Richard Gadd as Donny and Jessica Gunning as Martha in...

Richard Gadd as Donny and Jessica Gunning as Martha in Netflix's "Baby Reindeer."  Credit: Netflix/Ed Miller

LIMITED SERIES "Baby Reindeer"

WHERE Streaming on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Donny Dunn (Richard Gadd) is a struggling comic who makes ends meet as a bartender in a London pub. One quiet afternoon, Martha (Jessica Gunning) drifts in. She explains that she's a high-powered lawyer, but curiously doesn't have enough change for a cup of tea, which Donny — who pities her — then proffers. Martha soon becomes obsessed with Donny, who eventually tries to push her away, especially after he begins a relationship with Teri (Nava Mau).

This seven-parter is Gadd's true-life story and was the basis for an award-winning one-man show (also with Gadd as Donny) in London's West End. (By way of an advisory, the fourth episode contains scenes of a sexual assault.)

MY SAY You've heard the buzz and the malaprops (“did you see 'Tiny Little Elks' yet?"), or wondered how a show with no stars and a disturbing storyline becomes the most streamed series on the planet?

So, by roundabout way to an answer, go to YouTube to watch a young Gadd perform at a festival called “ChortleUK'' back in the early part of this decade. Shirt untucked, body contorted into a twisted noodle, he reads jokes off a crib sheet that are so bad you wonder how the crib sheet doesn't catch fire.

Next, scroll to the comments for the hard truth of the matter: “The massive irony,” writes an admirer, “is that he's a terrible stand-up comic but a talented dramatic actor …”

Indeed, the Donny of “Baby Reindeer” also exists precariously between dreadful and funny, with a line to summarize his professional predicament: “I'm a comedian when they laugh, a performance artist when they don't.” Gadd's head, typically in tight frame, stares balefully into the lens, his large round eyes reflecting the terrible enigma of his career and life, as if he's a character out of Kafka just waking up to learn he's turned into a giant bug.

He has a large, loose mouth, shaggy hair, and a 10-day-old stubble: A likable face, but tortured, masking a secret that threatens to unmask him. If he is who he thinks he is, will others find out? Will his humiliation be so profound that he will literally become that metaphoric bug, forever condemned to crawl upon the earth, a can of Raid hovering just beyond the screen?

“Baby Reindeer” is about the search for self — the elusive self, Donny's (Gadd's) true self, as opposed to the one shaped by self-delusion and assault. "Reindeer" is (of course) about stalker Martha, but (to paraphrase Pogo) it's as if Donny has seen the enemy and the enemy is him. He is Martha, Martha is Donny, each propelled by a psychic interdependence that threatens mutual self-destruction. From the moment she settles herself on that bar stool in an early scene — Gunning is brilliant here, by the way — Martha too has been on a search, and at long last — presto! — search over. As a narrative hook, she's straight out of Stephen King — or Sigmund Freud.

Should you watch “Tiny Reindeer?” If you want to be part of the so-called “conversation” that will continue right up to this July when the Emmy nominations are announced, then yes. Like “I May Destroy You” and “Fleabag,” two other outstanding Brit imports about trauma and expiation, Gadd has found a powerful way to loop something as horrifying as rape into a story about the search for identity. 

Searing authenticity makes TV hits, but to look into those “baby reindeer eyes” — so full of self-reproach and longing — might lead you to wonder, do we each have Marthas of our own out there? Doppelgängers who know us better than we dare to know our self?

BOTTOM LINE Fine import with not just one, but three emotional payoffs.

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