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The obsession with ‘Baby Reindeer’ isn’t about ‘nuance’

A woman at a bar points at the bartender playfully.
Richard Gadd and Jessica Gunning in “Baby Reindeer.”
(Ed Miller / Netflix)
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Welcome to Screen Gab, the newsletter for everyone who’s been feeling “Baby Reindeer”-curious the last few weeks.

There are surely algorithmic reasons for the British miniseries’ meteoric rise to the top of the Netflix charts, but in this week’s Catch Up, editor Matt Brennan grapples with the artistic reasons why it’s drawn viewers in — and takes issue with one of the most frequently cited.

Also in Screen Gab No. 131, “Grey’s Anatomy’s” Camilla Luddington stops by to discuss her own TV obsession, plus streaming recommendations for your weekend from the experts at The Times.

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"Doctor Who" executive producers Jane Tranter, left, and Julie Gardner at BBC Studios in London.
“Doctor Who” executive producers Jane Tranter, left, and Julie Gardner at BBC Studios in London.
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Recommendations from the film and TV experts at The Times

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Conan O’Brien in “Conan O’Brien Must Go.”
(Conaco / Max)

“Conan O’Brien Must Go” (Max)

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A band performs onstage
Talking Heads in “Stop Making Sense.”
(Richard E. Aaron / Redferns)

“Stop Making Sense” (Max)

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Catch up

Everything you need to know about the film or TV series everyone’s talking about

A man in a plaid suit performs onstage.
Richard Gadd in “Baby Reindeer.”
(Ed Miller / Netflix)

A scumbag and his stalker walk into a bar: If the premise of Richard Gadd’s thoroughly unsettling miniseries sounds like the setup to an off-color joke, the punchline is that “Baby Reindeer” — with no stars, seemingly no marketing and no care for the viewer’s comfort — has become Netflix’s latest left-field sensation. In seven episodes punctuated by blistering laughter and bitter recriminations, a seemingly innocuous encounter between Donny (Gadd), a failed comedian, and Martha (Jessica Gunning), an eccentric customer at his London pub, spins into a life-altering crisis.

What “Baby Reindeer” most certainly is not is “nuanced.” This repeated explanation for its unforeseen rise to the top of the streamer’s most-watched chart — often pitched against the platform’s preference for broad, bombastic television — doesn’t square with the series’ embrace of extremity. On a moment-to-moment basis, scenes and sequences have a penchant for getting lost in the blizzard of emails, Facebook messages and hectoring comments Martha sends Donny, and which Donny occasionally solicits in return; the penultimate episode, the season’s weakest, goes so far as to devote its ostensibly show-stopping cri de coeur to recapitulating developments handled more deftly, and with more emotional resonance, in the five entries prior.

On a structural level, at least, Gadd’s self-lacerating commitment to undermining every epiphany as swiftly as it’s built up is rather ingenious, viscerally communicating the inner whirlpool of shame and doubt that’s always threatening to pull us under. And by explaining Donny’s questionable choices without softening them to make him more likable, the series does stand out from the mindless background noise that passes for so much streaming output these days. Still, the word that came to my mind watching “Baby Reindeer” is the distinctly unsubtle “flayed”: With each new discovery about Donny, after all, another of his layers is torn violently away, before finally reaching the exposed nerve endings at his traumatized center. As for Martha, she turns out to be more object than subject, the hacksaw with which the series performs open heart surgery on its troubled protagonist. Whatever nuance there is in that they must be saving for a second season. — Matt Brennan

READ MORE: Who is the real Martha from ‘Baby Reindeer’? Jessica Gunning says she didn’t need to know

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READ MORE: Woman claiming to be real Martha tells Piers Morgan ‘Baby Reindeer’ is ‘hyperbole’

Guest spot

A weekly chat with actors, writers, directors and more about what they’re working on — and what they’re watching

A woman smiles while working outside.
Camilla Luddington in Season 20 of “Grey’s Anatomy.”
(Anne Marie Fox / ABC)

Like many longtime staffers at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital, Jo Wilson has been through the wringer. Maybe not marooned-in-the-wilderness-after-a-deadly-plane-crash dire, but dramatic nonetheless: In 12 seasons on “Grey’s Anatomy,” she has been abandoned by her husband (via letter, no less), diagnosed with depression and faced personally and professionally with the trauma of sexual assault and domestic violence. So far this season, though, ABC’s medical drama has given the OB/GYN resident, played by Camilla Luddington, a bit of a reprieve, allowing her to (mostly) enjoy her new specialty and her relationship with partner Atticus “Link” Lincoln (Chris Carmack). As the series’ strike-shortened 20th season heads toward its conclusion, Luddington stopped by Screen Gab to talk about what she’s watching, the “Grey’s” bottle episode of her dreams and more. — Matt Brennan

What have you watched recently that you are recommending to everyone you know?

Recently, I’ve been re-watching “PEN15” on Hulu. It’s just such a fantastic coming-of-age comedy series, and so many people still haven’t seen it. I absolutely love Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, who wrote it. I think they’re geniuses, and I watch every episode and their commitment to these characters in awe. Comedy is not easy, and they nail every. single. moment.

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By the time this interview runs, I will have seen all 427 episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy” aired to date. Is there anything in pop culture, whether TV series, film franchise, artist, etc., you’ve gotten perhaps unreasonably obsessed with?

I think the first series I ever became totally obsessed with was “Dawson’s Creek” [Prime Video, Hulu]. It helped that I had just moved to the U.S. for the first time as a freshman in high school when it aired. It was my first introduction to life stateside, and I remember feeling like this was my life. I was one of them. It was also the first TV series where I remember buying the CDs of the soundtracks. I actually still have the soundtrack to one season on my phone. It for sure takes me back.

Jo’s OB-GYN specialty gives her an opportunity to work more closely with Arizona Robbins, played by Jessica Capshaw, who returns to the series this season after six years. What do Arizona/Jessica bring back to the show that was missing in their absence?

Jessica is one of my closest friends, and so I had always missed her energy on set. But during the table read, hearing her back as Arizona Robbins, it just really brought home that that character brings so much sunshine. Every actor on our show is so different, and that’s what makes our ensemble so much fun. But Arizona just exudes all the charm in the world. It was a seamless reintroduction, and the fans absolutely loved it. I’m crossing all my fingers for some kind of return next year.

This is your 12th season on the show. What’s one ambition you have as an actor, or have for Jo as a character, that you still want to achieve?

I would personally love to do a comedy. I’m ready for a “Bridesmaids” or a rom-com. I’m putting that out there into the universe.

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And as for Jo Wilson, I want her to achieve all the success [as an] OB-GYN. She’s still a resident, but I can see her being the most incredible attending and getting to teach. I also want that girl to take a vacation. Please. Can all the doctors take one group vacation? We’ve never seen them all out, cocktail in hand, being forced to “relax.” The drama.

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