“Nobody wants to hang out with the designated driver,” Cassie, a functional alcoholic, says on the HBO show. Stewardess. “You want to know why? Because he’s boring.”
In the past, pop culture hasn’t always been interested in telling stories of sobriety. And maybe that assumption is why. There’s a lot of drama in blackouts, hangovers, and bad behavior, but strict make-up rules? In Cassie’s words… boring. Or worse yet, lecture.
And yet, despite its protagonist’s concerns, the second series of The Flight Attendant is one of several television shows, along with Disney+’s Single Drunk Female and BritBox’s The Dry, that acknowledge that sobriety, and specifically female sobriety, can be a source of great TV.
In The Flight Attendant, Cassie (Kaley Cuoco) spent a year sober and established a seemingly healthy new life in Los Angeles, where serenity is merely skin deep. The high-concept conceit of the stewardess, featuring fantasy sequences set inside Cassie’s head, has always depended on her being an unreliable narrator. But while the show previously used her drunkenness to accomplish this, her second series applies the same level of interior scrutiny to sobriety as it does to addiction. A newly sober Cassie disappears into a hall of mirrors, her sense of self fragmenting into warring surrogates. She’s the party girl she used to be; the traumatized adolescent; the depressive who can barely participate; and a sanctimonious example of who she could be if she had made better choices. Amidst all her hoopla, the real Cassie doesn’t drink but she continues to take chances, replacing alcohol with something equally secret and dangerous: being an asset to the CIA.
This rude awakening that sobriety doesn’t solve problems that alcohol once seemed to soften is also explored in The Dry, in which 35-year-old Shiv (Roisin Gallagher) returns home to Dublin, six months sober. . With her family suspecting that her new identity as an addict is just another layer of self-absorption, Shiv discovers that her self-destructive tendencies haven’t receded: even sober, she gravitates toward toxic relationships and poor choices. She has a hard time reconciling her idea of herself as an alcoholic with her image of alcoholism itself, crystallized by attending two very different AA meetings: one in suburban Bougie, filled with people who don’t seem to be alcoholics, and another in the inside. city full of people who, at least in Shiv’s opinion, do a long time. When she tries to leave, claiming she was just looking into “the vibe,” the meeting leader chides her for treating AA like “an aerial yoga class.”
These shows come after an extended period of women drinking heavily on television. The glamor of the city girl from Sex and the City shifted to Olivia Pope scandal and Alicia Florrick of The Good Wife: successful middle-class women for whom no hard day at the office was complete without half a bottle of Bordeaux. It was also the era of the nasty anti-heroine, who was finally allowed to let her flaws, including her capacity for excess, slip by in Broad City, Insecure and Fleabag. Other than a few glimpses of deeper questioning about women’s drinking (Mickey in Netflix’s Love, Jessa in Girls, and Tuca in Tuca & Bertie), it was rarely included in the story as it was for the characters. males who drank too much (Hank in Californication, BoJack Horseman, pretty much everyone in Mad Men).
Now, we have TV shows that let us hang out with female characters as they try to fix their problem, like Single Drunk Woman. Based in part on the sobriety journey of its creator, Simone Finch, it follows twenty-something Sam (Sofia Black-D’Elia) as she moves home after assaulting her boss, losing her job, and being court-compelled. attend AA. It’s a comedy, but sobriety isn’t the punchline. For Sam, being sober is deeply upsetting, sometimes oppressive, and often extremely boring; that’s before you get to the unfairly exorbitant prices of non-alcoholic alternatives at the bar.
There is a valid argument that the single drunken woman moves too quickly through Sam’s story but, as with The Flight Attendant and The Dry, it never suggests that sobriety is easy, unlike the awkwardness of drinking. de Miranda that is resolved overnight, or at least between episodes. on And Just Like That… (Although this is a show whose last character with a drinking problem fell to his death from an open window.)
Instead, for these women, sobriety is precarious, tense, hanging by a thread. The boundaries have shifted since choosing to stop drinking and they find themselves navigating completely uncharted terrain, renegotiating every relationship in their lives. We witness the grueling effort of perpetually balancing on top of a slippery slope, facing family and friends who assume they may have “just one” or steel themselves every time they hear the unmistakable sound of glasses colliding. Deciding not to drink is a choice these women have to make every minute of every day, over and over again.
In the past, stories have culminated with the satisfying and familiar scene of a character speaking the words, “I’m X…and I’m an alcoholic.” With these understated, curious shows, that’s often the starting point, and we’re left in the room to hear what happens next.