Alcoholic recovery has fueled many a melodramatic film as well as a sizable share of soap opera plots, but there haven’t been nearly as many movies and TV shows that depict the messy, sloggy, difficult and ridiculous minutiae of the “one day at a time” that Alcoholics Anonymous has made famous. There have been even fewer sobriety stories told about young women who have grown up in a “rosé all day” culture that normalizes nonstop imbibing.
Freeform’s “Single Drunk Female” is a refreshing antidote to all this.
The show follows 28-year-old Samantha Finch (Sofia Black-D’Elia), who loses her New York media job after a drunken outburst and is forced to move back home to Boston with her mother (Ally Sheedy) and remain sober to avoid jail time. Creator Simone Finch, previously a writer for “The Conners,” based the idea on her own struggles with getting sober over the last decade, and this grounds the series with a sense of reality — especially once it gets going. The result is a take on sobriety that doesn’t gloss over the hard parts but remains optimistic, and often very funny.
The first episode goes a little broad, as many first episodes do, with Sam’s meltdown at the office of BZZ, a clear Buzzfeed send-up. (Sample stories include “10 Dogs That Look Like the Cast of ‘Gossip Girl.’”) She ends up sloppily, sort-of accidentally, assaulting her boss and being sent to a court-mandated rehab program. From there, Sam has little choice but to move back home to Boston and start her life over while working at the local grocery store and attending AA meetings.
She’s then forced to face a lot of what started her drinking in the first place: the death of her father from leukemia; her in-denial mom, Carol (“I thought you could have one glass of wine,” she shrugs as she pours her 30-days-sober daughter a glass); her ex-best friend Brit (Sasha Compère), who is marrying her ex-boyfriend Joel (Charlie Hall); and her other friend, Felicia (Lily Mae Harrington), who is very fun to drink with.
Aside from the recovery story arc, which spans a year of Sam’s sobriety over the 10-episode season, “Single Drunk Female” feels remarkably light in comparison to the recent strain of streaming shows about young women wrestling with personal demons, like “Fleabag,” or recovering from trauma, like “I May Destroy You.” “Single Drunk Female” offers some cutting commentary on how drinking-obsessed our culture is — one great episode depicts the specific hell of being a sober person on St. Patrick’s Day in Boston, and shows you can’t even attend a wedding dress fitting without someone shoving champagne into your hand. But overall, the show maintains a cable sheen specific to its network, Freeform. There’s a safety to this. There are no sudden, artistic shocks to the system coming your way.
This isn’t a bad thing. As “Single Drunk Female” progresses, the focus diffuses from Sam’s journey to take in the many appealing, fully formed characters around her. They’re all helping to support her recovery, but they’ve also got problems of their own, which transforms the series into a warm, relatable ensemble dramedy. And the bench is deep. Sam and Brit’s relationship has layers to peel, and so does Brit herself as we realize she’s not sure she wants to marry Joel after all. Felicia turns out to be an even better friend for sober Sam than she was for drinking Sam, and Harrington is a joy to watch (not to mention our only resident Boston accent).
Sam’s uptight-but-caring sponsor, Olivia (Rebecca Henderson), might be using her sponsees to avoid her own life. (Henderson and Madeline Wise, who plays her wife, Stephanie, make a great comedy team. “I thought we said no sponsees in the house because it’s like you’re the coach in ‘Friday Night Lights,’” Stephanie deadpans in one of many exchanges that start passive-aggressive and end in loving baby talk.) Sam develops a compelling possible romance with charming fellow AA-er James (Garrick Bernard). And Sheedy excels as the tightly wound Carol, suggesting that we’ve barely dented the surface of her grief and parental guilt.
“Everybody wants to have some wine at night,” Carol says. “It’s hard to be a person.” This is the real thesis statement of the series: It’s not easy to face even the most regular stuff of life without numbing the sting a bit. But “Single Drunk Female” might make you feel just a little less alone as you try.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is the author of “Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love,” as well as “Seinfeldia,” “When Women Invented Television” and “Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted.”