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Several episodes into Freeform’s Single Drunk Female, Sam (Sofia Black-D’Elia) finds herself once again in the presence of Nathaniel (Jon Glaser), the boss who once fired her. After some work talk, he finally throws out the question that’s been on his mind: “I gotta ask: Was I your bottom?”
“Everyone always wants to know that,” she responds, with the resignation of someone who’s had this conversation with probably everyone she knows. But no, there was no specific rock bottom, she continues — “just kind of like a hole that I kept digging and digging and digging.”
Single Drunk Female
Airdate: Thursday, Jan. 20
Cast: Sofia Black-D'Elia, Ally Sheedy, Rebecca Henderson, Sasha Compère, Lily Mae Harrington, Garrick Bernard
Creator: Simone Finch
Single Drunk Female would probably be a neater story if Nathaniel were Sam’s rock bottom. After all, it’s her violent attack on him in the first minutes of the series that sends her down the path of legal trouble and into reluctant, court-mandated sobriety. But Single Drunk Female is not particularly interested in neatness. What it prioritizes is clarity — of voice, of vision, of perspective. The results are steady and likable, even when its leading lady acts anything but.
In broad strokes, Single Drunk Female falls into the expansive category of half-hour comedies about young adults learning to adult-adult. For Sam, however, the project of growing up is inextricable from her struggle with the disease that’s kept her in a state of arrested development for most of the past dozen or so years, even as she’s managed to achieve (and then lose) the hollow millennial dream of a cool digital media job in New York City.
Forced to move back in with her brittle mother (Ally Sheedy’s Carol) in small-town Massachusetts, she begrudgingly sets about relearning to live life as a sober person. “I miss being a drunk,” she groans to her new boss, grocery store manager and fellow AA member Mindy (Jojo Brown). “There was a lot less accountability.”
Miserable though Sam might be, the show depicting her journey is a pretty good time. Armed by creator Simone Finch with precise wit, stubborn optimism and a disinterest in taking itself too seriously, Single Drunk Female finds humor in offbeat places, like Sam’s surprised dismay at just how much of her late father’s ashes there are when she and Carol go to spread them together. (“He was very tall,” Carol offers, to which Sam protests, “No, he wasn’t.”)
But it never uses that humor to make light of Sam’s difficulties or those of the people around her, or to let Sam off the hook. It’s hilarious when a wasted Sam slowly but deliberately crashes her car into her nemesis’ parked party bus in the pilot; at the same time, it’s clear she’s a complete mess, and not in a fun way.
Also immediately obvious is that Single Drunk Female has something special in Black-D’Elia — among other things, her first scene features one of the more convincing performances of full-body drunkenness I’ve seen onscreen in some time. (In a nice visual touch, the camera lurches unsteadily around her.) She’s equally arresting as sober Sam, her quick comic timing serving variously as a weapon, a shield and an olive branch, and especially amusing in scenes with her life-of-the-party bestie Felicia (Lily Mae Harrington, irresistible). In sturdier roles, Rebecca Henderson is dryly funny as AA sponsor Olivia, and Garrick Bernard brings affable rom-com energy to James, another AA member who has a steamy but boozy history with Sam.
If there’s a downside to Single Drunk Female‘s bubbly sense of humor, it’s that the show doesn’t always go as deep or dark as it could. The series brushes up against melancholy but resists pushing into it, perhaps reluctant to tip over into the dizzying intensity of a The Flight Attendant or the emotional devastation of a Bojack Horseman. So we get hints about Carol’s less-than-perfect parenting of Sam, for example, but the details are left to our imaginations.
Meanwhile, subplots that don’t center Sam at all tend to feel a bit underbaked — like one about the tension between Olivia and her wife Stephanie (Madeline Wise) over Olivia’s devotion to her sponsees that seems to peter out without resolution. Perhaps a second season will know better what to do with them.
But season one is plenty illuminating in other ways. Finch has said she based Single Drunk Female on her own firsthand experiences with alcoholism, sobriety and AA, and it shows in her appreciation for the subtleties of sober life. Sam’s perspective highlights the role alcohol plays in ordinary American society, and particularly the way drinking gets taken for granted everywhere from a date to a job interview to a bridal fitting. Her quest to maintain her sobriety in such treacherous territory can feel like watching someone play the world’s most exhausting video game — a comparison made literal with playful 8-bit graphics in a storyline where James tries to navigate St. Patrick’s Day, or what Mindy calls “The Purge for sober people.”
Eventually, Sam’s valiant efforts do start to pay off. As she evolves over the course of the ten-episode season, becoming more open and compassionate, the people around her respond in kind. The caustic jokes of episode one soften into more affectionate banter. Felicia, who first seemed like a bad influence, proves to have hidden depths; so does Carol’s new boyfriend Bob (Ian Gomez), whom Sam regards at first as a cheesy weirdo. Even Carol, whom Sam first addresses as “Smother,” reveals the vulnerability and sincerity underneath her self-absorption. That Single Drunk Female manages to grow these relationships without sacrificing comedy for sentimentality feels like a minor achievement in itself.
In the first episode, Olivia offers a hungover Sam a maddening piece of advice. “Just try to be a person,” she says. “Brush your teeth, take a shower, make your bed every day.” Single Drunk Female, ultimately, isn’t about much more than that. Sam’s journey moves in increments rather than bounds, and aside from that initial public meltdown, both her triumphs and setbacks tend to be intimate ones. That’s where the series finds both its humor and its pathos. Being a person can be hard, as Carol complains in that same episode. But it helps when you’ve got a solidly funny show to wind down with at the end of the evening.
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