Addiction TV Lite—The New TV Show “Recovery Road”

By Malina Saval 01/24/16

Recovery Road is harmless enough, but bears only a vague resemblance to the harsh realities of addiction or, more specifically, the series’ purported focal point: sobriety.

The Fix Review of the new “Sobriety” TV Show “Recovery Road”
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The past decade has seen an uptick in addiction-themed TV, from Mad Men to Mom to Shameless, and for obvious reasons: addiction is rampant in the world and an endless source of fascination for both those who remain mystified by the disease and those who understand it all too well. Add the fact that so many writers and artists are addicts and you’ve got some pretty compelling material with which to convey that struggle and pain in entertainment form.

And the teen genre is no exception. In fact, series marketed at youth have probably done a more thorough job of examining addiction over the years, if not in the most realistic way—and usually reserved for the one-off PSA masquerading as a “very special episode”—then at least in a manner that encourages a conversation about the topic. Whether it was Rayanne’s drinking problem on the short-lived cult classic My So-Called Life or the drunken rich kids’ prom debacle of Beverly Hills: 90210 (“Donna Martin graduates!”), the '90s loved a kids-and-alcohol plotline. And kids today have yet to tire of the discussion because drugs and alcohol are woven so tightly into their everyday conversation. Drugs, booze, sex—these will always be core issues permeating adolescent existence.

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Most recently, Steven Okazaki’s documentary Heroin: Cape Cod takes a harrowing, unvarnished glimpse into the hell of addiction, focusing on eight young adults hooked on opiates whose lives crash down around them with monsoon-like force. Gloomy and depressing, the film paints a stark portrait of heroin use, filled with theft and death and track marks and bruises and greasy, pimply skin—all the casualties of hardcore addiction.

And now there’s Recovery Road, TV’s latest series to tackle the theme of strung-out high schoolers. Based on Blake Nelson’s 2011 YA novel and a perfect addendum to FreeForm’s (formerly ABC Family) frothy adolescent offerings, Recovery Road is harmless enough, but bears only a vague resemblance to the harsh realities of addiction or, more specifically, the series’ purported focal point: sobriety.

The hour-long series revolves around Maddie Graham, played by Jessica Sula, a stunning 17-year old with amazing Diana Ross-like hair and a pension for partying, vodka and cocaine. The show opens in the aftermath of one such hard-partying night, with Maddie passed out on her mom’s front lawn (her father died in a drunk-driving accident, “an irony that is not lost” on the snarky teen) and the sprinklers going off on her head. Maddie has blacked out, can’t remember where she left her car with her backpack and laptop computer in it, and after crashing in bed for all of three seconds, awakens to the toxic blast of her alarm clock, and is on her way to school, where she now faces expulsion because of a water bottle filled with vodka that was found stashed away in her locker during a headmaster-sanctioned search.

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Cynthia (Alexis Carra), the school’s strict but hyper-optimistic guidance counselor, who also happens to be a recovering alcoholic, issues Maddie an ultimatum: she can go to detox for 24 hours and enter a 90-day sober living house while continuing to go to school during the day, or get kicked out of school for good.

“You can go to school by day and spend your evenings getting sober,” says Cynthia, sounding off a half-baked plan that inversely recalls the absurdity of the premise of the 1984 film Angel, where the main character is a model student by day, Hollywood hooker by night. As any hardcore addict knows, you can’t go straight from abusing drugs to first period math class as if nothing ever happened.

Maddie, of course, denies having a problem, but ultimately chooses rehab over expulsion, determined to keep her situation a secret from her adoring boyfriend and peers.

And therein lies one of the most flagrant flaws of Recovery Road—it’s predicated on a lie. Do addicts lie? Yes, obviously, all the time. But does it make sense that a bunch of purportedly well-meaning professionals—as well as Maddie’s loving mom, played by Sharon Leal—would enable a teen to fib her way through the initial phases of recovery while honesty is one of the main tenets of sobriety? Not in the real world, no.

But then, almost nothing about this show reflects the dirty truth of sobriety, none the least of which is Springtime Meadows, the cozy sober living house-cum-outpatient treatment facility for (mostly) adults where Maddie is its youngest—and most reluctant—resident. Others at the facility represent the standard textbook archetypes of addiction recovery: there’s Trish (Kyla Pratt), a bubbly, pretty, newly clean meth addict who’s lost custody of her daughter but has somehow retained all of her teeth; Craig (David Witts), the adorable, affable in-house drug counselor who looks like he leapt from the pages of a J.Crew catalogue; Vern (Daniel Franzese), a gay choreographer who assumes the role of fun-loving patriarch of the group (and who, we later find out, used to date Cynthia back in high school); and Wes (Sebastian De Souza) the in-house heartthrob and relapsed addict who looks like a cross between Mark Ruffalo and Orlando Bloom who can’t resist the clarion cry of a damsel druggie in distress—and that now includes Maddie.

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But most upsetting to Maddie is the discovery that her ex-best friend, Rebecca (Lindsay Pearce), with whom Maddie used to score, snort and sell drugs before Rebecca was dragged off school grounds in handcuffs and arrested by the local police, is also a resident at Springtime Meadows.

Maddie attempts to convey a sense of normalcy at school, making up shoddy excuses for not calling her boyfriend—“My car is in the shop,” she tells him—and attempting to abide by Springtime Meadows’ rules, but whether it’s breaking curfew to sneak out and go nail polish shopping (and buy a bottle of vodka while she’s at it) or refusing to admit “I’m an alcoholic” in group therapy sessions, it’s obvious that Maddie hasn’t plummeted enough in her addiction to realize she needs help. Her skin and clothes are perfect, there are no real consequences to her behavior besides the expulsion threat and her only impetus for living in a sober house is to stay in school and continue to hang with her friends while lying about what’s really going on.

What’s weirdest about Recovery Road is the way in which the 12 steps and AA are portrayed. The phrases “making amends” and “people, places, things” are squeezed into conversations, but almost as an afterthought to make sure they’re being covered somewhere in the script. And there’s a strange scene where Maddie, who’s barely scratched step one, is recruited by her sober housemates to go rescue Wes’s druggie ex-girlfriend in a makeshift Operation Twelfth Step.

“You haven’t seen a show that dives into the pit of hell and leaves you out laughing your butt off,” says executive producer Holly Sorensen of the series. “You haven’t seen a show about real problems that are treated in such an organic and natural way and the show has a lot of heart and a lot of hope to it, too, but it ends up being really grounded.”

But what “hell” to which Sorensen is referring remains unclear, because, at best, Recovery Road is Addiction TV Lite, a Disney-fied rendering of how drugs destroy lives, made palatable for network distribution. Will teenagers find the show entertaining? Heck, yeah. Everybody is beautiful, there’s a lot of snide humor mixed in and it’s lively and soap operatic in a glossy Degrassi Junior High sort of way. But if you’re searching for an accurate account of what addiction and sobriety are really like, it’s best to watch Heroin: Cape Cod instead.

Recovery Road premieres tonight, Monday, January 25th, on FreeForm. The first three episodes are available here.

Malina Saval is the author of  The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens and Jewish Summer Camp Mafia. She's also an associate features editor at Variety, and a regular contributor to The Fix.

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Malina Saval is the author of  The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens and Jewish Summer Camp Mafia. She's also an associate features editor at Variety, and a regular contributor to The Fix. You can find Malina on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.