Before turning 30, Simone Finch had already been an alcoholic, catapulted her career as a showrunner’s assistant on the hit show “Madam Secretary” and got sober after checking into Alcoholics Anonymous. Her experiences, including a particularly regrettable night of dancing on a bar alone to Shakira’s “Whenever, Wherever,” could likely fill up several bestselling page-turners. But instead, Finch used some of her journey as inspiration as the showrunner-creator for the genuinely fresh and heartfelt new Freeform dramedy, “Single Drunk Female.”
You might wonder how this type of story wound up on a network that largely serves an adolescent audience. Its placement left even Finch a bit uneasy. But she more than understands that alcoholism, and the process of becoming sober at the crux of the series, is not something only adults experience.
“I started drinking at 15, and that’s not even the youngest,” she told HuffPost. “There are people that started much earlier than that. And I had time to really develop my alcoholism.”
That experience is felt within the first few episodes of “Single Drunk Female.” When we first meet Samantha (Sofia Black-D’Elia), she is drunk and yelling at her editor right before she’s effectively fired from her job as a journalist. Out of options, she’s forced to move back home with her mother (the inimitable Ally Sheedy) in Massachusetts and start the process of finally getting sober.
But that last part, Samantha learns, involves confronting some of her darkest moments as well as the relationships in her life that may or may not be reparable. That includes her former best friend (Sasha Compère) who is now engaged to her ex; her ride-or-die (Lily Mae Harrington) who is missing her drinking partner; and her mom, who is already struggling to move through her own traumas as a widow.
Though it firmly sits in between the comedic and dramatic spaces, the show is sometimes wrenching to watch as an audience member. But, for Finch, the storyline is downright visceral.
“There’s certain other aspects of it — especially with the mom character, talking about the father — all that stuff comes from a real place,” she said. “So, I cried on set a couple times, honestly.”
In this interview, Finch talks about writing from such a personal space, casting the right actors to tell her story, and her long yet determined road to “Single Drunk Female.”
I’m kind of shocked that a show about exploring the sobriety of a young woman is on Freeform, which generally caters to a younger demographic. Were you targeting this viewership?
Honestly, I wasn’t sure where this would live at first when I wrote it. It was an hour long and then we turned it into a half hour. So, that was one of the things that I did with Jenni [Konner, executive producer] overseeing the whole process. She was incredibly helpful. And I think the irony is at first, I was fearful. I’ll be honest — like, “Is this going to somehow be sanitized in some way?” And it wasn’t that. They really went there.
They encouraged us to go there. And I’m really grateful. We can’t swear and we can’t show tits and ass, but we can show her get sober, and I think that that is huge. They’ve been wonderful partners to me in that way. I’ll just say, 108 is a really tough episode to watch. We did it and I’m really grateful for that.
The idea of a sobriety story gave me the impression that there’s been a stretch of time where this person was struggling with alcohol and now has come to this point in their journey. So, my mind immediately goes to somebody who is older.
Yeah. I mean, I was 28 when I got sober. They say that if you stay sober, you get old, which is true. So, seven years later, I’m 35. I started drinking at 15, and that’s not even the youngest. There are people that started much earlier than that. So, I had time to really develop my alcoholism.
And I did. The last couple years of it were really not glamorous or fun. I think that, for a while, I thought drinking was this romantic thing. And I think Sam has that too. Then, you get into it and it’s actually a coping mechanism for all these other things. It’s not romantic at all. There was a question in TCA [Television Critics Association] today that said, “Does our society glamorize drinking?” I would say unequivocally, yes. I think it’s still an issue. On the one hand, glamorized drinking. On the other hand, we have this huge addiction problem in this country. Where is the middle ground there? I’m not sure.
Yeah, and you see it in pretty much every teen movie as well. It’s not only glamorized, it’s normalized.
What was it like to write from such a personal space?
I’ll be honest with you, there were times when it was hard to write from that space. Because I was reliving something that I went through. There’s other times where they’re funny stories that I gave to the show. I don’t want to give spoilers, but there is one in the pilot when she dances on the bar. I danced to Shakira in an empty bar wasted out of my mind and no man would touch me.
Oh, my gosh.
True story. So, I put it in the pilot and they were like, “We got to do this, because this is so bad.” You know what I mean? Dancing like nobody’s watching. So, those were fun. But there’s certain other aspects of it — especially with the mom character, talking about the father — all that stuff comes from a real place. So, I cried on set a couple times, honestly. But to me, that’s how I knew we were doing a good job, because if it hit me like that then I know it would hit somebody else like that.
Why did you make Samantha a journalist?
My parents read The New York Times religiously. My mom still does. It’s an elevated thing. She watches Ari Melber every night. So, for me, making [Samantha] a journalist was making her the job that I never did, but always thought, “Well, maybe I could do that.” Now, I’m glad I didn’t do it. But, in some ways, the script acted out things in my life that I never did.
And I feel like the journalism part of it is that part of it. I was like, “I’ll make her more pure than me.” [Laughs] I’m just in television. She’s a journalist, a drunk journalist, but a journalist.
I want to get back to the mom character, because I was pleasantly shocked to see Ally Sheedy as Carol. What was it about her that made her such a fit for you?
We met with her — me and Jenni and Leslye [Headland, executive producer], who directed the pilot — and immediately she just understood the character in a way that I could only dream of. She added to what I thought the character was, which is what a great actor does. When we started shooting the pilot, she would call me and be like, “Where’d she go to college? What did she do? When didn’t she go ... ?” And I’m like, “Oh, my God, I have to have all these answers to these questions.” She really acts from that place of research and knowledge. And I think that is really cool and something not done as much today. And, I mean, she’s amazing. But, casting her because she really cares and really puts her own stamp on it.
I also appreciate that you showed how one person’s alcoholism and sobriety journey affects those around her whom she loves. That’s real.
Yeah, alcoholism affects everyone around them and sobriety does as well — for good or bad. Some days good, some days not so good.
Since Samantha is an extension of your own experiences, what attributes were you looking for from Sofia?
Samantha was the hardest one to cast. We needed someone who was funny, who was tragic, who you were hopeful for, who you were rooting for — at the same time. I think those things are so hard to find in one actress. And honestly, we auditioned a lot of actresses. The day we found Sofia, she was our first person of the day. She auditioned and we all just looked at each other and were like, “Hey, that’s it. Is that it?” And we were like, “That’s it. We’re doing it.” Then we had a whole day of auditions and I was like, “Can we just cancel the rest of the day?” And, they were like, “No you can’t do that. It’s not fair to the actors.” And I was like, “Ah, whatever.”
I enjoyed watching her grapple with the emotional swings that this character entails — from her desperation and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness to small yet significant victories. How did you know that you were finally able to tell a story like this?
My joke is that I got my MFA in drama with “Madam Secretary,” my free MFA in drama. And then, I got my free MFA in comedy with Bruce Helford on “Roseanne” and “The Conners.” And between those two experiences, I feel like I was able to start writing in a serious way. I didn’t understand television until I really worked on a TV show. I had to do it as an assistant. I was an assistant for 10 years, and that experience has made me the writer that I am. I didn’t know I was ready until I did it, honestly.
Something in AA they talk about is finishing things, and I didn’t finish a lot of things when I came in. This script is one of those things that I just kept going at. I joke with people [that] it’s a script that wouldn’t die. People kept loving it, and loving it, and loving it. It wouldn’t sell, it wouldn’t sell, it wouldn’t sell it. And then, it sold. So, the only thing I did right is I didn’t give up. And I kept rewriting too.
Writing is all about rewriting.
Yeah, exactly. So no, the script’s been rewritten probably over a 100 times. Honestly, I say that freely because that’s how you get something on the air.
Right. Over the course of … ?
From 2012 to now, that pilot had been rewritten probably even maybe 200 times, I don’t know. 150.
Wow. So, I’m born and raised in Boston —
— I’m typically very frustrated by the ways in which Boston has been portrayed on screen, often inaccurately down to certain accents and the lack of diversity. Are you from Boston or the Boston area?
I’m a Melrose girl.
Ah, that figures. Because you really captured a more authentic, diverse landscape of Boston in this show than most things I’ve seen on-screen.
It was really important to me that this felt real — not just the alcoholism, but also the location. I grew up in the Malden/Melrose border and I had a lot of Haitian friends. I had a lot of Chinese friends, Vietnamese friends. It wasn’t all white, and that is the truth. So, when we made the show, I set it more in Malden and frankly just to make it even more real in that way. Because Melrose is a little more white — no offense, Melrose. I think that it’s accurate, and it works, and it’s real. And it’s not shoehorned in, I guess, is the way I would describe it, which is something I think some other shows sometimes do. But I understand why they do it.
Yeah. I cannot thank you enough for that. Not just racially, but diversity in body types, sexuality and gender identity.
Yeah, it’s important for me to portray people that are different from me. I think it’s a job actually. I think it’s a requirement at this point. That’s my opinion.
Something else that jumped out at me was this question of redemption. “Single Drunk Female,” through its core themes of sobriety and forgiveness — including of oneself — asks if people can be redeemed. Did you consider that as you unpacked this story?
Yeah, I think people can be redeemed. I think I have been redeemed in some way. I think that I used to behave very selfishly. I was just about getting high and drunk, and I wasn’t about helping people. I do help people today, on a regular basis. I talk to alcoholics, I talk to non-alcoholics, and I try to bring AA with me to work. I try to bring it everywhere I go. So, am I imperfect? Of course, I’m imperfect. Am I a spokesperson for AA? No. I’m one member. I just want to say that. But, I think if you work hard at it, you can be redeemed, if you want to be, and if you want to do the work. If you don’t want to do the work, I don’t know what to tell you.
It’s a process, I think.
How do you balance some of the comedic elements with such a heavy, serious theme, while also being sensitive to this reality that so many young women experience?
One of the things I learned in AA was not to take myself so seriously. Because when you come in and you’re new, everything is a catastrophe. Everything is a problem. I was a drama queen. And so, I don’t take everything so seriously, and I make that a funny idea with Samantha or with the other characters. She’s so like, “I can’t...” And you’re just like, “Sam, just sit down and have a cookie.” That’s what people would say to me, “Just have a cookie and be quiet for five minutes.” But the serious nature of it — I take this very seriously. Again, it saved my life. Because sobriety is serious. If I drink tomorrow, it would not be a good thing. But, as long as I can stay sober, the rest is gravy.
And that’s where I learned how to laugh at myself. Now I can laugh at the fact that I danced to Shakira in an empty bar, drunk. You what I mean? At the time, I didn’t think it was very funny. But now it’s hilarious. So, tragedy plus time equals comedy [Laughs].
Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.