‘Baby Reindeer’: Netflix’s True Crime Disease Poisons the Show | Commentary

Richard Gadd’s harrowing series, based on a true story, can’t avoid the blunt hammer of social media speculation

Richard Gadd and Jessica Gunning in "Baby Reindeer" (Netflix)

“Baby Reindeer” has become the surprise Netflix hit of the season. Scottish comedian Richard Gadd’s adaptation of his own one-man show has taken over social media less than two weeks after its release. The dark comedy-thriller is inspired by his own life, specifically the instance where Gadd was stalked and harassed. He plays a fictionalized version of himself who becomes the subject of a woman’s obsession that gradually takes over his life.

It’s one of the most grounded and harrowing on-screen depictions of stalking we’ve ever seen, but not even the most empathetic and artful works can avoid the blunt hammer of true crime speculation.

“Baby Reindeer” is not an easy watch. It starts out as a very dark comedy where the laughs are more discomfiting than freeing, creating more tension than puncturing it. Gadd’s alter ego, Donny Dunn, is a struggling comedian whose attempts at finding his big break via open mics and competitions aren’t going well. While working in a pub, he meets Martha (Jessica Gunning), who walks in with tears on her face. He offers a cup of tea and a kind word.

She flirts and offers stories of her life as a high-flying city lawyer. Then the emails start piling up in his inbox, and she starts showing up to his gigs. Martha, it turns out, is a convicted stalker who the police describe as a “serious” person, and Donny is her newest fascination.

Stalking is a curiously glamorous crime in the eyes of pop culture. It’s easy to turn its machinations into the stuff of glossy thrillers, or to render it a joke not to be taken seriously.

The most prominent stalker-focused narrative we had on TV pre-“Baby Reindeer” was “You,” Netflix’s knowingly absurd anti-hero series about a sociopath’s obsession with various women (and those who beat him at his own game.) The appeal of “You” lies in watching its protagonist Joe be smarter than everyone else. His ability to trap others in his obsession is meant to be impressive, to a degree.

Jessica Gunning and Richard Gadd in “Baby Reindeer.” (Netflix)

For Gadd, the truth behind this crime story is trickier, and his portrayal of it defies easy moral categorization. Perhaps that’s why it’s proven to be so gripping for Netflix viewers. In many ways, it’s the anti-“You.”

More than a comedy, “Baby Reindeer” is a horror series. It essentially gives up on jokes by the second half of the seven-episode run and leans into its disorienting visuals, with lots of uncomfortable close-ups depicting Donny’s emotional disintegration.

Martha is relentless, but she can also be sweet, charming and frequently pitiable. Gunning is excellent in a prickly role, switching from benign to malicious with a micro-change in her expression. She’s deeply troubled, a figure to be felt for as much as feared. That doesn’t make her any less terrifying or ruthlessly committed to her terrorizing of Donny, although the series also notes how figures like her who stalk men are often seen as less dangerous than if the gender roles were reversed.

Penn Badgley stars in "You."
Penn Badgley stars in Netflix’s “You.”

The show finds its most unnerving qualities in showing how Donny cannot help but find a strange sort of solace in Martha’s unwanted attention. Smothered by his own trauma and self-loathing, Donny views his stalker as more than just another problem to add to the pile.

When Martha first appears at one of his comedy gigs, they spar with each other in a way that almost feels like a rom-com, with Donny putting on a show for an audience he’s eager to please. They love it. The next time it happens, it’s far less charming, and Donny comes across as far crueler to the audience than Martha. At this moment, are we supposed to sympathize with her more than her victim? It’s troubling territory, deliberately so.

In Episode 4, the police ask Donny why it took so long for him to report Martha, and flashbacks reveal how his experience of being groomed and raped by a man named Darrien (Tom Goodman-Hill) left him deeply traumatized and unable to confront the latest problem in his life. It’s one of the most upsetting episodes of TV in 2024 so far, and perhaps Netflix’s most disturbing drama in years.

Being stalked almost feels flattering in comparison, he admits. As Martha’s attention escalates, Donny feels both trapped by it and addicted to the attention.

Richard Gadd and Jessica Gunning in "Baby Reindeer"
Richard Gadd and Jessica Gunning in “Baby Reindeer” (Netflix)

Trauma is a perennial scab on the soul that we struggle to stop picking at, even as it hurts us more. “Baby Reindeer” is merciless in how it unpacks the frailty to human emotions and how prone we are to making the most terrible decisions when overwhelmed by our own struggles. As much as you want to scream at Donny for the ways he seems to lead Martha on and crave her parasitic demands, Gadd’s writing and performance are more interested in revealing to the viewer why we hurt ourselves and how vast a shadow the ordeal of trauma casts.

The conclusion of “Baby Reindeer” has, inevitably, inspired further curiosity in viewers. They want to know what happened next, and now eager watchers and SEO-ready websites are feeding the beast. Numerous articles have sprung up with not a lot of answers on questions like “Who is the Real Martha?”, and “What Happened to Richard Gadd Next?” Social media has, of course, turned to amateur detective mode to find not only Gadd’s actual stalker but the man who raped him, which is so obviously a terrible idea that it shouldn’t even have to be explained.

Things reached such a pressure point that Gadd himself had to ask people to stop speculating about the real-life identities of some of the series’ characters. On his Instagram Stories, Gadd noted that many people he loved and “have worked with and admire are getting unfairly caught up in speculation”. He added, “Please don’t speculate on who any of the real-life people could be. That’s not the point of our show.”

While “Baby Reindeer” is not true crime, it’s being treated as such by many of its viewers. Netflix has developed quite the back-catalog of juicy real-life documentaries that capitalize on the post-“Serial” desire for prestigious true crime programming. They’ve also shown no qualms about turning these oft-problematic shows into memes and social media fodder where the joke is often on the victims or those involved with the central case.

Just look at “Tiger King”, an already messy docuseries steeped in contempt for its various subjects, and how Netflix spun the already trite joke into Twitter gags and an extended display of classism. The streaming service has faced much criticism for its lackadaisical approach to true crime, reaching a new nadir with the recent series “What Jennifer Did”, which was revealed to be using AI-generated images with no disclaimers or warnings.

The genre has never been ethically sparkling, but the diversion into mainstream legitimacy has only further empowered its most exploitative excesses. The dehumanizing gaze of the camera is writ large in docuseries where the pain of victims and their families is #content for a binge-watch and tawdry podcast accompaniment.

“Baby Reindeer” doesn’t seem to have been made with the true crime genre in mind, nor has Gadd talked about it in any of the interviews he’s given to promote the series. Still, it’s hard to overlook how audiences have been trained to consume such narratives when you see the show’s fans looking for clues to uncover a convicted criminal for clicks. If nothing else, it certainly lacks the empathy that the series shows to Martha, a woman who needed help and not social media scorn.

All episodes of “Baby Reindeer” are available to stream on Netflix.


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