Jenni Konner, Daisy Gardner and Simone Finch
Ally Sheedy and Sofia Black-D'Elia as mom and daughter, Carol and Sam, of Single Drunk Female
After ten years and 200 drafts of a script based on her own bumpy journey to sobriety, Simone Finch found herself at a pitch meeting in a Freeform conference room, feeling outnumbered.
"It was cavernous, and not very full," says Finch, who'd worked for years as a showrunner's assistant on series like Madam Secretary but had zero experience as a series creator. "We joked that we had eight more executive producers with us, but they were just outside."
As it turned out, she didn't need backup. Two hours after hearing her spiel about Sam Fink, a hard-drinking, twentysomething New York writer forced to move back home with her mother as part of a court-mandated rehab, Freeform bought Single Drunk Female.
Soon, Sofia Black-D'Elia (Gossip Girl, Your Honor) was cast as Sam. By the time shooting began in Atlanta (doubling for the Boston suburbs), a behind-the-camera dream team had been assembled. That included Jenni Konner (Girls) and Daisy Gardner (The Goldbergs, 30 Rock) as coshowrunners, along with Leslye Headland (Russian Doll) as an executive producer and director of the pilot.
When the darkly funny, often cringe-worthy show — which is as much about growing up as it is about recovery — premiered in January, it scored 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes; in April, it received a pickup for season two. Finch, Konner and Gardner recently chatted about the show's progression with emmy's Margy Rochlin.
Simone, let's begin with your winning pitch to Freeform.
Simone Finch: It used to be that an addict [on TV] was a white man, or he lived in a dumpster or was in jail. Or all three. I wanted to have a show about sobriety and how different that is from [an active] addiction, how exciting it is, how it's a true transformation. It's been that for me. That's where the pitch came from.
Jenni Konner: It was such a fresh take. There are obviously ways to do [sobriety stories] beautifully. But I hadn't seen a comedy about the struggle of being sober and... now what? It's not just about quitting drinking. It's about who are you without this thing that you've depended on your whole life.
Simone, how much of yourself do you see in Sam?
SF: Emotionally, Samantha and I are just as bad. When I came into AA, I was also twenty-eight, but I acted like I was fifteen. I was never arrested or had problems with the law. But I had problems with my family, my friends and in dating relationships.
Samantha doesn't hide [her alcoholism] as well as I did. To this day, there are people who say, "I had no idea it was this bad," and I'll be like, "Yeah, it was that bad." I had a full-time job. I never paid my rent late. I never crossed the line with stuff like that. But if you're dying inside, it doesn't matter if you pay your rent on time.
Jenni, you've said you urged Simone to be kinder to her former self. Because?
JK: Her character, Sam, was [initially] very unlikable. I could tell that was because Simone had hated herself as a drunk. [In the show] Sam is pretty awful to people in her life before she stops drinking. But we feel sympathy toward her, because she has a disease and it's a real struggle.
What's it like to build a series around a protagonist who is making a mess at life?
JK: This show lives and dies on this character. And Sofia made our job easy because she's so charming. Sam does terrible things and you forgive her.
How did you find Sofia?
JK: We just did normal casting. People read for us. But we like to play around a lot in casting, and she was able to improvise. She's such a down-to-earth girl — you get that the minute you meet her. And this was all happening over Zoom. But you could instantly tell that we could go far with someone who is so human. We could push her to the boundaries of, "Am I going to hate you?"
Daisy, you worked on The Goldbergs, which is also based on a creator's experiences. Were there lessons from there you applied here?
Daisy Gardner: Those are very clearly real characters [on The Goldbergs]. They're not an amalgam. We had life rights. [Here] we were careful to create "inspired by" characters, which gave us way more freedom.
I admire Simone for being able to tell her truth. I also think that's why as the series went on, we said, "We have to move this away from you a little bit to protect you. You've given a lot, you've opened up and created this amazing thing. Now the characters can take on lives of their own."
JK: Daisy and I have, I don't know, fifty years of experience between us. Simone wanted to make a successful show, so she deferred to Daisy and me. She learned to not say, "That didn't really happen." Because the truth is, we're not making a documentary. So it started as Simone's story and, I'd say, transformed completely.
When did you know the show was working?
JK: There's an exercise I like to do the first time everyone meets. After we do the normal read-through, we have everyone switch parts. It immediately disarms everyone. It was really fun. Also, [director] Leslye Headland is a real dramaturge. She rigorously goes through the script to find motivation for the acting. I learned so much working with her. And I immediately thought, "She's got this under control."
DG: When I was on 30 Rock season one, Tina Fey's attitude was, "We tell the stories we want to tell, we do it as well as we can — take it or leave it, America! If it doesn't work, I can go back to being a teacher." So I was like, "You can't focus on the reception. Just focus on the work, and do right by these stories and these characters." That was my goal.
Simone, when you spoke with the actors, what did they want to know?
SF: I think it helped that I was sober and on set. Some of the actors were sometimes confused about how to play something drunk or sober.
SF: Episode nine, which I wrote, is about Sam giving amends to her mother, Carol. And that was ripped from my life — it's really what happened to me.
There were just a couple of times when Sofia was like, "How do I feel at this moment?" and this was one of those times. I said to her, "You've never owned up to the fact that you've been a brat to your mother your whole life. This is a big deal." And she was like, "Oh, I get it."
For Carol, it could have been a really emotional moment, crying, all this stuff. But Ally [Sheedy] played it right under that. That's just the way my mom reacted. I didn't tell Ally that, but it was just perfect. And I thought [adoring voice] "Oh, Ally...."
What about the perspective of the writers' room? What was it like to have Simone there, ready and available?
DG: To have the creator there and open up? It was a huge gift. It's a story generator and a ton of inspiration. I don't mean to sell out Simone, but she'd be like, "This is the month when I was horny." She explained that all of a sudden, you're on more solid footing, ready to date and you're voracious. Every part of your body is like, "Let's go!"
Sam has a sponsor. What did you want to explore about the sponsor-sponsee relationship?
SF: I wanted to show that they're not friends, but they have love and a high regard for each other. I also wanted to show that for a newly sober person this is, in some way, their first intimate relationship.
Jenni and Daisy know this about me, but I fired my first four or five sponsors because I wasn't capable of intimacy for a while. Someone finally said to me, "If you're really going to do this, you need to commit to someone." I was like, "That's horrifying!" But I did it, and I have the same sponsor today. She's amazing and I am so grateful to her.
Sam's mother, Carol, is played by the great Ally Sheedy. What's the story there?
JK: I couldn't believe she was ready to do a TV show! I skipped school to see her in The Breakfast Club. We made the offer and she said yes. It's been so thrilling. She's so talented and strong and brings so much to the part. It's fun to be on set with her because her ideas are smart and creative.
DG: Also, you should know that besides being a great actress, Ally is a college professor. She teaches at City College of New York. She wasn't teaching when she was in the middle of shooting, because they had the summer off. But on that last day of shooting, she was, like, "Well, here I go, back to my university!"
Carol often enjoys a glass of prosecco in front of her recovering daughter. Is this to suggest she's insensitive?
JK: That was a choice Simone made. I thought it was a really interesting one — this idea that some people can drink, and it doesn't destroy their life.
DG: I think one of the best parts of the pilot is her not understanding why Sam couldn't just have one glass of wine. Like, "What's wrong with you?"
Simone, what does your own mom think of Carol?
SF: My mom loves the show. Her joke is that all the good stuff [in Carol] is her and all the bad is Ally. [Laughs] It's funny. My boyfriend just met my mother the other day, and he said to me, "She's not like Carol in person." I said, "Oh, honey, you've met her once. You have no idea...."
In addition to creator Simone Finch, Jenni Konner, Daisy Gardner and Leslye Headland, the executive producers of Single Drunk Female include Phil Traill and Nora Silver. The series, from 20th Television, is available on Hulu.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #7, 2022, under the title, "Sharing Her Truth."