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BABY REINDEER & What is a Limited Series, What is Theme?



Everyone thinks they have a good story but usually what they have is a good campfire tale.  When we are talking about screenwriting, the word “story” has an entirely different threshold for what is considered good.  This is why so many people who aren’t writers think their story would make a great movie.  When in reality, their story makes great verbal entertainment.  Which has its own value!  Our lives would be boring if we didn’t get to hear good verbal stories at every turn from anyone, anywhere.  After all, Joseph Campbell reminds us consistently that the magic of storytelling all started verbally, around a fire.    


But determining what makes a great WRITTEN story, especially in terms of screenwriting? Well, countless books have been written about this.   Each one of them with their own glossary of terms, paradigms and styles.   


In my experience, I have found that a great story needs to be about a journey with literal, emotional and thematic questions that are dramatized through the conflicts in your character’s arc.  


Did you get that?  A great story is: a journey with literal, emotional and thematic questions that are dramatized through the conflicts in your character’s arc.  


Let’s assume your answer is “yes”.  You have a great story that can be dramatized well.  Okay, now we venture into format. What is the best format to dramatize this wonderful story?   Do you have a great novel,  screenplay, stage play,  TV Show or Limited Series?  


I am not going to break down each one of these formats because it would take too long.  And I’ve broken them down on different platforms. What we are doing today is discussing Baby Reindeer.  So, let’s talk briefly about “limited series”.


WHAT IS A LIMITED SERIES?   


Limited Series is the glow up (or I should say Glow Down? De-Glowing?) of what used to be called “mini-series”.   A mini-series was usually a sweeping epic event that presented some acclaimed literary work such as “Roots” and “Band of Brothers”.  With the rise of streaming, and new ways to ingest commercial-less television viewing, there was a platform that could serve “mini-series” on a smaller, less epic scale.   


(I like to think of streaming as the casual cousin of paid cable.  Paid cable is coming to the party in a suit and a fancy car.  Streaming is coming to the party in khakis, flip flops and a Hawaiian shirt. Doesn’t mean the casual cousin doesn’t have quality content to share.  It just means it shares it more often so it’s not as… “precious”.) 


This is where confusion sets in.  A mini-series can indeed be an eight hour movie.  Because don’t forget, it’s an eight hour MOVIE EVENT!  


Limited Series is just a close ended story that is told over the course of 6-8-10 hours but is still a television show.  


This new animal “limited series” is NOT an 8 hour movie. 


I have had countless writers think that limited series is just a way to stretch their story out into a longer format.  I have heard: I have so many characters and so many storylines, it HAS to be a limited series.  


It definitely doesn’t.  


So what is the magic that makes a great limited series “great”?


PROBLEMS.  The secret sauce of TV is PROBLEMS.  A limited series is a close ended journey, yes.  But each episode still tackles a single problem… the way a TV show does.  


In solving each episode’s problem, the story gives us a piece of a puzzle.  When we finish all the episodes, we now have all the pieces of the puzzle and can see the whole picture.   


Baby Reindeer did this spectacularly.  Each episode presents a specific problem for 

Donny.  In his solving (or deliberately not solving) each particular problem, we are given another piece of the puzzle as to why he doesn’t answer the literal question. 


When you watch Baby Reindeer pay close attention to each problem of each episode and how Donny attempts to solve these problems and how his attempts to solve/ or deliberately not solve the problems (making the problems worse) gives us the bigger picture to the entire show which leaves us with the thematic question of the series… not tied up in a pretty bow but laid bare… almost challenging us to answer the question for ourselves: How many people will you allow yourself to hurt because you won’t heal your own trauma? 


 Whew.. 


And now, let’s breakdown Baby Reindeer.  


BABY REINDEER’S STORY STRUCTURE. SPOILERS FOR BABY REINDEER AHEAD!!!


Literal Question:  

Will Donny report Martha and have her arrested? 


Emotional Question: 

Will Donny heal himself from his trauma so that he can sever his bond to Martha, give and receive love, quell his shame and face his abuser? 


Thematic Question: 

How many people will you allow yourself to hurt because you won’t heal your own trauma dramatized through Donny’s journey: how many people will Donny hurt because he won’t heal his trauma?  i.e. : why do hurt people hurt people? 

 

When you watch Baby Reindeer, keep a close eye on each episode’s very specific problem and how the problem of each episode encompasses the literal, emotional and thematic questions of the show.   


Keep an eye out for the BRILLIANT way Richard Gadd constructed the retelling of his story.  I don’t know Richard Gadd, I can’t say for certain but based on the execution of the story I CAN GUESS, he had to ask himself, what do I want to say about my experience? And what he wanted to say was: if you don’t heal your trauma you will hurt people.  


This is the THEME of Baby Reindeer. 


A QUICK WORD ON THEME


What is theme?   Merriam Webster says THEME is: an idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art or literature. 


Many movies have “themes”.   Themes can float around inside of a movie and you can feel them and think about them. 


But in terms of STORY STRUCTURE,  let’s discuss for a moment how we can deliberately dramatize theme on the page.  


You can do this through creating a thematic question for your character to answer.   Not all movies need to have a thematic question. Only the brilliant ones.  


The thematic question is the dramatization of your theme through trials you put your character through, choices you force them to make and sometimes in deliberate setting choice and specific mis-en-scéne.   


I believe the reason why we are all so taken by Baby Reindeer is because of Richard Gadd’s astounding execution of his thematic question through the writing of his story. 


Richard Gadd constructed the story of Baby Reindeer in a way that very clearly showed us all of the good people he allowed himself to hurt and put in danger by very specifically choosing NOT to hold Martha accountable and have her arrested.  


This is genius execution of what we writers call “story”.  Not “A STORY" but the hallowed term “STORY” as a proper noun to be revered and feared and dreamt of achieving. 


In summary, Baby Reindeer is gripping us and not letting go, in my opinion because: 


Martha is a characterization of Donny’s unhealed trauma.  


The longer Donny ignores Martha, and placates her and perseverates on her, and masturbates to her… the bigger and more dangerous she grows… until FINALLY he cracks and lays himself bare, and finds the strength and courage to be HONEST and face the truth of his shame and put Martha away… lock her up in a prison so that she can be contained and not hurt him anymore.


And yet STILL… he questions if he misses her… and STILL he holds a romantic place in his heart for her.  


If you have experienced TRAUMA… this is a very raw, true depiction of what it’s REALLY like dealing with it.    


And this is why we can’t look away… we are enamored of Richard Gadd’s fearlessness to admit that we become obsessed with our own hurt, shame and torture because it’s the only thing that feels real…. even if it means hurting good people.  Richard Gadd never sugar coats this reality. And we respect him for it, appreciate the mirror we are looking into and come away with a different understanding about humanity. That is not just great storytelling, that is art.


That is powerful.


Right up until the final moment of the series, where Donny becomes the wretch for someone else to feel sorry for and leaves the story open to the idea that this cycle could very easily repeat itself again.  Similar to the endings of some great horror movies that suggest: "there is no end to this".   


Baby Reindeer was kind of like a syrupy sweet, horror show about trauma… you know who else was a syrupy sweet horror show… Martha.   A whole theme wrapped up in a character wrapped up in a literal question that asks when will you deal with the horror of your own life?

 

Like I said: genius.   


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