You learn to be skeptical in this job. Press releases pour in and I try to sift through it all, separating the mundane from the possible masterpieces, leaning toward the genuinely entertaining and finding series that aren’t on everybody’s radar already.
Single Drunk Female (streaming on Disney+ in Canada from Wednesday) wasn’t top of my list for review. It looked, on paper, like a one-note story about a young woman with a drinking problem who overcomes her addiction and, naturally, finds redemption. No doubt, I figured, a well-meaning effort but unlikely to be outstanding.
Then, when the series began on the Freeform channel in the U.S., the rave reviews began to mount up. Now it lands in Canada on Disney+ and yep, I can confirm, this is a highly unusual drama-comedy with a strange sensibility, superbly written and performed. It’s startling, daring and at times bewitching. That’s a very high achievement for what is, in truth, a story about a woman on a sobriety journey.
When we first meet central character Samantha (Sofia Black-D’Elia), she’s 28 and working at a hip online magazine called Bzzzz. She shows up late for an editorial meeting, obviously tipsy, and when her boss makes it clear she is about to be fired, her rage and sarcasm veer this way and that. Eventually, she has a nasty little speech about the patriarchy. She’s incoherent, but all the hallmarks of an educated, entitled twentysomething are there in that scene.
Forced into sobriety thanks to a court order, weeks later she hasn’t learned a thing. She’s drunk and outrageous again, even demanding to be allowed to drive her car. She’s got excuses, of course. She just bumped into the woman who’s about to marry her ex-boyfriend and is so, so entitled to be bitter, angry and let loose.
Now, it’s not easy for actors to play drunk. (My late father, who acted a lot in his early years, used to explain the key tricks he learned to play believably drunk while sober and focused on stage. It’s hard work.) Sofia Black-D’Elia is superb at it, in part because there is so much else going on with this character. She has a weird but recognizable kind of belligerence; her age and background have given her a set of stock reactions to almost everything.
“I miss being drunk, there’s a lot less responsibility,” Sam says at one point. At that particular point, she’s working resentfully in a supermarket and has crawled into some shelving space to take a rest. She’s a complicated person but has some snark in reserve for every situation. She really doesn’t know what responsibility is, at all. Her media career has made her so superficial, she’s clueless.
There’s a lot of savage comedy here, even while you, the viewer, inevitably feel sorry for Sam and wish her the best, as you are supposed to do. She’s moved back home and is living with her mom (Ally Sheedy). While you might expect this dynamic to lead to some sympathetic exploration of trauma or a family situation that caused Sam to become an addict, it never goes in that direction. Mom is just a brittle figure who, as much as she cares for her daughter, wants her own life back.
At work, there’s a lovely off-kilter relationship between Sam and her boss, Mindy (Jojo Brown), who, away from work, is far more stylish and witty than the egotistical recovering drunk can ever be. There is also some sport with her AA sponsor, Olivia (Rebecca Henderson), a do-gooder intellectual whose wife has a created a “girl-power athletic leisure” line of clothes. You’re not sure quite why you’re laughing at those scenes, but you are.
Series creator Simone Finch has said Single Drunk Female began as a story about her own life, but the creative team here includes Jenni Konner, a producer and writer on Lena Dunham’s Girls, and Leslye Headland, a writer and producer on Netflix’s Russian Doll, and they have brought a rare tone to this tale.
The approach to Samantha’s situation is both dyspeptic and sympathetic. The series becomes a coming-of-age story even though the main character is already 28. And, while the episodes are 30 minutes long, what could be a half-hour dark comedy is both comedic and melancholy. Yep, it’s strange and outstanding.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.