Flaked and the Art of Telling Stories About Addiction
This Is The World
“True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.” (Pale King - David Foster Wallace)
In the recent Netflix series Flaked, Will Arnett plays Chip, a recovering alcoholic with ten years of sobriety under his belt and all the platitudes to prove it. He dispenses most of these strategically to the stream of young, sun-kissed twenty-somethings passing through his Venice Beach AA meeting (“life must be lived forward but can only be understood backwards,” “its not about me,” etc…). And it works well for Chip. As the unofficial Mayor of Venice Beach he has a nice little set-up with his hand-made stool shop, plenty of women to pick from, and enough good will to make it all just barely hang together.
Because Chip’s sobriety, the foundation of his charming magnetism, is skin deep. He is what people in AA call a “dry drunk,” which is someone who has stopped drinking but remains a self-deceptive, dysfunctional narcissist. There is a difference, it is said, between sobriety and recovery. It is not enough to simply stop drinking. Actual recovery is a lot harder than that, in that it involves the Herculean labor of becoming a better person. One has to undertake intensive personal inventories to excavate the human buried beneath accretions of half-truths, desolation, sleaze, and unyielding seams of shame. This person then, freed from their own stone like one of Michelangelo’s slave sculptures, finds strength to do things like seek forgiveness and find ways to wield this powerful, hard-won gift in the lives of others.
This is why it is called recovery. It is the process by which we find something good about ourselves that was always there. Maybe we never recognized it before, or thought it had been lost over time. Maybe we were once told it was never there by an angry parent or someone equally formative on our young and malleable identity-making faculties. But, lo and behold, this goodness is still there because it is sturdy, solid. It has endured; the glowing premise of recovery. Endurance. Unlike the myths propagated to maintain the space and desire to drink, this property of the self does not vanish when you scratch its surface. It is high on the spiritual Rockwell scale. It has a nice solid ring when you knock it with a hammer. And it will get knocked with heavy blows, repeatedly, harder and harder, as the life of recovery is undertaken day by day — “quiet, precise, judicious…”
This is the ideal against which a dry-drunk like Chip plays out their shell game of sobriety, shifting character flaws around quickly enough that they fail to register even on a decently calibrated BS detector. This is such a tricky set of motivations to nail down it is hard to render in a TV character. Sam Malone as a bartender on the wagon in Cheers comes awful close at times. Johnny Lee Miller’s remarkable turn as a recovering Sherlockian drug addict in Elementary was also enlightening, though after a few stunning monologues about fear, identity, and addiction the show essentially phased out this aspect of his character.
In the first episode of Flaked, we watch Chip obsess over a young coffee-shop owner he is mentoring in AA. He visits the coffee shop to check in on Stefan because Stefan, understandably, skipped the AA meeting that morning to make sure his shop’s opening day would go well. Stefan is too harried and preoccupied to talk to Chip, which the dry drunk in Chip interprets as rejection. For the rest of the episode, Chip walks around town talking about how Stefan has been “lashing out.” He adopts a pose of concern for Stefan’s sobriety. Eventually, Chip even convinces Stefan that his version of the morning’s events are accurate. Then in response to Stefan’s concerns about the town knowing he has been “lashing out” (the fiction Chip invented), Chip reminds him, “You can’t control what other people think of you.”
Chip’s self-interested gas-lighting is hard to narrate, because it involves a complicated, even contradictory set of motivations. This slippery nature of self-deception is what makes addiction narratives so hard to write. Even relative to other shows with the same type of lead, Flaked scripts these revealing scenarios for Chip very well and Arnett hits each note brilliantly.
But where Flaked nails the character, it nearly falls apart as a story. Reviews have rightly described Flaked as thin or heavy-handed. Even though the charisma of Will Arnett, the gauzy beauty of Venice Beach, half of it being shot by Wally Pfister, and a Stephen Malkmus score make this eminently bingeable, there are a lot of relationships and character arcs here that do not quite add up.
Chip spends most of his time with best friend Dennis, who is often the only person capable of reading Chip’s AA sage persona as a fraud. But he trusts Chip because they have traveled for so long through sobriety together. The drama kicks off as young London enters the picture and is drawn to Chip over Dennis, even though Dennis explicitly tells Chip not to “swoop” on this one. And then there is a vaguely drawn connection to Chip’s ex-wife Tilly that becomes increasingly important as the series goes on.
Add in a Venice Beach redevelopment subplot, and a bit of meandering through throwaway character interactions and the series as a whole feels half-baked in spots that could use a little narrative craft. The quick morph of the central character study into David vs. Goliath real estate battle particularly feels a bit cobbled together.
The Problem With Plot Twists
Theoretically, there is nothing wrong with a plot twist. They exist in drama and comedy because they exist in real life. They are the engines that drive self-discovery and reflection. They sustain our interest in a story. They turn characters into comrades on journeys through the unknown. The kinds of plot twists in Flaked, though, are usually present when the writer is not convinced the audience will stay interested in the story without them.
Louie is a master of offering the simple twists and turns in life as compelling TV drama. In the first season episode “Bully,” Louie and his date are accosted in a donut shop by a teenage bully and his friends. His decision to play it cool derails the date, as his companion deep down wanted him to do something manly and retributive about it. Louie decides to follow the bully all the way home to Staten Island in some ill-defined attempt to win his honor back. We spend the next several minutes with Louie walking to the station, getting on the train, and then following the teenager through his neighborhood on Staten Island.
This wordless journey is a strikingly eloquent sequence which won myself and many others over to the charm of Louie. What happens next though is one of the series’ rare plotted moments. When Louie knocks on the door, the teenager’s father answers. Louie and the dad end up sitting together on the stoop, smoking a cigarette, and talking about what it has been like to become a father and a man. They muse about violence as a cycle or tradition that fathers pass down to their children. Louie’s train ride has lead to a light twist of the plot and an unexpectedly reflective moment.
The recent Netflix series Love is also very loosely plotted, preferring to bounce around through different permutations of its character’s relationships. Love’s inner plot twists tend to be jokes these characters play on each other or misunderstandings that lead to Woody Allen-ish personal quandaries. The grandest plot twist of Love occurs in its last few moments. Both lead characters (Gus and Mickey) have been tangled in a will they/won’t they scenario for the entire show. This relationship is complicated by Mickey’s substance and sex addiction issues. She sporadically attends NA meetings to maintain a facade of sobriety, but she is clearly a deceptive, dysfunctional train wreck in every area of her life.
While at a sex addiction meeting, Mickey hears someone talking about having finally reaching a year of being single. It was a year of progressive clarity and ownership over the deep fears and resentments that were expressed in their compulsive, self-destructive behaviors. In hearing this simple truth, something finally clicks for Mickey. The stakes of her own sobriety snap into focus. She realizes that she needs to get clean for herself, because she is worth the effort, and that this is the pathway toward the stability she siphons off other people.
The plot twist occurs the next time she sees Gus. Working against the rom-com archetype, they do not fall into each other’s arms. Mickey instead tells Gus to give her a year. To let her get clean and sort out her demons and then they will see what kind of relationship this might lead to. This was a real bummer of an ending for a few reviewers, which is odd, given that it is the show’s one clear, humble, redemptive moment.
These plot twists resonate with us as thoughtful and provocative not because they are big and flashy, but because they are simple and true. These are the kinds of moments that change our lives even if from the outside they are not marked by grand, unexpected narrative advances. If there is any gift of the prestige comedy, it is this ability to trust these simple plot twists as the basis of contemplative drama.
Unfortunately, Flaked loses sight of its really captivating character drama and gets bogged down in a bunch of far flashier plot twists.
“It Gets Easier”
“It gets easier. Every day it gets a little easier. But you gotta do it every day. That’s the hard part. But it does get easier” (Bojack Horseman)
One of the few simple plot twists of Flaked that works is our early discovery that Chip has started drinking again. Not too much. He is not quite back off the wagon. But he has been pilfering bottles of wine from Dennis’ stockpile beneath the house. He has been drinking the most expensive bottles, because these are the ones Dennis has been saving as a long term investment and is least apt to check. Chip pours the wine into a water bottle labeled “kombucha” in his fridge and he takes a deep hit every now end then, when he needs it. He is careful to make sure Dennis is not home first before he conducts this little ritual.
The irony here runs several different directions at the same time. Chip is not just a dry drunk, he is actually back to just being a drunk. And he hides his drinking beneath a thin Venice Beach veneer of health and wellness, in a bottle of homemade kombucha. Surely no one would think to check there. And he is drinking the best wine. $1000 a bottle.
This moment, this little yet crucial and unexpected plot twist, is enough drama for Arnett’s performance to shoulder for a season. Flaked does not need to create all the extraneous drama that happens in successive episodes. This relationship between Chip as both dry drunk and closet drinker and Dennis as his deeply codependent buddy, riding their bikes through the alleys of Venice Beach would have been wonderfully fertile territory to explore.
A few of the same rules for the AA meetings we see all throughout the show are also true of storytelling in general. David Foster Wallace describes what makes the typical AA meeting tick in a section of Infinite Jest, this passage getting at the problem of Flaked’s plot twists pretty incisively:
The thing is it has to be the truth to really go over, here. It can’t be a calculated crowd-pleaser, and it has to be the truth unslanted, unfortified. And maximally unironic. An ironist in a Boston AA meeting is a witch in church. Irony-free zone. Same with sly disingenuous manipulative pseudo-sincerity. Sincerity with an ulterior motive is something these tough ravaged people know and fear, all of them trained to remember the coyly sincere, ironic self-presenting fortifications they’d had to construct in order to carry on Out There, under the ceaseless neon bottle.
An AA meeting is full of people that are experts at the plot twist. They have finely tuned their ability to deceive, to shift the narrative at the drop of a hat, to slant things this way or that way. They are sensitive to irony and the art of self-narration because addiction always begins in a corrupt hermeneutic, and ends in the restoration of one’s sense for unfortified truth. Addictions deepen and grow in destructive power when we lose the desire to interpret ourselves correctly and get lost in far flimsier alternatives. Eventually these stories collapse because their plot twists are too hard to sustain.
This collapse is exactly what we see transpiring in Flaked, even if we have to read between the lines of too many plot twists to get there. But it makes the show worth watching, and Arnett’s performance worth talking about. It works really well as an evocation of the slippery nuances of addiction and recovery. If there is a second season, I hope Flaked will abandon all the contrivances and get at all the quieter little plot twists that actually make us tick. The ones we work through with “probity and care” because we believe for whatever reason that, “it does get easier.” It would be nice to see more TV about this slow, unflashy work of getting things right.