Netflix Got Run Over By A Reindeer

My roomie has been able to pivot his business to a work-from-home set-up, which means in between his array of conference calls and deadlines he’s got more time than usual to make use of the Netflix subscription.  And he’s a poster child for how Netflix seems to drive the adoption and engagement they apparently are now going to insist we value more than the mere act of subscription.   One of the most prominent featured arrays of tiles their home screen offers is the Top 10 list of the platform’s most popular shows, which is a siren’s call to FOMO and a tactic I tend to dismiss as simultaneously brilliant and mind-numbing.  He tends to get drawn in frequently to sampling flashes in the pan or shows that look intriguing, and judging by the amount of turnover the list tends to get for all but the most highly promoted and anticipated shows, more often than not he’s indifferent about his experience.

But recently, he was drawn into a little-anticipated seven-episode British import with no immediately recognizable names and anything but an escapist premise.  Here’s how Wikipedia succinctly describes it:

Baby Reindeer is a British black comedy[1][2] dramathriller miniseries created by and starring Richard Gadd. An adaptation of Gadd’s autobiographical one-man show of the same name, the series is based on Gadd’s real life experience of being stalked and sexually assaulted in his twenties.

Not exactly brimming with tentacles that scream out “watch this now”.  But beginning with curiosity sampling in the UK, it has slowly but surely turned into a worldwide phenomenon.  THE INDEPENDENT’s Jacob Stolworthy documented its trajectory:

After week one, Baby Reindeer received a viewership of 2.6 million, with an increase to 13.3 million in week two. The show has now built on this in a staggering manner to reach views of 22 million, which is a rare 66 per cent rise for a title in its third week of release.

And as MASHABLE’s Sam Haysom noted, those that are watching are apparently loving it, and more adoption is being driven by a recommendation from an auspiced fan who can be more influential than just an algorithm:

Stephen King often recommends shows he likes on X (formerly Twitter), but it’s not often he writes a whole essay about them.  “I have an essay about BABY REINDEER in the London Times,” posted King. “I can’t believe they paid me for writing about such a cool show, but they did.”

The essay sees King talking about how he discovered Baby Reindeer, which he goes on to compare and contrast with his own novel Misery.

“Unlike most streaming series’ episodes, which can feel bloated at 50 minutes — or even longer — the episodes of Baby Reindeer, each about 30 minutes, are like short, swift stabs administered by a very sharp knife,” King writes.  The essay is essentially a very positive review, with King even saying that the penultimate episode is “one of the best things I’ve ever seen on television (or in the movies, for that matter).”

I happen to love MISERY because I loved James Caan’s acting and believe Kathy Bates is one of the most versatile and convincing actresses of our time, and they gave King’s fictional work a chilling sense of believability.  In Gadd’s case, the believability comes from the fact that the story he is telling is TRUE.  Well, much like a good police procedural, the names have been changed to protect the innocent, but FORBES’ Monica Mercuri peeled back that curtain:

Yes, Baby Reindeer retells the true story of the stalking and harassment Scottish comedian Richard Gadd endured at the hands of a middle-aged woman who goes by the pseudonym Martha in the Netflix series.  Over four and a half years, the woman sent him 41,071 emails, 350 hours’ worth of voicemails, 744 tweets, 46 Facebook messages, 106 pages of letters, and a variety of weird gifts, including a reindeer toy, sleeping pills, a woolly hat and boxer shorts. She obsessively stalked Gadd outside of his home, workplace, and on stage in comedy clubs, even going as far as harassing his loved ones, including his parents and a trans woman he started dating.

Mercuri reports that Gadd’s testimony paints the picture of a remorseful victim who seemingly chose to write this as a way to convey both his truth and a need for catharsis:

When Gadd eventually went to the police, he was “getting told off for harassing the police about being harassed,” the actor recalled to The Guardian in 2019. “I’ve been through two police investigations in my life and they’ve both been hilarious, fly-on-the-wall terrible. Honestly my advice to someone who ever thought of pressing charges would be: it’s a f*cking nightmare process, and it takes years.”

And “Martha” wasn’t the only trauma that Gadd deals in this series:

The stalking began after Gadd was groomed, raped, and repeatedly sexually assaulted by an older, successful TV writer, as highlighted in the fourth episode of the series. In the show, the man offers to mentor Donny and invites him to his London flat, where they would take hard drugs and the abuse would take place.

“I don’t want to speak for every person that’s been sexually abused, but one of the most common ramifications is self-blame,” Gadd told The Independent. “‘Why did I go there? Why did I do this?’ Why did I… blah, blah blah. I’ve lived in a prison of self-hate and self-punishment. But writing it down in a chronological way, and processing it… I guess I learned to empathise with myself a little bit more.”

But as THE NEW YORK TIMES’ Noel Murray wrote in a Critic’s Notebook piece yesterday, it is precisely this sort of open book approach that makes Gadd and the show so relatable to so many:

What makes “Baby Reindeer” so effective is that as Martha pushes further and further into Donny’s personal life — attending his comedy shows, befriending his landlady, calling his parents — the audience shares his mounting feelings of powerlessness and frustration, cut with flashes of pity for the woman who is ruining his life. The show has the “slow-motion train wreck” appeal of a twisty true-crime documentary, but balanced with empathy for two profoundly broken people.

And as the show becomes more and more discovered, its appeal and the degree of curiosity that began with its UK core has, per Murray, mushroomed still further and shows no signs of letting up any time soon:

Part of the global popularity of “Baby Reindeer” is no doubt a result of the web sleuth dimension — the online rush to identify the real figures behind Martha and Darrien. Gadd has discouraged such speculation, and innocent people have been accused.

But much of the show’s distinctive appeal comes from how, at a time when trauma narratives almost have become cliché in high-end TV drama, “Baby Reindeer” presents a more nuanced version of one. It authentically depicts trauma and mental illness as confusing, unpredictable and deeply personal, all of which is underscored by the emotional ambivalence of its conclusion.

At a time when there’s so much negativity and skepticism about Netflix’s long-term business strategies being reported, including by moi, a success story like BABY REINDEER is a reminder of how they have been able to rise to the head of their class so conclusively.  As they did with SQUID GAME and TIGER KING, among many others, they have been able to find true diamonds in the rough from the four corners of the world far more frequently than competitors being driven by corporate initiatives and a slavery to existing IP.

I just started watching myself, and I’m pretty impressed with what I see so far.  My initial reaction is MISERY has company.

Until next time…

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