Most likely you won’t much warm to Samantha Fink (Sofia Black-D’Elia) when you first meet. She’s the titular single drunk female of this new show (Disney+), and the opening scene sees her stroll into work, late and inebriated, assault her terrified boss with a phone receiver, and then blame it all on “the patriarchy”. Alternatively, if you read that sentence and think “Wow, Sam sounds like a total ledge!”, Single Drunk Female may be the intervention you didn’t know you needed. Over the course of 10 half-hour episodes, Sam doesn’t just get sober, she stays that way.
The story is closely based on the life of the show’s 35-year-old creator, Simone Finch, who was still drinking when she started work on the script in about 2012. It was only as she acknowledged her alcoholism that her alter ego Sam was able to evolve beyond the hot mess of post-Fleabag TV cliche. Subsequent drafts were read by Finch’s co-writers on the briefly revived Roseanne, and eventually attracted the interest of Girls co-showrunner Jenni Konner, plus Daisy Gardner (30 Rock, Californication) and Leslye Headland (Russian Doll), who together formed an executive-producing team.
Single Drunk Female shows all these disparate influences. It is as at home in working-class America as Roseanne – only this time it’s the Boston suburb of Melrose, not Lanford, Illinois. Like Hannah from Girls, Sam also once eked out a living writing listicles for NYC-based online outlets with names like Douche and Smug Media, before she got herself fired. The most useful comparison, though, is with Russian Doll. That Natasha Lyonne-starring Netflix show (season two lands this month) used a trippy time-loop allegory to explore the repetitive nature of active addiction. Single Drunk Female, by contrast, is a direct, straightforward, even earnest story of sobriety.
Which sounds boring, doesn’t it? How much dramatic mileage is there in herbal tea and moral inventory? Plenty, it turns out. It might help to think of this as a superior coming-of-age dramedy, since that’s essentially what recovery is: the process of learning, as a grownup, how to deal with all that difficult grownup stuff that boozing blunts or delays. How do you make new friends while sober? Or reconnect with old ones? How do you grieve a loss or celebrate a triumph without a glass in hand? How do you have sex, even? What do you do at the weekend? One of Single Drunk Female’s most sobering observations is that plenty of people who would never consider themselves problem drinkers still use booze to get through the day. As Sam’s mostly unhelpful mother, Carol (Ally Sheedy), says, while pouring out a large one: “Don’t judge me for having one glass of wine in the evening, because being a person is hard.”
There’s no judgment here. As Sam begins to look beyond the rim of her shot-glass, she – and we – are rewarded with an expanded view of Carol and all the other people in her life. Characters such as Felicia, the responsible single mum who still knows how to paaardee haaard (I could listen to Lily Mae Harrington’s Boston vowels all day). Or uptight AA sponsor Olivia (Rebecca Henderson), her even more fastidious wife (Madeline Wise), and their oversized, overindulged cat, Joshie. Or supermarket manager Mindy (Jojo Brown), a sweet soul with a sharp wit.
Conversely, it’s the rager scenes that turn out to be the least fun. The flashback episode in which we see how James (Garrick Bernard) reached rock bottom via a family Thanksgiving dinner and a toilet hook-up, is about as enjoyable as being the only sober person at the bar on St Patrick’s Day; the jokes don’t quite land and the moments of bonhomie feel forced. Bernard as James makes an excellent love interest for Samantha – emotional boundaries have never been so sexy! – but he’s not a very convincing drunk.
Happily, this lapse only further confirms the rarity of Single Drunk Female. It’s a show that has most to say at the very point when other shows lose interest. TV has been fascinated by messy-but-beautiful, damaged-but-hot, lovelorn-but-sexually liberated women since Fleabag first arched an eyebrow to camera. Single Drunk Female demonstrates the hard-won emotional maturity of a recovering addict by allowing Sam to not only get her act together, but also become a little less tediously self-involved as a result. I’ll raise a mineral water to that.