tv review

Single Drunk Female Is a Jarringly Light Portrait of Alcoholism and Addiction

Photo: Danny Delgado/Freeform

“Please adult responsibly” is the promotional tagline for Freeform’s Single Drunk Female, and the broadness of that directive is a tell. Over its ten-episode first season, the series attempts a light touch, not just with alcoholism and the 12-step recovery process outlined by Alcoholics Anonymous, but also with grief, Zennial aimlessness, single parenthood, fertility challenges, and the criminal-justice system. Showrunner and creator Simone Finch (of The Conners) writes from her own experiences as a 20-something struggling to get sober, and details about losing time to the disease and the pressure to make amends feel achingly raw. But the show, executive-produced by Jenni Konner (returning to similar waters as Girls), takes too long to find steady tonal footing and push past the generalized observations about how hard life is that fuel the “Please adult responsibly” directive. By the time Single Drunk Female meaningfully digs into the complicated motivators behind our worst choices, it feels a little too late.

Sofia Black-D’Elia (of the too-soon-canceled The Mick) stars as Sam Fink, a writer for a BuzzFeed-like website penning listicles like “Here’s 10 Dogs That Look Like the Cast of Gossip Girl.” In the pilot, she waltzes into work late and drunk, assaults her boss (the always delightful Jon Glaser), and is fired and arrested. With nary a mention of student-loan debt or a broken lease, Sam leaves New York City in disgrace and goes home to the Boston suburbs to live with her “smother” Carol (Ally Sheedy, providing an enjoyably blunt edge to an underwritten character). After 30 days of rehab, Sam is assigned a probation officer, Gail (Madison Shepard), and has to figure out how to rebuild her life. Where to start when she doesn’t know exactly where she went wrong?

Frustratingly, Single Drunk Female, which premieres its first two episodes tonight, doesn’t seem to know, either. There are certain elements of Sam’s life that the show illuminates with glaring floodlights as the causes of her drinking: her father’s death from cancer; the engagement of her high-school boyfriend, Joel (Charlie Hall), to her former best friend, Brit (Sasha Compère); her mother’s emotional distance. But Sam is an unreliable narrator, a quality the series doesn’t quite address. Her memories are missing chunks of time, and her reality is colored by her understanding of herself as a victim. We’re told Sam is brilliant — her bedroom bookcase is littered with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack Kerouac, she graduated magna cum laude from NYU, and her writing voice is positively described as “an alcoholic’s take on Joan Didion’s ‘Leaving New York’” — but we don’t read her writing, nor do we hear her perspective on criticism, journalism, or culture.

About that Didion reference: Didion’s essay is named “Goodbye to All That,” not “Leaving New York.” The work was originally printed in Didion’s 1968 essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem and reprinted in a 1995 anthology titled, yes, Leaving New York: Writers Look Back. “Goodbye to All That” is shorthand for a writer of a particular type and temperament, and if we’re meant to see Sam in such a way, wouldn’t she have said something about the inaccuracy of calling the essay “Leaving New York”? This is the kind of inattentiveness that worms throughout the show, much like when Sam and Brit argue about who was made first-chair violin in high school; later on, we see a cello in Sam’s bedroom, and a violin is never mentioned again.

The why and who of Sam are absent while the show moves her through the steps of recovery and sobriety, and perhaps that’s a meta commentary on how one’s identity becomes lost while struggling to get and stay well. But it also shortchanges Sam as a character, too often reducing her to either smart-alecky and scoffing or panicked and pushy. By tying her journey to the 12 steps of AA and organizing the episodes around a year in her life, the series sets Sam on a somewhat predictable path forward, leaving little room for the spontaneity of real life. Each episode ends patly with the next AA step cleanly laid out for Sam. Does this constraint come from the series’ positive-progress format and the half-hour running time? Partially. But Single Drunk Female seems hesitant to share its’ characters greatest fears or desires, as if that amount of honesty would make them unlikable.

The overly structured format also creates tonal tension as Single Drunk Female uneasily walks the comedy-drama line. What Sam is going through, from addressing the pain of her father’s absence to her concern that she can only write if she’s drunk, should be taxing. But the series prefers to tell rather than show, with exposition standing in for consequential dialogue or more physicality from Black-D’Elia. Throwaway statements hint at dark pasts, but nondescript sitcom plots get in the way: Sam jokes about using cocaine and all the sex she can’t remember having, while Carol worries whether the snacks she bought for her “spiritual book club” are classy enough. Sam’s love interest, fellow recovering alcoholic James (Garrick Bernard), stands in intersections and plays chicken with oncoming cars, while Sam’s hard-partying best friend, Felicia (Lily Mae Harrington), joyfully schemes ways to make her son famous on TikTok. Of course, genres can intermingle — this is your reminder that it’s been nearly two years since the last episode of Barry aired — but Single Drunk Female’s zealous devotion to buoying the inherent darkness of its subject matter means the show fails to take any real risks.

When Gail develops a friendship with Carol and her new boyfriend, Bob (Ian Gomez), there’s no threat of the compromised probation officer treating Sam different because the show already regards the details of her probation as a minor narrative annoyance. A ’shroom trip between unlikely friends Felicia and Brit, shot with some fuzziness around the frame, holds no danger because neither Felicia nor Brit is an addict; the series divides drug and alcohol use into binaries of “totally fine” and “extremely bad” with no middle ground. (Although it’s weird that doctor Brit and single mom Felicia would agree to do drugs on a children’s playground.) It feels as nuanced as Sam interviewing for a job with a company named Smug Media (because there were no openings at competitor Douche), or Carol and her friends struggling to understand what “digital” publishing is. The generations don’t understand each other, get it?

Still, Black-D’Elia perseveres, and her charisma makes Sam worth rooting for. Though her drunkenness seems a little too polished, she has believably prickly energy, and a late-season episode in which she dreams of her father is proof Black-D’Elia can go grittier than the series otherwise demands. In fact, it’s during the season’s final two episodes — when Sam is allowed to endure lingering conflict with other characters including the until-then-supportive James — that Single Drunk Female truly clicks. Those concluding half-hours so precisely chart the appeal of blowing up one’s life that they seem born of an entirely different show, one that dares to break free of an established formula of pithy asides, pop-culture references, and neatly resolved confrontations. Based on the strength of its finale, Single Drunk Female has the capacity for complicated, challenging storytelling that asks more of its cast and characters. It’s a mystery why that isn’t on display earlier on.

Single Drunk Female’s Jarringly Light Portrait of Addiction