Monday, May 27, 2024

“Baby Reindeer” and “Under the Bridge” Are Stranger Than Fiction

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When Donny Dunn (Richard Gadd), the protagonist of the autobiographical Netflix sensation “Baby Reindeer,” recalls the act of kindness toward a stranger that would come to derail his life, his initial explanation is deceptively simple: “I felt sorry for her.” Donny is a fledgling comedian in his late twenties, tending bar at a London pub to make ends meet. Martha (Jessica Gunning) is a heavyset, middle-aged frump who claims to be a high-powered lawyer but simultaneously insists that a cup of tea is beyond her means. Donny—maybe amused, maybe intrigued, definitely pitying—gives her one on the house. She becomes a regular and, after finding his e-mail address on his personal Web site, inundates him with dozens of missives a day, many of them brimming with lust and misspellings. She follows him home and to his gigs. Her convictions about their relationship—first and foremost the belief that they’re in one—are pure delusion. But Martha also senses a truth about Donny that no one else does. Early on, she asks, “Somebody hurt you, didn’t they?”

In the seven-part series—a half-hour drama that can be hard to watch despite, and at times because of, its protagonist’s hard-won forthrightness—Donny becomes a Dante of his own broken psyche, tracing his descent into abject self-loathing. The stalking is only the first circle of Hell. His real torment is the onslaught of painful memories triggered by Martha’s pursuit. Some years prior, Donny had met one of his comedy heroes, a fiftysomething TV writer named Darrien (Tom Goodman-Hill), who presented himself as a Sherpa to the industry’s summit. A flashback episode traces how the two men became enmeshed in a drug-fuelled “collaboration” that, in retrospect, seems designed to enable Darrien’s predations. One of the show’s most haunting images is that of Donny covering his own mouth in an effort not to scream as Darrien sexually assaults him. A scream would be tantamount to an accusation, and he can’t afford to alienate his best hope of professional success.

In the present, convinced that his encounters with Darrien have “shifted” his desires, Donny treats his own orientation as a riddle to solve. His misery helps to explain his passivity toward Martha, whom he’s loath to report to the police, even as she exhibits increasingly violent behavior; for all her volatility, she sees him the way he wants to be seen. Her jealous antics also provide him with a reason to distance himself from Teri (Nava Mau), a trans woman Donny is at once enamored of and embarrassed by, terrified that he’ll be outed as anything but a cisgender man seeking cis women. In his shaky internal logic, Martha’s public advances burnish his heterosexuality while his private romance with Teri threatens it.

On one level, the show functions as a case study in why male survivors of abuse so rarely come forward: the police don’t take Donny’s complaints seriously, and his loutish co-workers see Martha’s overtures as a source of amusement. But the series goes further in illustrating how survivors need not be “perfect victims” to merit empathy, and in showing how dizzying the aftermath of such a violation can be. Blessed with neither street smarts nor a strong sense of self-preservation, Donny makes mistake after mistake, first in trying to deny what he later identifies as grooming, then in his attempts to ward off Martha. His long silence—and consequent inability to address his trauma—blights nearly all his relationships, until his pain comes rushing out, mid-comedy set, in a fit of compulsive logorrhea. The result, like most of Donny’s standup, is more mortifying than funny.

In real life, Gadd exorcised these demons with greater premeditation: his high-concept one-man shows about both experiences were hits at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “Baby Reindeer” sidesteps some ethical questions with its comparatively helpless, almost unwitting hero—the implication, for example, that his indulgence of Martha is unrelated to the material she can provide rings a bit hollow, given that Gadd has constructed a TV series with her as the hook. But there’s catharsis to be found in the clarity with which Donny recounts what happened to him, and in his readiness to acknowledge both his missteps and the depths of his fascination. Rather than vilify his stalker, he deliberately teases out the parallels between them, showing how easily a moment of vulnerability—or of validation—can spiral into obsession. In doing so, he brings narrative cohesion to the chaos, producing a tightly controlled confessional that forges an almost too close bond with the viewer—and illuminates the dark, strange paths that shame can trick us into taking.

The very human messiness of attempting to apportion blame also drives the new Hulu crime drama “Under the Bridge.” The limited series is based on the real-life murder of a fourteen-year-old Indian Canadian girl named Reena Virk, in 1997, but it’s pointedly not a whodunnit—the circumstances of the beating by her peers that preceded her death, and the culprit who dealt the final blow, are revealed surprisingly swiftly. The show’s true interest lies in the trial that follows, and in the dynamic between the girls from a local group home, called the Bic Girls for their perceived disposability, and the uncool, middle-class, tragically impressionable Reena (Vritika Gupta). Some days, she’s in with the Bic Girls; other days, she couldn’t be more on the outs. Her frenemies are quickly implicated in her killing, and the suspense derives from who’ll be judged most responsible—an answer that hangs almost entirely on how much adult support each teen can rely on, and whom it’s easiest for the police and the prosecutor to spin a story around.

“Under the Bridge” is adapted from a book by Rebecca Godfrey, who stumbled upon the investigation after returning to her home town of Victoria, British Columbia, around the time of Reena’s disappearance. The series creator, Quinn Shephard, inserts a version of the author, who died shortly before filming, into the story; the fictionalized Rebecca is played by a disaffected, chain-smoking Riley Keough, styled like grunge-era Winona Ryder. Rebecca is writing a book nebulously centered on the town’s “misunderstood girls” until Reena’s case becomes its sole focus. Talking to an old friend (Lily Gladstone), a policewoman probing the “schoolgirl murder,” she expresses the hope of producing something in the vein of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” The comparison isn’t flattering. Like Capote, Rebecca gets overly attached to one of the suspects, a baby-faced gangster named Warren (Javon Walton), who reminds her of her long-dead brother. Rebecca, still youthful enough to pass herself off as a college student, identifies too closely with the teens on the margins—minutes after she’s introduced, she’s sitting cross-legged on a girl’s bed, offering her a cigarette. The eschewal of journalistic distance gets her sources to talk; it also prevents her from evaluating their testimony clearly.

The show’s incessant leaps back and forth in time and exhaustive exposition, including an episode dedicated to the history of Reena’s family and their immigration to Canada, leave it feeling bloated and occasionally preachy. But, with a soundtrack of Nirvana and the Notorious B.I.G., the project is also enlivened by a distinctly nineties verve. The spirit of the era is best embodied by Jo (a pitch-perfect Chloe Guidry), a Bic Girl who sports barrettes, crop tops, pencil brows, and a heart-shaped locket that holds a photo of her idol, the mafioso John Gotti. Her callow bravado—fuelled, perhaps, by a turbulent home life that we learn just enough about—renders her both naïve and vicious; the series is built on a bone-deep understanding of how dopey and dangerous adolescent girls can be, often in the same breath. Jo, the ringleader, puts out a cigarette between Reena’s eyes, in a mock bindi, on the night of her death. That act of racial othering may have encouraged her accomplices—the group was eventually known as the Shoreline Six—to see Reena as even more expendable than they were. To make sense of the tragedy, Rebecca reaches for the gothic, comparing it to a fairy tale. Such stories, she says, are about “girls punished for selfishness—or for no reason at all.” ♦



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