wry joke). 

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At the same time, though, the stars are the ones telling their stories, from their own perspectives. Gadd is fairly hard on himself throughout Baby Reindeer, for instance, but we can only guess at exactly what went on between him and the real Martha. And at times, it’s become clear that these televised memoirs are presenting a warped version of reality designed to overly flatter their creators and conceal their worst behavior. Louis C.K.’s FX show Louie presented him as a deeply flawed but ultimately curious and empathetic guy. After it ended, though, he was revealed to be a serial sexual harasser who kept exposing himself to women; he acted remorseful at first, but his stand-up persona soon became less contrite and more defiant, making the version of him on Louie feel as scripted as Ted Lasso.

In the penultimate episode of Baby Reindeer, Donny breaks down in the middle of performing in a big comedy showcase, abandoning his jokes to instead talk about being stalked and being raped. A video of the moment goes viral, inadvertently taking his comedy career to the next level for a while, before his own obsession with Martha leads him to lose interest in performing. The instant, unexpected success of Baby Reindeer seems likely to open even more professional doors for Gadd than the onstage meltdown does for Donny, and Gadd in interviews does not sound like someone planning to step away from the business anytime soon. But after he’s channeled these traumatic experiences into his work for close to a decade, it’s going to be interesting to see what kind of material he chooses to make next, and whether future projects will be as heavily based on his own experiences. As a writer and as a performer, he’s more than just these terrible things that happened to him; he wrote briefly for Sex Education, and has done a lot of TV acting over the years. But when you become famous for adapting your own story for the screen, audiences may come to expect the same feeling from whatever you do next — fair or not, true or not.

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