Shows about addiction are inherently frustrating. Such a circuitous process centered around incremental personal progress and devastating setbacks doesn’t always make for the best television. Not only can it be hard to watch characters you grow to love self-destruct, especially if they’re aware of what they’re doing and show no signs of wanting to get better, addiction is a lifelong trouble that doesn’t always have an end point.
Beyond the tragic overdoses and triumphant recoveries lies a very gray area that most addicts reside in, one in which they’re always one mistake from revisiting rock bottom and one positive decision from finding some sense of normalcy. That high wire act might be capable of producing thought provoking, emotionally devastating television, but it can also grow repetitious and exhausting for viewers, given that sustained character growth is one of the benefits of longform storytelling. If you’re not seeing people make progress in their battle with addiction, and if there’s no indication that the destructive patterns of behavior are anywhere near being broken, what’s the reward for watching anything that tells the story of addiction?
Though only six episodes into its run, Freeform drama Recovery Road has shown signs that it’s capable of producing television that doesn’t shy away from the reality of addiction without devolving into misery porn or glamorizing addictive behavior. Based on the Blake Nelson novel of the same name, the show follows teenage party girl Maddie Graham (Jessica Sula) as she’s forced to confront early signs of addiction before she spirals even further out of control. After getting caught bringing vodka to school, her guidance counselor Cynthia (Alexis Carra) gives her a choice between expulsion and entering a sober living facility; Maddie would still be able to go to school, but she would live in the facility for 90 days, attending group meetings and working on her sobriety until she was ready to rejoin her normal life. But while Recovery Road is unequivocally Maddie’s story, filtered through her tenuous relationship with mother Charlotte (Sharon Leal) and her reticence at the process of recovery, there’s more to the show than this one point-of-view and it only gains breadth and depth the more diverse its look at addiction becomes.
Addiction Affects all Races, Genders and Religions
As a result of Maddie’s new living situation, she’s forced to interact with a group of fellow addicts from varying walks of life. Some use meth, others cocaine; some used to deal drugs, others have a history of addiction in their family; some committed violent crimes, others are looking to free themselves from a co-dependent relationship. Rather than trying to be all things to all people, Recovery Road‘s approach is to show that while Maddie’s experiences are valid and deserve to be explored, her path is not the only one walked by addicts. Addiction doesn’t have one face and addicts don’t have one background, so instead of taking a singular approach to such a broad topic, the show opts to highlight the fact that addiction hits all socio-economic statuses, races, genders, sexuality, and religions. Each of the characters living with Maddie has taken a different path to this same spot and by utilizing such differences, Recovery Road has been able to not only build a deep supporting bench, but organically advance Maddie’s journey toward recovery through this sense of community. As Maddie begins to see the similarities between herself and these people who she initially bristles when compared to, these people who she deems to be the “other,” she gets a better understanding of her own situation and more comfortable with the idea of calling herself an addict, the latter an important step toward sobriety.
Unlike some other shows that have prominently featured addiction, Recovery Road is notable for its respect for addicts. The show fails to fetishize the outrageous behavior that emerges from addictive behavior or celebrate the lengths an addict will go to keep their addiction going, instead choosing a warts and all approach that doesn’t shy away from darkness while still focusing on people just trying to get better. Through the use of flashbacks, we see what led each person in Maddie’s sober living to the point they’re at, as the show has thus far been more concerned with why these people became addicts than what they did at their lowest depths. This helps remove the stigma that recovery road substance abuse is a choice (e.g. we see those who’ve lost family members, friends, and jobs thanks to their addiction) and that those who continue to use despite the negative impact it has on their life simply lack will power; it also highlights the amount of progress each character has made since they hit their respective rock bottom and reinforces the idea that change in recovery is incremental but deeply rewarding when it occurs. For as much damage as the residents of Springtime Meadows have inflicted on their loved ones, they all have the collective goal of rebuilding their lives and mending the bridges that were burned while they were under the influence. Not only does this contrition humanize those who’ve only walked a path of destruction, as rare is the person without regrets, it gets a lot of the narrative heavy lifting (e.g. every resident has made peace with their addiction and begun to be proactive in order to improve their lives) out of the way, thereby clearing the way for Maddie to begin her own healing.
Possibly the most impressive thing about Recovery Road, apart from its insanely high degree of difficulty, is that it has the power to do a lot of good. While the heart of television is about entertainment, the reach of the medium allows shows that shoulder extra social responsibility the opportunity to really connect with its audience. Maybe a scared teenager like Maddie who doesn’t think they have a problem samples Recovery Road and begins to see that what they call a “fun weekend” is really the beginning of a serious addiction; maybe someone who has built resentment toward a loved one for an addiction they don’t understand samples Recovery Road and sees that addiction isn’t as cut and dry as they initially thought. The experience of watching the show could prove to be cathartic for those who’ve been touched by addiction, the show’s consciously wide net increasing the chances that anyone who has dealt with addiction in their lives can take something of value from its narrative. Escapist programming is an incredibly important part of the television ecosystem, but shows like Recovery Road should have their place on television, as well, especially given how open the dialogue around social issues has been in recent years. It’s important for shows like this, that neither judge nor proselytize, to be able to exist and have the opportunity to reach those who needs its message most.
At its core, Recovery Road is a deeply hopeful show about addiction that chooses to believe that it’s possible to live a sober life and that those who attempt to rebuild themselves from the ground up, as is often the case for those ill enough to seek professional help, don’t deserve to be haunted by their past choices for the rest of their lives. Thanks to a diverse portrayal of addiction, a respect for addicts that neither minimizes nor exploits the pain they’ve inflicted, and a warmth that makes a painful subject easier to digest, Recovery Road has quietly become a must-see midseason drama that follows in the tradition of The Fosters, Chasing Life, and Switched at Birth – ABC Family dramas capable of producing sensitive, nuanced narratives centered around subjects broadcast television tends to shy away from. While said subject matter might help explain the show’s low ratings, given how far a reach addiction has and the fact that some people might not want to relive a battle they fight (or someone they love fights/fought) daily, the show has done a more than ample job at keeping things from getting too heavy while respecting the journey that Maddie and the fellow residents of Springtime Meadows are undergoing. As such, it would be quite the shame if this show didn’t get the proper time necessary to chart Maddie’s path toward self-actualization and all the bumps that will happen along the way. Therefore, I implore you to please watch Recovery Road and give this show the (second) chance(/season) that it so clearly deserves.