Hi, my name is Jim, and I’m an alcoholic. For real. I spent a year in the rooms, in AA, and it did me a world of good. But I’m not here to confess, I’m here to explain why—because of that bizarre experience—I might understand “Flaked,” the brilliant Netflix series about four men who live a charmed life in Venice, California, better than you do.
I’m not bragging. Who wants to hit bottom, climb out of a shithole? Well, maybe all of us do, because most of the stories we remember, or take for granted, are about recovery from that slough of despond: we work those steps, we climb Jacob’s ladder, and we hope for the best, even if we’re not in a program. We can do without resurrection—it’s all zombies out there now, anyway—but we can’t seem to dispense with redemption.
Here’s the setup. Four guys in Venice, California, are trying, desperately, to answer some simple but satanic questions. Here I am in Paradise—I don’t have to work for a living or answer to any authority except the stoned landlord and the AA meeting, but I’m a disgusting mess. What is the name I put on the address of the cause of this, unless it’s just me, which seems just wrong—but seriously, can it be me?
What if Heaven, call it Venice, is a convection oven of conformity, where nobody except the waitresses work? What if I have to get out of here, by which I mean the neighborhood that is my self? What if I need a purpose that exceeds Venice, a reason to live that overflows Paradise?
And then it gets complicated. Do I need something to do–you know, like a real job–or someone to love? Now this is a midlife crisis.
Three of the four guys are—what?—“recovering alcoholics,” as we call ourselves, dutiful attendants at AA meetings. Chip, the leading man (Will Arnett), owns a stool store: he’s a carpenter, an artisan, but he’s less authentic than the rest, which is to say he’s the most accomplished liar of them all. Dennis, his best friend (David Sullivan), who lets Chip live rent-free in the guest house attached to some inherited real estate, is a sommelier who can’t bear what he does, which is to taste and serve alcohol.
George (Robert Wisdom), the large black man, is the reality check—think Chef from South Park or Bunny Colvin of “The Wire.” He’s the cop who keeps an eye on these fools, but it’s not as if he knows any better than they do, even though he’s good at abiding by the rules AA offers them: his daughter won’t speak to him, not even when Dennis starts “dating” her and puts in a good word for the old man. Unlike his AA friends, he does have a job—but he spends all of his uniformed time either looking for Dennis or looking after Chip.
Cooler (George Basil), their cheerful, truly hairy friend, doesn’t seem to need George’s attention. He’s the ultimate stoner, living out of a Winnebago he’s decorated as if it were a motorized Christmas tree—until season 2, he’s our d’Artagnan, the guy who does nothing except bear excellent witness to the misdeeds of the three Musketeers. And then, like his 17th-century forbear, he becomes the man his heroes want to be.
The women in this place all look alike, as if the casting director had never left southern California: they’re blonde, slim, leggy, and bear lips large enough that, when puckered, they might be mistaken for peaches. The exception is George’s daughter, Rosa, an African-American, but she makes up for that by being a fitness trainer who hates alcoholics like her father (and Dennis, who has to hide this dimension of his identity). Maybe Cara the wannabe Goth musician is, too, but she’s a marginal figure, a placeholder for the real thing—a love interest that can hold a jobless, feckless man’s attention. She, too, has memorable lips.
Tilly (Heather Graham) is Chip’s ex-wife, almost, since they haven’t officially divorced; she’s a star on a cable TV series. London (Ruth Kearney) is the new girl in town; she clearly has a thing for Chip even though Dennis gets there first. Alex is the single Mom who happens to be in the rooms with the guys.
Now, London is there to open up Chip’s back story. It turns out that she’s the sister of the young man Chip killed while driving drunk—this is why he has no driver’s license and rides his vintage bike down the back alleys of Venice—and she’s come to town to find him, to decipher him, to punish him. They fall in love, of course. And, of course, it turns out that Chip wasn’t the driver that day. It was Tilly, but Chip took the fall because, well, because she was on the verge of stardom. But the stigma has served him well. The chicks really dig the guy with the dark and dangerous past.
So, what’s happening in Venice? Not much, except what gets ground between two great social forces—Alcoholics Anonymous and Real Estate. On the one hand there is the local brotherhood of the rooms, and on the other there is the trans-national appetite of developers who will own you if you let them. Jerry, who actually resembles the sainted Garcia, evicts Chip and then stakes Dennis to his own wine store, and then gives the homeless Chip the keys to a fixer-upper, down to the studs. There’s no place like home. Jerry already owns them all.
Topher, the out-of-town Silicon Valley type, is more subtle. He promises to invest in Chip’s stool business, but he wants his client to pimp out the new girl, London, and when Chip can’t go through with this transaction, business estrangement follows, like when that loan you were counting on doesn’t get approved. And yet Chip holds up his end of the economic bargain—he tells the city council that the hotel Topher wants to build will amplify the funky Venice vibe. Everyone but Dennis and George is surprised by Chip’s apostasy. As old friends and AA vets, they know he’s lying, just hoping to keep his store by shilling for Topher.
And that’s the thing about this place, our time. It’s liars all the way down as well as up. AA now stands in for civil society, and I do mean civil. It’s a lovely place because the only work available there is the labor of love, learning to be your brother’s keeper. But it’s a lonely place for the same reason. The first rule of AA is anonymity—no last names—and, as you might imagine, it produces pretty good stories. But the second inviolable rule of the rooms—no cross talk—forecloses politics by prohibiting discussion and disagreement: you cannot respond to anyone except to repeat what he or she said. So, repetition becomes compulsion. That’s why you will hear the same story from the same person every fucking day if you’re in the rooms for real.
This is the trouble with Paradise. There’s no way out except to settle in, settle down, get a wife and a house and a family. So Chip keeps going to meetings, but he keeps on drinking, and he keeps on lying to Dennis and George about it until he can’t. When Dennis learns from Tilly herself that the primal scene of vehicular manslaughter is a lie, Chip has no identity left. Except the next story he tells. That, I suppose, would be Season 3.
Only Cooler, our d’Artagnan, the achingly authentic stoner, seems to know what he wants. By the end of the second season, he has acquired a wife (Alex), a daughter, and a beautiful house. Meanwhile Dennis comes home one night to find Rosa waiting for him—all is forgiven because he’s fallen off the wagon! She has even started talking to her Dad. And Chip? Well, London finally knows he didn’t kill her brother. But will that bring the lovers back together, to reside in the conjugal bliss afforded by Jerry’s fixer-upper?
Probably. Repeat after me: location, location, location.