ABC Family is now officially Freeform, but if the channel’s newest show is any indication, any changes are in name only. From the looks of Recovery Road, Freeform will continue serving up the same kind of heightened teen drama that was ABC Family’s calling card. All the expected ingredients are present: drug use, sex, abusive relationships, troubled parents, tired counselors, quirky best friends, threats of suicide, and a whole host of other demons. There’s potential for the show to descend into the worst elements of melodrama—the premise here is very after-school special. Fortunately, like its closest network companion The Fosters, Recovery Road avoids the overwrought trappings by dealing with addiction and recovery in a nuanced and compelling way.
The show’s main character is Maddie (Jessica Sula), a high-school student by day and a high-functioning addict at all other times. Name the substance and there’s a good chance Maddie is into it: Across the first three episodes, Maddie is seen downing vodka by the bottle, smoking copious amounts of weed, snorting cocaine, and selling Ritalin with her best friend to make a few bucks to buy even more drugs. When she wakes up after a blackout on a Friday morning and tries to get through the school day by sneaking vodka from a water bottle, things go downhill. Her locker is searched by the school’s guidance counselor, Cynthia (Alexis Carra), and Maddie is given an ultimatum: Go through a 24-hour detox and then live in a recovery home for 90 days or else be expelled from school.
Forced into the latter option by her mother, Maddie moves into Springtime Meadows, a treatment facility for addicts of all ages. The introduction of Springtime Meadows, and all the characters that come with it, embodies the strengths and the weaknesses of Recovery Road. This is a show that, not unlike The Fosters, gets by on the strength of its ensemble cast: There’s Trish (Kyla Pratt), the roommate with a manic personality who’s working to regain custody of her daughter. There’s Vern (Daniel Franzese, basically playing a toned-down version of his character on Looking), an older addict who doles out wisdom (and salsa dancing lessons) to the newbies. And in a fun twist, guidance counselor Cynthia is also a recovering addict, helping her sort through her steps in recovery both at school and in the home.
Occasionally Recovery Road veers dangerously close to cheesy anti-drug PSA territory. That’s especially true of its flashbacks, which work to fill in a lot of the backstory, but are filmed in a way that’s removed from the more realistic present-day portions of the show: all shaky cam, dark lighting, and blurred focus. The transition can be jarring, but mostly because the rest of the show is patient and subtle in its storytelling—it does a good job of slowly revealing information about each of the addicts, never dumping too much exposition all at once. If those flashbacks occasionally feel too manipulative or visually overcooked, it’s because the character’s present-day interactions are so visceral and moving.
Recovery Road achieves those effective moments by focusing on Maddie. The wonderful surrounding cast of characters adds add some serious depth to the recovery narrative thanks in large part to the solid performances, but this is still a show about one character. By filtering so much of the house’s conflicts and resolutions through her perspective, Recovery Road does what the best young adult literature does, by placing the audience firmly inside the main character’s headspace—perhaps no coincidence, considering that the show is adapted from the Blake Nelson novel of the same name. Sula, previously of Skins, brings a depth to Maddie. There’s so much potential for her to be an over-the-top mess—what with the whole drug and alcohol addiction thing and a father who was killed by a drunk driver—but Sula keeps her grounded, and it’s a necessary anchor for the entire show. Her performance is remarkable in its subtlety: She has the obvious tics down, from the twitchy hands associated with withdrawal to the more angst-ridden behavior of your average teenager, but there are smaller moments that are deeply felt and elevate Recovery Road above a simplistic recovery narrative.
Recovery Road realizes that depicting addiction and recovery and crafting compelling drama is about the character work more than anything else. The first few episodes can occasionally paint in broad strokes—an early scene that involves Maddie’s former best friend cutting herself feels a bit contrived—but ultimately, Recovery Road works because it’s aiming for meaningful character exploration. This isn’t a show about teens with substance abuse problems. It’s about how drugs and alcohol are just another variable in the turbulent life of a teenager, and how those volatile times can potentially impact the rest of their lives.