Many shows do terrible jobs of depicting the lives of teenagers, and quite a few programs avoid the topics of addiction and recovery, except as parts of exploitative storylines designed to get media attention or goose ratings. Given all that, it’s even more possible to appreciate the modest yet solid accomplishments of “Recovery Road,” the second drama from Freeform since the network changed its name from ABC Family. Thanks to a strong performance in the lead role and storytelling style that capably blends the conventions of teen soap operas with the difficulties of sobriety, “Recovery Road” usually hits its chosen targets. If “Recovery Road” continues to progress on the trajectory it lays out in its first three installments, it may leave both teens and those in recovery feeling that, for once, a TV drama hasn’t patronized them.
“Recovery Road” opens with Maddie (Jessica Sula) hitting bottom, though it takes her some time to realize that is what transpired on a particularly reckless night. Her guidance counselor, on the other hand, quickly figures out what Maddie has been up to after (and during) school, and almost before she realizes what’s happening, the teen is ensconced in a sober living house and beginning to confront the addiction spiral that got her there. That descent may have started with the death of her father a few years earlier, though “Recovery Road” is smart enough to understand that addiction never has one clear-cut cause.
That refreshing tendency to allow ambiguities to permeate otherwise conventional stories buys “Recovery Road” a certain amount of goodwill, as does the generally capable work of the cast. Just as Maddie’s addiction can’t be neatly tied to her mourning, neither is her mother, Charlotte (Sharon Leal), portrayed as a monster for being extremely committed to her job. In that sense, “Recovery Road” continues the worthiest traditions of ABC Family/Freeform dramas like “Switched at Birth” and “The Fosters,” which have their occasionally overwrought moments but are often quite willing to go to complex and difficult places with all kinds of family dynamics.
“Recovery Road” gains real traction over the course of its first three episodes as Maddie begins to face the extent of her dependency on drugs and alcohol, and as she gets to know the other residents of the house. There are the expected types — the brooding handsome guy, the quirky lady, the wannabe reality star — and not all of them made a distinct impression in early episodes, but Daniel Franzese (“Mean Girls”) brings real heart to his role as Vern, a gay man who serves as something of a ringleader and role model to newcomers.
Maddie’s old friends at high school are either bland or thinly drawn mean girls, and thus her struggle to shed or change those friendships isn’t very engrossing, especially because it’s obvious that her new housemates are a better collection of human beings, whatever their personal issues. That said, the show, an adaptation of the Blake Nelson Y.A. novel adapted by executive producers Bert V. Royal and Karen DiConcetto, by does a good job ofincorporating one of the most reliable standbys of night-time dramas — secret-keeping — into responsibly told yet soapy stories about dependence, honesty and denial.
“Recovery Road” accept as givens the ideas that teens are not just smart and complicated, but good at lying and covering their tracks. It also acknowledges that sometimes adults are even better at concealing unpleasant truths, and that entrenched family patterns can make working the twelve steps difficult. There’s also an interesting subtext about how addicts use flirtation and romance as substitutes for addiction, and it’s no surprise that Wes (Sebastian de Souza), the handsome brooding guy of the recovery house, figures into that generally thoughtful storyline.
Some of the plots travel in expected directions, and you won’t mistake this brightly lit show for something on AMC, but there’s sincerity and some grit to “Recovery Road.” There’s one painful speech in the third episode that Sula nails with wonderfully modulated intensity, and she makes the road Maddie travels seem realistically frustrating for her mother and herself. Maddie continues to make bad choices even as she struggles build a life not based on short-term coping strategies and self-destruction (and honestly, how many adults would cope well if they had to live as Maddie does — with a curfew and no smartphone?).
Sula plays a wide variety of emotional notes well, and the writing never turns her character into the kind of annoyingly one-dimensional teens that can be found all over TV. “Recovery Road,” unlike many addicts, doesn’t have to make amends, given that it neatly sidesteps many of the pitfalls in its path.
The first episode of “Recovery Road” is embedded below.