TV's quiet 12-step revolution: Prestige comedies are changing the way we see addiction, sobriety and AA

On "Flaked," "Love" and "Girls," sobriety is one path characters try to figure out who they are and what they want

Published April 3, 2016 11:29PM (EDT)

Gillian Jacobs in "Love," Will Arnett in "Flaked," Jemima Kirke in "Girls" (Netflix/HBO)
Gillian Jacobs in "Love," Will Arnett in "Flaked," Jemima Kirke in "Girls" (Netflix/HBO)

In the fifth episode of “Love,” a crooked little romantic comedy on Netflix, the heroine Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) sits in an AA meeting.

“My friend had this party and let’s just say I let things get out of hand,” she says. “I didn’t drink. I’m still sober. But it was the first time in a long time that I felt like getting fucked up, so I thought I should get myself to a meeting.”

Actually, she’s lying. In the previous episode, we watched as a drunken Mickey stomped through the house like someone looking for a glass to smash. Right before the meeting, in fact, she hunkered down in the back seat of her car to take a fortifying hit from a joint. But I recognized this quarter-confession from my own years of trying and failing to quit. Drunks are such masters of the downshift. “I might have had a sip last night” means “I got wasted.” And “I think I might start again” means “I already did, and I’m trying to figure out how to tell you.”

After the meeting, Mickey speaks to a woman outside. “It’s so nice not to be seeking all these outside things, like drinks, or guys,” she says with a strained smile. Then she returns to her car, takes out her phone, and sets the sobriety day counter to zero again. She can lie in the rooms, but some part of her still wants to stay accountable, even if it’s to a smart phone.

Stories about addicts follow a familiar arc: the exhilaration of alcohol or drugs, followed by the train wreck, and then — tah-dah! — a shiny new life in recovery. As a rabid consumer of these tales, I find them enjoyable, but at times too simplistic. So you just … got sober? That was it? In the real world, people can spend years stuck between those two worlds. They twist on the hook, knowing they should stop but unable to let go of old comforts. Or they find a home in the rooms, only to second-guess if they belong. A person’s relationship to sobriety can be one slippery eel. In Hollywood, however, it’s like addicts fall into two distinct categories: the drunken disaster who crashes a car into someone’s house and the Good Samaritan who gives instead of takes. But what if your drinking problem isn't so blindingly obvious? Or what if you quit drinking — and you’re still a mess? A batch of TV shows, all of them streaming or online, are showing more nuanced portraits of recovery than we’ve ever seen on television, and they’re asking the same questions problem drinkers ask themselves: What is addiction, exactly? What is the larger purpose of sobriety? And what the hell would a life without alcohol or drugs even look like?

“Flaked” gives an answer to the last question. The eight-series Netflix show, created by Will Arnett and his “Arrested Development” producer Mitch Hurwitz, centers on a group of recovering addicts in Venice Beach, a groovy little slice of bohemia where sun goddesses mix with aging hipsters outside the meetings, and coffee is supplied by a tattooed barista. For decades, the stereotype of 12-step programs has been either a) old white dudes smoking or b) a cult. Here we get a sexier portrait of AA, which isn’t too far from reality in urban centers like Los Angeles and New York, where the vibe is cool and chummy, and the line between “recovery program” and “hook-up scene” can be a little thin. Written by Mark Chappell (of the David Cross sitcom “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret”) along with Arnett, who quit drinking 15 years ago, the characters also sound like actual recovery people instead of creepy 12-step robots. They are well-intentioned but flawed, thin-skinned, and their conversations can easily pivot from gentle program wisdom to “no, fuck YOU.”

Arnett plays Chip, who spends his day riding his bike around the neighborhood (he lost his driver's license) and chatting up hot women 20 years younger than him. Depictions of sober folk tend to be earnest and altruistic, but humans drag so many bad habits into sobriety, and in Chip, we see a fairly common subspecies: the recovery dude as charming cad. He sleeps with women in their first year of the program (generally frowned upon). He gives advice to newcomers that he never takes. He spends most days in avoidance. But as the show unfolds, we see his manipulations go much deeper. “Flaked” gets a lot of momentum from its plot twists, so the purists among us might want to skip this next part, but I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say Chip is not the person he seems. The show’s tension derives from figuring out: How much of his story is true? And by the season’s end, we are left wondering: Does this guy even have a drinking problem, or has he simply taken cover in a room of trusting strangers where he can feed his own ego and look like a good guy?

Such high-level fraudulence is probably more common in fiction than in real life. (In the 2011 comic novel “In the Rooms” by Tom Shone, an agent fakes a drinking problem to recruit a talented writer.) However, it’s certainly true that people do hide things in the rooms. Terrible things they did. Or terrible things they didn’t do, since part of the bonding ritual is telling stories of your own misdeeds. Nobody is going to fact-check you, nobody is even going to challenge you, so you are whoever you say you are, which can be a lot of rope to give a damaged human being. One of the hardest things for a long-time sober person to admit is that they’re still struggling. In a Hollywood Reporter profile that came out earlier this week, Arnett opened up about his own relapse while working on “Flaked”: “I described it at a meeting recently like a whistle off in the distance for a train you know is coming for you," he said. And sometimes we lie to ourselves without even knowing it. Anyone who’s sat in those chairs long enough knows how easy it is to fall into a kind of “performance” — treating a share like an open mic night, or pretending to be OK when they’re dying inside. Life is full of unreliable narrators, even in a place (especially in a place?) where members are asked to be brutally honest.

To talk about these things is tricky. For one, because generalizing about recovery is like generalizing about sunshine, which might warm someone else’s shoulders at the same time it makes me wince. For another, the anonymity tradition of AA has long discouraged members from talking publicly about the program, since the stigma against alcoholics was so fierce when AA began in the 1930s. There is a whole different piece to be written about the tradition of anonymity, and what purpose it might serve in a full-disclosure culture where people regularly post their anniversary chips on Facebook, and whether hiding your status as a recovering alcoholic shields you from stigma — or increases it. But for now, the point is how difficult it can be to simply talk about your own experience. Even this essay will strike some as a violation of the 11th tradition, although many members have settled into a looser interpretation: I will protect other people’s participation in the program, but there are times when it makes sense to disclose my own. Still, writing about your own struggles does not come without controversy.

That’s where fiction comes in handy. In fact, Hollywood has long played a role in public awareness around AA. Movies like “The Lost Weekend” (1945), “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” (1955), and “The Days of Wine and Roses” (1962), were early sympathetic portraits of alcoholism that touted AA’s rare ability to help a very lost person find their way. In the ’80s and ’90s, movies gave us a glimpse into the burgeoning 12-step rehab industry: Michael Keaton in “Clean and Sober,” Meg Ryan in “When a Man Loves a Woman.” A much richer tapestry can be seen in David Foster Wallace’s novel “Infinite Jest,” which takes place at a halfway house and accurately predicts how prevalent addiction — to entertainment, to pleasure, to escape, to “all these outside things,” as Mickey in “Love” called it — will become in the 21st century.

On television, AA plot lines have mostly been the domain of serious dramas: Bubbles (Andre Royo) in “The Wire” telling his story at a meeting; Jesse (Aaron Paul) in “Breaking Bad” doing dope deals at his; Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) in “House of Cards,” whose operatic 12-step plot line ended in a desert with a dead body and a shovel (not common, in my experience). These shows give us fleeting glimpses of AA — the fluorescent-lit rooms, the drip coffee in styrofoam cups — but AA is mostly shorthand for the character’s ability to find redemption. When Nurse Jackie (Edie Falco) bolts from rehab, we know hope is running out. When “The Killing’s” streetwise detective Holder (Joel Kinnaman), picks up his chip, we know he’s fighting the battle against his own demons.

AA does pop up in the occasional comedy. You could include “Maron” on IFC, though it’s less program-specific and more generally about a sober man wrestling his own bullshit to the ground. (Creator Marc Maron’s real-life podcast “WTF” is a treasure trove of honest conversations about drugs, booze and recovery.) In the CBS sitcom “Mom,” Anna Farris and Allison Janney play a mother and daughter in AA. While some of its topics will resonate with sober people — dating for the first time, family discord, forgiving yourself for past sins — the show is created by Chuck Lorre, who also gave us “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory,” and the approach is way too broad-brush for my tastes.

Until recently, the best place on TV to find in-depth depiction of recovery was reality TV, where shows like “Intervention” and (less successfully) “Celebrity Rehab” showed how bloody this battle can get. I know some would disagree, but I do think these shows can spread awareness, and sympathy; but they also fall prey to the classic limitations of their genre — turning human suffering into a spectators’ sport, enabling the participants’ own need for attention, a tendency to select for hair-raising scenarios that reinforce the false idea that “real” addicts are the ones whose lives implode spectacularly. In fact, many addicts never experience such a public flameout. They keep their jobs, they keep their houses, they keep their friends — but they lose themselves, which is the part that matters. And those are exactly the sort of muted storylines these newer comedy-dramas are tackling.

When wild-child Jessa (Jemima Kirke) shows up in rehab on the third season of “Girls,” it’s a bit of a WTF moment. Where was the dramatic rock-bottom moment? Was she addicted to heroin, or self-destruction, or what? The plot twist might have signaled, in more cynical circles, that a show about the reckless lives of twenty-somethings was now circling the drain. Nothing says “party killer” like “serenity prayer.” But the storyline is a fairly realistic one for young people in big cities, where the garden of earthly delights can lead to an early withdrawal from the party scene. And I have enjoyed watching Jessa evolve from the impulsive, tough-girl seductress — a character I never really related to — into a young woman who is aware of using men and sarcasm to hide her own vulnerability. In this current season, the fifth, she has struck up a romance with Adam (Adam Driver), also sober, whose messed-up relationship with booze, sex and control became the focal point of an earlier plot-line controversy. Though it seemed an unlikely romance at first — who else is going to sleep together on the show? — the delight has been discovering just how much these two characters fit.

It’s sweet to watch these two sober people tentatively circle each other. They overthink some moments, and don’t think through others at all. One of the big fears for people who quit drinking, especially women, is that they will never have sex again, or develop a relationship to erotic adventure and their own body that is happy and whole and not fucked-up and terrifying. But with Adam and Jessa, we see two people learning to find comfort in honest communication instead of the bottle or the needle. In one recent episode, they rip each other’s clothes off in a moment of passion, and later lie together naked on the bed. “Was that bad sex?” Adam asks her.

Jessa laughs. “Yes, I’m pretty sure that was bad sex.”

But this is exactly the kind of disclosure that can actually lead to good sex, which happens when you stop pretending and dare to let yourself be fully seen. So much of the sex we see in movies and television is a performance, an absurd charade of pleasure put on for the camera, and the unintended consequence is that young people, lacking any realistic models for intimacy, enact these charades in their own beds, which can be highly problematic, whether their behavioral models come from HBO or YouPorn.

We see some of that damage in “Love,” a show that features of a great deal of sex — a bizarre tryst with a boss, a blowjob in an empty warehouse, an awkward climax involving a Hitachi Magic Wand vibrator — but none of it looks very pleasurable. It looks compulsory, out of rhythm. At some point I started to think a better name for the show would be “Everybody’s Fucking, and Nobody’s Happy,” which, come to think of it, could describe a lot of popular shows right now. But as the title promises, the show is also about love, and the ways that pop-romantic portrayals have flattened our understanding of that complicated terrain, too. The entire season follows Mickey’s unfolding relationship with Gus, played by Paul Rust. (Rust created the series, along with his wife, former “Girls” writer Lesley Arfin, and Judd Apatow.) The two meet, sniff around each other, bolt to the other side of the room, rush back together, etc. Like sobriety, love can be nothing but a series of switchbacks.

As in “Girls,” here we see sobriety not as a struggle for redemption so much as a struggle to understand who you are and what you really want. These people are estranged from themselves — by drugs and alcohol, by a constant swirl of messages from porn and popular culture, by technological devices that somehow enable closeness at the same time they leave us stranded. These characters want to find a way back to their authentic selves. But what is that, anyway?

In the first episode of “Love,” Mickey is sitting on her back porch with her neighbor, an older woman who pops Ambien to combat the stresses of motherhood. “Are you sober?” the woman asks Mickey, who replies, “Kinda.”

Indecision is a central experience of this modern life. What’s your career going to be? I don’t know. Are you guys dating or not? I don’t know. Are you sober or not? I don’t know. This is what happens when you have so many choices. It all gets so confusing and overwhelming.

Later in the season, we learn that the neighbor also went to AA for a while. Three years. “It didn’t work for me,” she says, “but maybe it will work for you.”

I found this small exchange very realistic, and a nice change from the polarized comment sections on the topic: AA never works! AA works all the time! Rah-rah-rah! Of course, the truth falls in between. AA works for some, not others. In my life, it has done both. I first came into the program at 25, then decided I wanted to fall off some barstools for a little while longer. I returned at 35. The program didn’t change; I did. Maybe Mickey will find the same path. Maybe not. The show leaves the question dangling, as it remains for many people in real life. The point is that AA is there if you need it. Come, stay, go away, return. The door is always open.

(The next section contains some spoilers.)

In the final episode, Mickey goes to a meeting for Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, known as SLAA. I’ve never seen that program portrayed on television, and I was pleased to find it depicted with respect: young women opening up about their own insecurities and the freedom they found in being alone. I’ve heard so many punchlines at the expense of 12-step programs, but what I find moving about them is their total sincerity. For people like me, poisoned by a need to be clever and my own over-antic mind, such direct honesty can feel like a radical act.

After the meeting, Mickey runs into Gus. “I’m a drug addict, and a sex addict, and an alcoholic,” she blurts out — her first big swing at the Total Truth. He kisses her. I was left at odds. Was this a triumph, a setback — or both?

People often complain that recovery stories are all the same, because they follow the same trajectory, which is sort of like saying that human lives are all the same, because we all wind up dead. The drama is entirely in how we get there. What I think people are saying is that we keep telling recovery stories in the same way, and it’s boring. Fair enough. I think we need more stories, better stories, different stories. (The most under-explored territory of sobriety narratives may be the ones that don’t include AA at all.) One thing I like about these new tales is that they take recovery narratives off the “specialty shelf” and recategorize them alongside other challenges of adult life.

The tension in any story comes when we stray from cliché and observe the bizarre and crackling details, the parts that run up against logic and better judgment. Change is never easy. That’s why most people never do it. And those who do change — well, maybe they have a story to tell.

By Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

MORE FROM Sarah Hepola

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Addiction Alcoholism Editor's Picks Flaked Girls Hbo Love Netflix