The shows that defined a version of “millennial” life in the 2010s were all about letting women behave badly: Girls, Broad City, Shrill. Women in their 20s, liberated from tradition and expectation by diminishing job prospects and out-of-control housing prices, could finally do whatever they wanted. They drank, they fucked, they did drugs, they hopped from one low-paying job to another while sharing an apartment with a revolving cast of roommates. In the 2020s, though, it can feel like the party is over for a generation of women who flirted with hedonism.
Freeform’s Single Drunk Female takes a stark look at the morning after. The show follows Sam (Sofia Black-D’Elia), a 28-year-old blogger forced into confronting her alcoholism when she is arrested for assaulting her boss after coming into work drunk. Without a job and with a lot of AA meetings to attend, Sam has to take a step backwards and move home from New York City to the suburbs of Boston with her overbearing mother, played perfectly by Ally Sheedy. Sam soon learns that what she thought of as fun, harmless partying was actually anything but, and she has to deal with the fallout as she recovers.
The show plays with long-standing cultural scripts we have around alcohol and its abuse. We still imagine drinking too much as a lonely thing, something that older people do alone at home to cope. We often assume that people who quit drinking must have hit absolute rock bottom, but what does that mean? Does it mean losing your kids, killing someone with your car? Or can it just mean you decide you don’t want to drink anymore?
Sam doesn’t think she needs to get sober. She only goes to AA because it’s court-ordered; she doesn’t see herself as someone with a drinking problem, and likes to believe she’s still capable of having “fun” over a couple drinks. We get the impression, through Sam’s current and former friends, that she was never actually that fun and often drank to the point of losing control of her words and actions, to the detriment of her relationships. Even so, the people around Sam also struggle to take her sobriety seriously at first — her best friend still wants to get drunk with her and her mother scoffs at the idea that she’s an alcoholic.
What makes recognizing alcohol abuse so difficult, particularly in younger people, is that it’s so normalized. When everyone you know is drinking to the point of blacking out every weekend, how are you to know when your behavior slides into too much? When showrunner and writer Simone Finch began writing the pilot, based on her life, she didn’t yet know that she (or Sam) was an alcoholic. “It was very much, ‘Haha, she’s a hot mess. This is so funny,’” Finch recently told the Boston Globe. It wasn’t until she got sober that the script started to evolve. “I was in pretty heavy denial for a long time. When I finally accepted that I was an alcoholic, then I was like, ‘First of all, this character is obviously me. And second of all, if she’s me, then she needs to be an alcoholic.’”
Other recent TV shows have made some headway in how substance abuse is depicted. In the Sex and the City spinoff And Just Like That …, Miranda has to confront the impact of her functional alcoholism. The plot point feels like a nod to the current discourse around women’s drinking and how much it’s increased during the pandemic; in one scene, Miranda even picks up a copy of Holly Whitaker’s Quit Like a Woman. And in HBO’s Euphoria, Zendaya plays a 17-year-old addict who isn’t particularly committed to Narcotics Anonymous, flitting back and forth between recovery and relapse. She’s the youngest person in her meetings by a long shot, and her sponsor is a middle-age man with two daughters. In Single Drunk Female, many of the people around Sam who are in recovery are also younger. Mindy, one of Sam’s co-workers at the grocery store where she finds a job after moving back home, is also a sober millennial. Then there’s James, a 20-something Sam falls for at her AA meetings and has to try not to date, as recommended for people who are in recovery. All three of them struggle the most when confronted with friends who are still partying.
Single Drunk Female is also the first show to seriously tackle a generational shift around drinking. More and more millennial women are going sober, coining new terms like “sober curious” and testing their relationships to drinking without identifying as alcoholics. Some have coined millennials “Generation Sober,” but perhaps it’s Gen Z whose diminished drinking habits mark a “turning point” for the booze industry.
But while Single Drunk Female seems to engage with some of this context, it also frames sobriety in more traditional ways. The show doesn’t seem to distinguish between sober people and recovering alcoholics, suggesting that the only people who get sober are those with serious issues with alcohol abuse. Sober curiosity doesn’t seem to exist in this universe: People either drink heavily or they don’t. Sam’s alcoholism also defines just about every interaction and relationship she has: She can’t have the same alcohol-centric relationship with her best friend as she used to. Her “will they won’t they” with James is dependent on her success in the program. If the sober-curious movement partly revolves around not wanting to have your life defined by alcohol — or your abstinence from it — Single Drunk Female seems to insert it into every conversation.
Still, the show is a novel look at sobriety from a perspective that we rarely get to hear from. If the first millennial shows were about embracing the freedom in being unable to grow up in the way our parents did, Single Drunk Female takes a look at what happens when the fun spirals out of control. And, perhaps, how to grow out of that.