There are so many portraits of recovering addicts on TV and on Netflix these days you may feel like you’ve sat through a 12-step meeting without ever leaving your house.
In the olden days of television, alcoholics and addicts tended to stay on the periphery. There was Barney Gumble, the town drunk of "The Simpsons" who sometimes turned up at the odd AA meeting, once even bringing Homer with him, where Homer proclaimed “Anything that takes 12 steps isn’t worth doing.”
And recent years have had a host of heavy drinkers and pillheads: Don Draper, Dr. House, Nurse Jackie. As Charlie Harper in "Two and a Half Men," Charlie Sheen once proclaimed that alcohol is a poison, but he drank it because “there are things inside of me that I need to kill.”
“An extreme character is always gonna be more fun to have on screen,” said Mark Chappell, a producer behind “Flaked,” a new show on Netflix starring Will Arnett as a recovering(ish) alcoholic named Chip. “What’s more interesting, a character who sort of smokes pot recreationally or has the odd glass of wine? That’s not going to be as exciting as someone who has extreme tendencies.”
But TV is changing and so is the representation of addiction and recovery on TV. Chuck Lorre, the producer behind "Two and a Half Men" (who famously fell out with Sheen in 2011) is now running “Mom,” a CBS show about a mother and daughter who are both in recovery for alcoholism and regularly attend meetings. Over on Netflix, two new shows feature characters that regularly attend recovery meetings: “Love,” starring Gillian Jacobs, and the aforementioned “Flaked.”
In these last two shows, the recovering protagonists attend meetings, but they’re still far from sober. “People often have a difficult relationship with AA itself,” Chappell said. The shows reflect the protagonists' struggles to reconcile their own feelings with the recovery world. They spout recovery mottos in meetings while relapsing in secret. Still, the presence of AA and recovery in both shows seems to always provide the potential for change.
“We didn’t want it to be like a show about alcoholism or drug addiction or sex addiction,” said Lesley Arfin, who produced “Love” along with Judd Apatow and her husband, Paul Rust, who also stars in the show. (The show is based on versions of her own life and relationship with Rust). “It’s just a part of [Mickey’s] life, it’s just a part of her character.”
In “Love,” Mickey (the Gillian Jacobs character) is seen struggling with her sobriety in AA – though she later attends a meeting for sex and love addiction. Dealing with the nature of the show, having Mickey go to SLAA just made sense from a dramatic perspective, of needing the character to change within a short period of time. “You’re not gonna have a show if a story doesn’t go anywhere and a story doesn’t go anywhere if your characters don’t have change," Arfin said.
The shows also mine the bonds between recovering addicts for dramatic effect. As in mafia films, Chappell said, “The recovery world has its own rules, its own hierarchy. Sure, in Venice Beach, personal status can affect all human interactions. But, enter the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, and that all slips away. It doesn’t matter who you are, your status in life no longer counts for life once you’re in AA. And suddenly you answer to your sponsor, who could be a street cleaner, whereas in your day job you’re running a multinational company.”
Chappell, who said jokingly, “I have yet to acknowledge my own drinking problem,” attended recovery meetings in Los Angeles and London to write the show, and several of the writers on the staff have experience with AA. “I’m assuming that when we see AA meetings or any kind of 12-step meetings on a TV show it’s usually because the writer is in that program,” Arfin said.
With “Love,” Arfin said, “I just wanted people to see like, ‘Oh, AA isn’t a bummer, and sometimes it’s really funny and hopeful, and sometimes it’s boring, and sometimes it’s just a place to go hang out with your friends and sometimes it’s a miracle. You know? Like anything.”
For her part, Afrin said she’s already heard from people who say the show inspired them to seek help with sex addiction. “There is nothing [expletive] cooler,” Arfin said. “That’s all I ever want to do is keep us more connected and less separate.”