Netflix’s Baby Reindeer shapes a confessional into a dark thriller

Richard Gadd in Baby Reindeer, standing in a loud suit with a microphone in a spotlight in front of a red curtain
Photo: Ed Miller/Netflix

The trauma-to-miniseries pipeline for young TV stars remains strong, but it’s getting unnerving

Baby Reindeer, now streaming on Netflix, has become a viral sensation in the week since its largely unheralded release, both in its native U.K. and beyond. It’s easy to understand why; this true story about a struggling comedian and his stalker — written by and starring Richard Gadd and based on his own life — is darkly funny, propulsive, tragic, and peppered with unbelievable turns of events. It mixes the voyeuristic thrill of true crime with the emotional gut punch of memoir. It’s almost impossible not to binge this miniseries in fascinated horror.

Gadd’s extraordinary story, based on his one-man show of the same name (and, to a lesser extent, an earlier show called Monkey See Monkey Do), is part of a trend in British TV whereby young stars supercharge their careers with intimate if fictionalized autobiographies, often adapted from confessional stage shows or stand-up routines. The most famous examples are Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You; another recent one was Mae Martin’s Netflix show Feel Good, a much lighter proposition — it’s basically a rom-com — that nevertheless has striking similarities to Baby Reindeer, both in its portrayal of London’s small-time stand-up scene and in some of the darker elements of Martin’s and Gadd’s backstories.

Richard Gadd and Jessica Gunning look at each other across the bar in a pub in Baby Reindeer. She’s pointing at him and smiling
Photo: Ed Miller/Netflix

The story Gadd has to tell is something else, though. Gadd says the events of Baby Reindeer have been changed to create more climactic moments and to protect the identities of the people it’s based on, but they remain “emotionally true.” Gadd plays a version of himself called Donny Dunn, who works as a barman while struggling to kick-start a flailing comedy career. (Gadd doesn’t spare himself in the cringingly unfunny portrayals of Dunn’s act.)

One day, a flustered woman called Martha (Jessica Gunning) comes into the pub where Donny works. She seems upset and wants to sit at the bar for a while, but can’t afford a drink (despite claiming to be a successful lawyer), so Donny gives her a cup of tea on the house. She’s deeply touched and immediately latches on to him. Donny senses danger but also likes the attention. Before long, Martha is bombarding Donny with garbled, explicit emails, following him around, and sitting for hours at the bus stop outside his house. Her pet name for him is “baby reindeer.”

Crucially, Baby Reindeer isn’t a straightforward “stalker from hell” thriller that demonizes the stalker — or lets Donny completely off the hook. With excruciating candor, Gadd details the many mistakes Donny makes in handling the situation, whether driven by naivety, pity for Martha, or his own twisted vanity. He just keeps making things worse, and the escalations that follow are startling. Every potential resolution is somehow foiled. Donny and Martha seem unable to escape each other; Martha seems to perceive something traumatic in Donny’s past that others don’t notice, and it gives her a strange power over him.

Jessica Gunning sits alone at a bus stop at night in Baby Reindeer
Photo: Ed Miller/Netflix

Baby Reindeer explores fascinating gray areas around consent, compassion, responsibility, masculinity, mental health, and gender power dynamics, and it always avoids giving glib, easy answers. It’s a well-structured and gripping show, even if it does rely heavily on voice-over narration that talks through every narrowing whorl of Donny’s spiraling state of mind. Gadd puts in a performance of naked honesty in scenes that must have been very difficult for him to revisit personally, while Gunning is truly extraordinary: She’s volatile in ways that are frightening but can also be perceptive, tender, and even heartbreakingly open. Tom Goodman-Hill also stands out, playing a crucial figure from Donny’s past with chilling offhandedness.

Baby Reindeer is irresistible, quality TV. It’s well worth watching. But by the end, you might feel uncomfortable in ways the show didn’t necessarily intend. As later episodes detail the difficulty Donny has letting go of the situation, even when an apparent escape presents itself, it’s hard not to reflect that Gadd has now turned these events from his own life into one stand-up show, and then another, and now this series. Nearly a decade after his real stalker started persecuting him, he’s still talking about it. It’s brought him success, and his intentions seem sincere. But what about the intentions of the TV executives creating a buyer’s market for young artists’ personal trauma and an assembly line for turning it into entertainment? It’s notable that Waller-Bridge and Coel, two of the greatest talents of their generation, have struggled to follow their breakthroughs. Perhaps all this soul-baring comes at a creative cost. Baby Reindeer is great, but I hope Gadd can move on now.

Baby Reindeer is now streaming on Netflix.

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