Why ‘Baby Reindeer’ and Other ‘True Story’ Netflix Shows Keep Landing in Legal Trouble

“This is a true story.”

So begins “Baby Reindeer,” and those five words, which appear on a title card, have ignited a firestorm of controversy. Now, Netflix’s runaway hit about an aspiring comedian named Donny Dunn is facing uncomfortable scrutiny over its depiction of thinly veiled real-life people.

More from Variety

On June 6, Fiona Harvey filed a $170 million lawsuit against Netflix, claiming the series falsely presented her as a sexual predator and a twice-convicted stalker who was sentenced to five years in prison. (The character is named Martha, but fans identified Harvey as the series’ real-life antagonist within days of “Baby Reindeer”’s April 11 release, unleashing a torrent of online vitriol at her.) “As a result of [Netflix’s] lies, malfeasance and utterly reckless misconduct, Harvey’s life had been ruined,” the suit states. In response, Netflix said it stands by “Baby Reindeer” creator-writer-star Richard Gadd and his “right to tell his story.”

The series, which is poised to become Netflix’s most-streamed show of all time, is also facing questions about whether Gadd engaged in casting couch antics. Two months before Harvey’s suit, trans actress Reece Lyons posted on X that an unnamed male writer of a Netflix show pursued her romantically while simultaneously dangling a role he wrote for a trans actress. As was the case with Harvey, Gadd was quickly identified on social media and in subsequent news reports as the unnamed writer. Neither Netflix nor Gadd has addressed the matter or responded to Variety’s request for comment.

All that has left some wondering: Where was the oversight from a company with a market cap of $283 billion?

Harvey’s complaint marks just the latest aimed at Netflix and filed by real people who say they’ve been harmed by the streamer in a reckless and craven bid for eyeballs. In March, Netflix’s motion to dismiss a suit brought by Rachel DeLoache Williams, a former Vanity Fair photo editor painted harshly in the 2022 series “Inventing Anna,” was denied and is now in the discovery phase. The now-defunct San Francisco company OneTaste, which taught tantric sex for a fee, sued Netflix for defamation over the 2022 documentary “Orgasm Inc.” The case was dismissed but is now on appeal.

Dancer Miranda Derrick says she received a flood of death threats following the May 29 release of Netflix’s “Dancing for the Devil: The 7M TikTok Cult.” The documentary presents her as a brainwashed member of the Shekinah Church. She says that is a one-sided portrayal.

And the streamer was forced to write a $1 million check, albeit to a nonprofit, and move a disclaimer from the end credits to the beginning of Ava DuVernay’s 2019 limited series “When They See Us” on the eve of a defamation trial. (In that case, a judge ruled that five scenes involving plaintiff and former New York City prosecutor Linda Fairstein were factually untrue.)

“It’s not just Netflix, but Netflix in particular is absolutely playing fast and loose with the facts,” says attorney Jennifer Bonjean, who represents OneTaste founder Nicole Daedone. “They are presenting these shows as truth. And they’re far from truth. And people are getting hurt in the process.”

Martha, played by Jessica Gunning, isn’t the only “Baby Reindeer” character that internet sleuths have attempted to dox. Entire subreddits are devoted to unmasking Darrien O’Connor, the exploitative TV writer who mentors Gadd’s Donny, only to drug and rape his acolyte. Fans began harassing “Peep Show” writer Sam Bain, who they believed to be the model for O’Connor. “Recently I received messages on social media asking if I was ‘Darrien from Baby Reindeer.’ Having not seen the show, they seemed like innocent questions; only later did I realize they were asking if I was a rapist, an abhorrent thought,” Bain tells Variety. “While I understand that physically I may resemble Tom Goodman-Hill, who plays Darrien, and that there are references to my television series ‘Peep Show’ in ‘Baby Reindeer,’ since I have never met Richard Gadd I can categorically and emphatically say I am not the person Darrien is based on. Any suggestion otherwise is simply an internet-fueled lie.”

Bain is just one person who has been hit by the “true story” shrapnel.

“They are effectively whistling up the online mob and setting them on whatever unfortunate person they have designated as the bad guy,” says Williams’ attorney Alexander Rufus-Isaacs. “And the online mob is vicious and judgmental and has no mercy.”

The consensus within the docudrama/docuseries space is that legal clearances were mishandled on “Baby Reindeer.” Many are also shocked that Netflix didn’t launch a third-party investigation into Lyons’ claims.

According to her X thread, Lyons told Gadd that she “didn’t think the conflation of the upcoming audition and dating each other at the same time was wise.” But Gadd persisted, and they went on four dates. Lyons didn’t land the role, which instead went to actress Nava Mau.

Reports indicate that “Baby Reindeer” producer Clerkenwell Films investigated and cleared Gadd of wrongdoing after being notified of Lyons’ posts, and insisted that Gadd didn’t have final say in casting decisions. But those familiar with the production say Gadd micromanaged casting and fired his CAA agents after they and Netflix pushed aggressively for Melissa McCarthy to be cast as Martha. (A knowledgeable source says McCarthy met Gadd about the role but ultimately wasn’t interested.)

Still, some say Netflix isn’t more prone than other distributors to face complaints. Says Kinsella Holley’s Nick Soltman, who is representing Meghan Markle in a defamation lawsuit from her half-sister stemming from the Netflix docuseries “Harry & Meghan”: “I think it may have a little bit less to do with Netflix being a particularly egregious offender and more to do with Netflix puts out a lot of content. As a numbers game, there’s just going to be more subjects who are depicted in a Netflix show or movie because of the sheer volume of Netflix product.”

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.