Recovery from addiction has never been as visible on TV as it is in 2016. Television producers have been telling stories about alcoholics and recovering alcoholics with more empathy and accuracy than ever, and there are more than a handful of shows with characters in recovery.
Maron, in its fourth season on IFC, tracks its protagonist as he puts his life back together after relapsing on pain medication after many years of sobriety. Girls had two characters in recovery, and explored the "13th step" of being in a relationship with someone with less sobriety. Shameless has been showing how a parent's alcoholism affects the whole family for six seasons.
It's hard to say exactly why addiction is becoming more prominent — perhaps addiction is becoming less stigmatized and more understood — but real recovering addicts and alcoholics have definitely noticed. It's important that TV gets these stories right, they say, so everyone has a better, more realistic picture. TVGuide.com assembled a panel of five alcoholism experts — that is, recovering alcoholics — to help determine what contemporary show has the most accurate depiction of recovery from drug and/or alcohol addiction.
We took on three current shows: Recovery Road on Freeform, Flaked on Netflix and Mom on CBS, the latter of which concludes its third season May 19th. These shows each take pains to ground their depictions of recovery in reality, from the set design to the dialogue to the themes. TVGuide.com's panel of recovering alcoholics sat down to watch episodes of each of these shows and discuss how true to their own experiences each of these shows are.
Panelists: David, 36; Olivia, 26; Ravi, 32; Kevin, 35; Zack, 29. (All names have been changed.)
Recovery Road, which premiered in January and was canceled last week, was a teen drama based on a novel by Blake Nelson. It followed 17-year-old Maddie's (Jessica Sula) path to recovery after she was caught with liquor in school and sent to an adult residential outpatient program, where she lives a double life as a popular, high-achieving high school student by day, recovering alcoholic by night. The pilot opens with Maddie waking up on the lawn after a night of partying with no memory of what happened and no idea where she parked her car and ends with her admitted to rehab and ready to try getting sober. Barring the oxymoron of "residential outpatient" and a certain frothy falsity of tone, Recovery Road gets a lot of details right, according to our panel of experts.
"I've fallen asleep on my parents' lawn. I've lost track of my car," says David.
"I thought the opening was really relatable," concurs Kevin, 35. "The way in which her life spirals out of control was something that if I heard someone talking about that at a meeting, I'd be nodding along."
Two scenes from the pilot in particular stand out to the panel for their authenticity. In one, Maddie tells another alcoholic, Trish (Kyla Pratt), about how she may have had nonconsensual sex, but she can't remember because she was in a blackout. To David and Kevin, the scene shows how only other addicts can truly understand what another addict is going through.
The other scene is when Vern (Daniel Franzese) comforts Maddie after a tough moment. She says "You don't even know me, why do you care?"
"One day, you're going to have a moment like this with someone else," he answers. "Sharing your experience. That's how it works." This is the 12th Step — carrying the message to other alcoholics to show how it's done. Our panel appreciates the accurate characterization of an AA precept.
The panel's consensus is that Recovery Road is not as emotionally heavy as their own experiences, but does a good job at depicting recovery for a young audience.
"For young people watching this, it's good for them to see that you can be doing well on the outside, but none of that really matters when you're going through active addiction," says Olivia.
The Netflix dramedy Flaked, about a long-sober man who begins drinking again but continues to act like an upstanding member of his local recovery community, is at least partially rooted in co-creator and star Will Arnett's own experience. Arnett got sober in 2000 and attended AA meetings in Venice, Calif., where Flaked is set, but started drinking again during the time he was working on the show (he's clean again for a few months as of March). Reviews for Flaked were mostly negative and criticized the show for not being realistic, which angered Arnett.
"When you have a [reviewer] say, 'It's not even a good depiction of sobriety — that they do a better job on Mom, you're like, 'What are you talking about?' " he told The Hollywood Reporter. "This is actually f---ing happening [to me], you a------. This is actually happening in real time — as quickly as we can shoot, it's happening."
Arnett would be unhappy with our panel, because most of them concur with the reviewers. They feel Flaked is forced and contrived with unlikable, deluded characters.
"It felt like 'We have to put these little things in there to make sense of recovery'," says Ravi.
"The coffee cups were right, everything they were saying was right, but there was no joy. None of that true feeling of connection you get in an AA meeting," says Kevin.
Ravi points to a particularly egregious scene in the pilot, where George (Robert Wisdom) and Chip (Arnett) have a stilted, unnatural conversation that's mostly conducted through AA jargon and clichés.
"Why do you get to take my inventory?" Chip says. "Last I checked you're not my sponsor anymore."
"Just keep your side of the road clean," George replies.
Two members of the panel do think Flaked accurately reflects a certain strain of AA usually seen in small towns where everyone is all up in each other's business and a large percentage of AA members are middle-aged men, as well as sad, petty dry drunks who got sober but stayed selfish.
"To the extent they were going for that, it's spot-on," says David. "But the result is that these characters are not sympathetic in any way, because skeezy middle-aged guys are not sympathetic."
"Someone watching this show trying to get a sense of recovery, especially as a woman, would be like 'I can't go to AA, there's creepy dudes in there who just want to sleep with me,'" says Olivia.
On a lot of shows, alcoholism is a plot device. There's a built-in dramatic tension when someone is on the wagon, so the push-and-pull of drunkenness and sobriety is the story and it doesn't go any deeper than that. Mom is different, because it recognizes that there are many more stories about alcoholism to tell, and it goes all the way in on exploring all the myriad issues and minute details of recovery. There's "will she relapse or will she stay sober?" but there's also "how do you get your nonalcoholic boyfriend to understand why you have to go to meetings every day?" That's a topic addressed in Season 3 episode "Beast Mode and Old People Kissing," as is the heavier topic of "how do I get over the anger I feel and come to terms with the fact that the man who gave my friend the drugs when she relapsed and died deserves a chance to get sober, too?" Mom is about recovery in a way no other show is, and therefore is the panel's consensus choice for most accurate depiction of recovery.
"I would feel comfortable saying 'Yeah, it's like that' to somebody who is not in recovery but watches this show," says Kevin.
"You show this to anyone in recovery, and they'll be able to relate," says Zack.
The panel members appreciate how the show has a sense of humor about alcoholism and recovery, but takes it seriously, too. Bonnie (Allison Janney) resolves the issue of her boyfriend Adam (William Fichtner) not understanding AA by showing him the tape of her daughter Christy's (Anna Faris) wedding, which she ruined by getting trashed and making a scene. Her drunken antics are played for laughs until the end, when Christy is crying and apologizing for her mother's behavior.
"It's important that they show the part with the daughter, where you realize it's not just some funny bits," says Zack. "There are actual consequences. She ruined her daughter's wedding, and it's not 'Ha ha.'" And yet, it still manages to end on a laugh, when Adam quips that he'll take her to a meeting right now if it ensures that never happens again.
Panel members ranked Mom as most accurate, followed by Recovery Road, then Flaked, though Flaked is accurate in a very specific way. They respect each show's depiction of recovery as different, because every recovering alcoholic's experience is different. And they think it's a good thing that these shows exist, because representation builds understanding.
(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS.)