Baby Reindeer

Baby Reindeer

2024 - United Kingdom

Review by Brian Slade

In times when TV schedules are being swiftly overtaken by streaming and on-demand, it’s become far less common to hear people start a sentence with, ‘Have you seen…’ However, one limited series on Netflix has achieved considerably more than causing tongues to wag – the overnight sensation, Baby Reindeer.

Baby Reindeer is a one-off series about Donny Dunn, a failing comedian down on his luck. Dunn (Richard Gadd) is making minimal progress with his comedy efforts. His act is limited to local clubs and pubs and isn’t getting the laughs he needs. To make ends meet, he works behind a bar. His home life is no more of a success, living in a spare room at his ex-girlfriend’s mother’s house. Safe to say, Dunn’s life is not a bed of roses. Then one seemingly innocent act of kindness on Donny’s part sends his life into a destructive spiral.

Perched alone at the end of the bar is a dejected looking woman staring vacantly downwards. She doesn’t seem to want to place an order, and despite claiming to be a successful lawyer, it seems that she can’t pay for any drink. Donny feels sympathy and offers to get her a cup of tea on the house. As the woman’s face lights up, Donny has unwittingly made the biggest mistake of his life.

The woman in question is called Martha, expertly played by Jessica Gunning. She happily recounts a list of famous clients that her legal work has brought her into contact with, but despite this apparently stellar career, she appears every day at the same spot in the pub. She always asks for a Diet Coke, Donny always obliges, but he never takes money, and she never drinks the beverage.

Some of Donny’s co-workers at the pub engage in banter with him and Martha, and Martha is quite content for the banter to become near the knuckle. Innuendo encourages her to get that little bit more interested - and interest quickly becomes obsession. With Donny being an aspiring comedian, it isn’t difficult for Martha to find his email address, and so the obsession grows.

An unfortunate choice from Donny is to go for a coffee with Martha. An innocent enough move intended to clarify his position and pour cold water on the prospect of anything more merely offers encouragement to Martha, and she becomes even more obsessed. The emails become angrier and more explicit.

At this point in his life, while trying to win a comedy competition, Donny is seeing Teri (Nava Mau), his transgender partner dealing with her own issues. Donny confesses to her about the challenges he is facing dealing with Martha and Teri is wary of both her potential impact and the fact that she is clearly someone with mental difficulties. And still Donny cannot shake her.

Baby Reindeer

Martha continues to stalk. She becomes a disruptive presence at the comedy shows, starts sitting at the bus stop opposite the house where Donny lives for hours on end, and any time he thinks he has shed her, she engineers a way back into his life in more threatening ways than before. Avoiding spoilers, it’s safe to say that removing her from his life becomes increasingly difficult.

One of the geniuses of the series is that Gadd has anticipated what most people will be thinking at various points in the sequence of events – primarily questions that begin ‘why didn’t he?’ or ‘why did he?’ The most revealing and most disturbing comes midway through the series as we learn why Donny seems to have a reluctance to confront some of the behaviour of Martha. It’s an episode that is not easy viewing and has had ramifications since the programme was released – and that is where Baby Reindeer takes on a whole new life.

Baby Reindeer

It’s made clear at the start of the first episode that the events of Baby Reindeer are based on the experiences of Gadd, who wrote and starred in the show and has been at the centre of controversy ever since. We live in a world of social media detectives who love to put two and two together and come up with any host of numbers they believe to be close enough to be correct. Safe to say, the reaction to Baby Reindeer has been immense. Gadd has been forced to come to the defence of former colleagues who have been incorrectly identified as either Martha, or the producer that groomed Donny, played chillingly by Tom Goodman-Hill in the series. And somewhat inevitably, the scramble to find the real Martha has had repercussions. The Daily Mail published an exclusive with a woman claiming to be said Martha, and there has even been a streamed interview of her in the company of Piers Morgan that rather than clarify anything has merely stoked the fire.

Gadd claimed that the real Martha would struggle to identify herself from the character in the programme, such were the alterations he made for the drama. However, the visuals of the many emails she sent, allegedly around 41,000 of them, make it easy to see why there would be ramifications. Martha is depicted as a dangerous, disturbed and almost pitiable figure. The producer is depicted as a dangerous grooming rapist. In a successful drama that claims to be based on fact, the snowball effect has been dramatic.

Reviewing Baby Reindeer isn’t the easiest of tasks because not unlike the fictionalised Martha, it carries with it two sides to its character. As a drama series, uncoupling it from any factual basis, it is a runaway success. Donny himself is not the most likeable of characters, but the performances are so convincing that we end up transfixed at a disturbing and almost exhausting chain of events that send not just their lives, but the lives of those around them, into a tailspin. It is as compelling a drama as Netflix have offered.

Away from the drama, however, is Baby Reindeer’s second life. Interviews, accusations, mistaken identities and legal threats all played out in the glare of the media. The mystery of the groomer’s identity and the knowledge that he seemingly remains at large, along with the truth of the real Martha and how much of the series is fictionalised, are real dramas that have yet to reach their conclusion.

Gadd and Gunning have rightfully earned praise, and awards are in the offing for their performances. And while Baby Reindeer is a one-off series, one feels as though this uncomfortably captivating tale will run for some considerable time to come.

Published on May 11th, 2024. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.

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