[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
Stories about sobriety don’t automatically lend themselves to positivity. Watching someone reclaim their life after hitting rock bottom doesn’t usually come hand in hand with cheery smiles and a smooth road. So it’s a credit to “Single Drunk Female” that the show manages to be driven by something other than despair while not ignoring the challenges that its main character faces.
Sam (Sofia Black-D’Elia) begins the show with a series of ill-advised decisions and ill-fated confrontations, ones that lead her to a much-needed wake-up call. Having lost her job at a New York-based culture website (one of the best running jokes of the series is that no one quite knows how to say “BZZ” with a straight face), she finds herself living back in her Boston-area hometown with her mother Carol (Ally Sheedy).
As part of an agreement that staves off potential jailtime, Sam starts going to meetings. There, she meets sponsor Olivia (Rebecca Henderson) and crosses paths with a former one-night stand James (Garrick Bernard). Each episode starts with an on-screen sobriety tracker, counting up the days since Sam’s last drink. Holding strong during nights out with former drinking pal Felicia (Lily Mae Harrington) and run-ins with Brit (Sasha Compère) — a former best friend who’s now engaged to Sam’s ex-boyfriend — the show captures the frustrations, anxieties, and tiny breakthroughs that come with Sam slowly rebuilding herself.
This show wouldn’t work without someone playing Sam who understands the right balance between joking self-deprecation and simmering anger at the gradual nature of sobriety. When Black-D’Elia crawls into the bottom shelf of a supermarket cereal aisle at the start of the show’s second episode, there’s a little bit of both. Getting a couple of chips at meetings doesn’t automatically transform Sam from someone shaken by a brush with her self-destructive tendencies. If Sam is regaining some of that confidence and ability to reach out to those in the past that she’s wronged, Black-D’Elia keeps a little bit of Sam’s skepticism and self-doubt in those breakthroughs.
“Single Drunk Female” also keeps those competing emotions alive in the relationship between Sam and Carol. The latter is not exactly a selfless mother figure who puts her life on hold to shepherd her daughter. There are tiny cracks where Sheedy lets through some hints that some of Sam’s less constructive instincts might be learned behavior. Past the veneer of a mother that’s at least trying to say all the right things is someone who can’t help letting her true feelings slip through every once in a while. Whether she’s offering congratulations or trying to give a pep talk to Sam, unconditional help isn’t Carol’s strong suit. Still, there’s a particular kind of mother-daughter love there, and Sheedy splits the difference between “trying my best” and “why is this happening to me” in a way that adds to the overall depth of the show.
Series creator Simone Finch, who also wrote the show’s first two episodes, sets up a few other dynamics in “Single Drunk Female” that flip expectations in a similarly satisfying way. The show doesn’t position Olivia as an all-knowing sage with every answer. She’s someone who offers Sam incremental help not because she’s withholding or testing her new sponsee, but because wild, massive adjustments go against the ongoing process that both of them go through every day. The straightforward approach that Henderson brings to each of Olivia’s sponsor check-ins (however impromptu Sam makes them) is something that both Sam and the overall series need when things are in danger of getting pulled off-course. (Plus, Olivia and her wife have maybe the hugest cat ever put on screen. What a joy.)
The longer the series goes on and Sam starts the process of repairing past friendships, “Single Drunk Female” could easily slide into a pattern where ex-boyfriend Joel (Charlie Hall) is the one who takes up the majority of her attention. Instead, the show puts a much bigger emphasis on Sam trying to patch things up with Brit. Sam certainly has her share of romantic confusion elsewhere in the show, so in another example of finding a key balance, Black-D’Elia and Compère navigate the “addressing a messy friend breakup” arc in a grounded, gradual way.
With a title like “Single Drunk Female,” it would be understandable for Sam to be a giant vortex that draws in everything in her path. Though for some stretches of the show that’s true, this show is dotted with smaller touches that help stabilize the all-encompassing effort that Sam is undertaking. Getting at the pesky, constant challenges like finding non-drinking ways to spend an empty afternoon show that staying sober is something that Sam has to keep actively choosing. It’s not an easy atmosphere to create, much less maintain, but “Single Drunk Female” is off to a promising start so far.