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

tv-addictionOn “Flaked,” “Love” and “Girls,” sobriety is one path characters try to figure out who they are and what they want

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. Ina 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. Read more…

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