What you need to know about ‘Baby Reindeer,’ the Netflix show people can’t stop talking about

On its surface, Netflix’s “Baby Reindeer” has all the fascination of a good episode of “Dateline” – there’s the aspiring comedian who bartends to make ends meet, an odd-but-harmless-seeming female admirer who becomes his stalker and a cautionary tale in it all that will leave viewers thinking twice about offering someone a cup of tea.

But writer, producer and star Richard Gadd’s thriller miniseries evolves into much more as each episode unfolds. Gadd’s retelling of his real-life encounters with a stalker through the fictional Donny Dunn in “Baby Reindeer” is also a story of trauma and healing.

In the show, Donny (Gadd) is a survivor of sexual assault and events that threw his life and ambitions into a tailspin from which he still hasn’t recovered. The story begins when his stalker, Martha (Jessica Gunning), enters his life, while the details of his assault are told in a graphic fourth episode that deals with the grooming and manipulation that played a part in his abuse.

Gadd has said the story is “very emotionally true,” telling the Guardian that he was both “severely stalked and severely abused.”

“But we wanted it to exist in the sphere of art, as well as protect the people it’s based on,” he said.

In the days since the show’s release, Gadd has attempted to squash the ambitions of viewers who have adopted the role of amateur sleuth, asking them to cease attempts to identify the real-life identities of the figures in his story, including his abuser.

“Please don’t speculate on who any of the real life people could be. That’s not the point of our show,” he wrote in an Instagram story on Monday, adding that people in his life are “unfairly getting caught up in speculation.”

Whether his pleas work remains to be seen, but viewers’ mere interest in undertaking such an effort is evidence of Gadd’s effective storytelling in “Baby Reindeer’s” seven episodes.

Much should be said, too, of the other main cast’s standout work in the project.

(From left) Richard Gadd as Donny and Jessica Gunning as Martha in "Baby Reindeer." - Ed Miller/Netflix
(From left) Richard Gadd as Donny and Jessica Gunning as Martha in "Baby Reindeer." - Ed Miller/Netflix

Gunning plays Donny’s stalker Martha, a troubled woman who claims to be a lawyer but is more than anything a career creeper and repeat offender. The actress, whose startling ability to go from a pleasant smile to a crazed agitated gaze is as disarming as it is impressive, is a television and theater performer whose credits include the British drama “White Heat” and British dramedy film “Pride.”

Nava Mau, perhaps best known from HBO Max’s “Generation,” also stars as Teri, with whom Donny begins a relationship amid his troubling happenings with Martha. Teri, who is a trans woman and therapist, gives Donny his first real glimpse at a future in which he can be healed and happy, if only he can do the work to get there.

Other cast members include Shalom Brune-Franklin, Tom Goodman-Hill and Danny Kirrane.

In all, “Baby Reindeer” could be seen as yet another savvy wrinkle on the true-crime boom, dominated until now in the television space by docuseries and an occasional famous serial killer story told for the umpteenth time. Except that would be reductive in this case.

By the end of the journey, it’s clear that “Baby Reindeer” was made with purpose, something that often escapes projects that earn their popularity on the merit of being about incidents so messy (and sometimes horrifying) that you can’t look a way.

“Baby Reindeer” might be is a sign that true crime TV is finally growing up.

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