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Sunnyside

Quirky young woman gets drunk on the job at a Silicon Valley company and ends up in a strange rehab.

Down a meandering village road stands a building whose artsy wooden sign proclaims “Sunnyside—A Haven.” The atmosphere is upscale rustic, sheltered, therapeutic. A little sports car pulls up in front. The plump, goateed driver gets out and hastens anxiously toward the entrance. The woman in the passenger seat is passed out drunk. A couple of attendants quickly emerge and carry Brenda inside. BRENDA AXELROD, thirtyish, a sober alcoholic, has relapsed, gotten drunk at work and walked off her job. The car’s driver, DR. ANTHONY BUTONI, is Brenda’s psychologist. Sensing trouble when she missed her appointment, he had stopped by her home and found her weeping at a TV auction, holding a cardboard box of cheap wine. While he calls Sunnyside, Brenda extracts the box’s mylar interior sack and squirts wine into her mouth like a bota bag. As Brenda goes through the admission process, two male patients in bathrobes watch with interest. These are the only other patients in the place. After being admitted, Brenda is taken to “skid row”—the detox section. She falls asleep, awakens at 5 a.m. and sneaks out of the facility in her nightgown. She is found briskly striding along Highway 101 and brought two nurses and a patient. As she sits in her room, Brenda thinks back on how she got to this point. She started drinking as a teenager. Now, a frustrated novelist, she works as a marketing writer in a high-tech company. She is an anxious hypochondriac whose lawyer ex-husband, LARRY, has custody of their small child, LAURIE. Sunnyside is a rehab in crisis: The two patients besides Brenda are REYES RAMIREZ, a construction worker sent by his union; and STUART CROSSLEY, an alcoholic insurance agent. Sunnyside is getting beaten up by the competition from newer, fancier rehabs. As Brenda begins the 28-day program, more patients stagger in—bringing their many stories. Brenda meets ERIC JOHNSON, a bush-league baseball player, age 25; FRANK, a wealthy retired entrepreneur, KATHI, a punk hairdresser, and others. At the end of 28 days, Brenda achieves a real, if shaky grasp on sobriety and is hired by TODD, the gay middle-aged administrator of Sunnyside, to help run the office. Brenda joins the ensemble cast—some sober alcoholics and some “normies” (non-alcoholics), all dealing with their personal lives against the backdrop of Sunnyside’s ongoing battle to treat its patients, pay its bills and keep going.

THE CHARACTERS

Sunnyside is more than a rehab. It is a place where people lose their pretensions, spill their secrets, and usually make asses of themselves. Sunnyside is staffed by sincere, flawed people who face the same challenges as the patients and also relapse from time to time. Each episode focuses on one or two characters, but the problems of running the facility are a constant. The protagonist, but not always the main character, Brenda is a midwestern transplant, a onetime overachiever who fell off the rails in college and became an alcoholic. Her family back in Des Moines worries and nags her constantly, frequently invoking “the past.” Brenda is usually chewing on something they have said or hinted at. They are particularly active at holiday season. Brenda’s two dreams are to be a Great Writer, and to find the Man Who Understands and Accepts Her. Brenda’s time off-duty is divided between writing her neverending novel and finding the elusive lover, usually around the scenic Monterey Peninsula. BETTYANN McTAGGART is the head nurse of Sunnyside, about fifty-five, Scottish, and stout. She insists on wearing the old-fashioned type of white uniform with a ridiculous muffin-cup of a white pleated nurses cap, which she is extremely proud of—the symbol of her profession. Even though BettyAnn had been an uproarious alcoholic, she is now sober and tolerates no nonsense from the unmanageable and often untrustworthy patients. She has a very soft heart, but can be intolerant and downright brutal at times. She knows she is fighting for their lives and alcohol / drugs are “cunning, baffling, and powerful.” She has a Scottish saying for every situation. BettyAnn’s drinking days involved a lot of Glasgow brawling, and she often competes with ART BOSTWICK, a counselor, in hair-raising anecdotes. Her need for love and companionship is deep, but she covers it up. She has had many disappointments in life, including a daughter who ran away when Betty was drunk and whom she constantly seeks all over the world. ARTHUR (“ART”) BOSTWICK is Sunnyside’s chief alcoholism counselor, fifties. He is a southerner, gray-bearded and potbellied, and a perfect example of the axiom “sober up a drunken horse thief and you get a sober horse thief.” He was once “the worst drunkard that God ever slung guts in,” full of Southern mystique. Art is so competitive about being the worst alcoholic ever that he sometimes forgets himself and one-ups the patients with his own “drunkalogs.” “That's nothing!” he shouts over a patient who is painfully confessing, and launches into an even more appalling yarn. However, Art often shows sharp insight and compassion. Art's biggest frustration is that he is not really half as bad as he would like to think he is. He is, of course, lonely as hell. TODD SENLIS is the chief administrator of the facility. He is gay, a little too handsome, aging, but not campy, highly educated and far too bright to be grubbing for dollars and grappling with bureaucratic intolerance. His dream is to keep the facility open and retain his job. Todd is a recovering alcoholic of much wit, empathy and compassion. However, ironically, he is sometimes forced to compromise his own ethics in order to maintain a proper image for Sunnyside and attract “desirable” (meaning affluent) patients. Money is always the 800 pound gorilla at Sunnyside: The facility is owned by a monolithic, mysterious conglomerate “back east” that owns hundreds of centers and cares only about the bottom line. Todd always tries to make everybody feel better, to find a common ground. However, he is dealing with people who are seldom rational, and his efforts often backfire. He is also trying to live a gay lifestyle, which has its own disappointments and burdens. TODD sometimes cloaks his inner conflict in an outward obsession with being proper and “by the book”. DAVID WALENSKI is the facility custodian—the janitor and jack-of-all-trades handyman. When she was a patient, Brenda and David did not get along at all, but as colleagues, they have an ongoing flirtation and a growing deep friendship. David is about twenty-one, short, handsome and scrappy; an ass-bandit and a “tough guy” from the streets of Detroit. An abused child, he dropped out of school at 14 to live by his wits. On the streets, he fought, stole and played heavy metal guitar until he joined the army at 17. He came to California as a GI and was stationed at Fort Ord, where he was discharged for alcoholism. Getting kicked out of the Army was the tragedy of David’s life. He always gives his all, but his deep pain makes him explosive sometimes, very vulnerable. Extremely bright and a born survivor, he is no stranger to jail. He got sober the hard way—cold turkey. He now has two years of sobriety, which he considers his most precious possession. When he has a wisdom tooth extracted, he does it without painkillers from fear of a relapse. David cannot resist women, and female patients are constantly making passes at him. He is not always successful at walking the line. He and Brenda teeter on the edge of an affair. David’s risk-taking and thrill-seeking are constantly at war with the ethical values he is trying to develop. He tries to avoid temptation, works hard, and goes to school at night. He resents the “suits” of the world and has a chip on his shoulder. But his secret dream is to become a lawyer, although he insists: “Guys like me don't become lawyers. We need lawyers.” BILL SCHMITT is the patriarch of Sunnyside, sort of a patron saint. He is an ancient alcoholic who has been sober for more than fifty years. He is so old that he says he remembers prohibition, and refers to bars as “taverns” or “roadhouses.” He tells people that his first big drunk was when the stock market crashed in 1929. He loves to spin yarns of drinking in speakeasies and wild women, but sometimes forgets the point. He is fond of declaring that “people back then really knew how to drink, today's alcoholics are just amateurs.” Bill is Brenda's confidante; she trusts him and confesses her escapades and insecurities—even while keeping up a facade of efficiency around everybody else. ERNIE ASPINWALL is Sunnyside’s fatuous psychologist who has gone to great lengths to create what he believes is the proper image. He is very touchy about his career, and resents psychiatrists. He detests being called a shrink, which everyone does anyway. He has an unfortunate, braying laugh, which he is self conscious about, but unable to correct. He gets “laugh therapy” from a (sober) alcoholic speech pathologist, who tells him jokes, or boozing anecdotes in great detail, so that ERNIE can work on his laugh. SAM JONES is the black male nurse, not an alcoholic. He is a well-intentioned and sane single man, who is trying to find a wife and settle down. He finds himself in an upside down world at Sunnyside, where the definitions of normalcy and sanity are often very tenuous. He likes to party and drink, and does not know if he should worry about this. He is conflicted over what he sees and hears about drugs and alcohol. His views represent what most well-intentioned “normies” think of alcoholics. He is constantly getting caught up or dragged into the shenanigans of the patients and staff. He secretly believes alcoholics are just plain crazy. He, like most of the other staff, is single and trying to find a spouse or long-term lover. What he usually finds is frustration. MICHELLE DANIELS is the second head nurse under BETTYANN, not an alcoholic, and somewhat of a bitch, which makes her a butt of many jokes. She is the self-appointed “sex police” and is always breaking up unlikely couples, charging into rooms unannounced, lurking in the recreation room after dark, peeping outside through the windows to catch people in the vegetation. Ironically, she is married; her husband is an inoffensive type who provokes a great deal of irreverent speculation among the staff, especially from DAVID. Naturally, staff and patients are all extremely horny, which is one of the consequences of being thrown together for thirty days at a time. MICHELLE is the stickler, the enforcer who gets other people in trouble. She didn't like BRENDA when she was a patient and is not overly fond of her now. She has a tendency to eavesdrop and spy on people. Her plots are usually foiled, but sometimes she does real damage.

THE FORMAT

“Sunnyside” the series is basically “a day in the life” of an unconventional recovery center, with all its conflict, humor, romance, resolution and irony. People suffer, grow, make friends, have feuds and gain insights, all in the context of struggling away from denial, toward honesty and sobriety, with varying results. In the case of the staff, who are already sober, they must maintain their sobriety, plus live in the “real” world.” Sometimes they fail at this. We never know who is going to make it. Romances are constantly arising, decaying, and re-arising. Many of the scenes take place after dark, when patients try to sneak into one another's rooms and avoid the night nurses, especially Michelle, using elaborate excuses and decoys to throw her off track. Some people graduate, then relapse and return to Sunnyside. However, the emphasis is on the humorousness and absurdity inherent in human nature made all the more vivid by alcoholism. Much camaraderie and bonding take place amidst the wisecracking, as people realize how much they have in common. The staff is a hodgepodge of recovery and “normalcy.” All have a “fellowship in the trenches” and the normal conflicts that erupt among people who have to work together in a stressful environment.

ACT ONE

The scene can open at any time, since Sunnyside runs 24 hours a day. It usually opens in the morning, as we look in on daily hospital routine. The nurses are at work, the patients shuffling to breakfast. They exchange one-liners about the last night, difficulty in sleeping, any sexual encounters, and usually define the subject matter of the episode. DAVID the janitor is all over cleaning up. He is a real morning person, who uses a lot of army terminology. He has a running conflict going with MICHELLE, who is his temperamental, spiritual and sociological opposite. He cannot resist baiting her, as she cannot resist making sarcastic remarks about his clothing, hair style, etc. She would supposedly love to see him fired, but needs him to get the chores done. and he is popular with the patients, so she has to tolerate his wisecracking. This is usually when new patients are introduced. The nurses and counselors talk casually and irreverently about how they came in, what their situations are, etc. This is also where crises arise, conflicts are set forth, for example, accreditation day, when the state investigators invade, or the day the photographers arrive to take pictures for the brochure, initiating a comedy of errors, as one of the patients, barely out of detox, discovers that a lady photographer is a former lover whom he once threw over. The scene may shift to the dining hall, so we can see their situations from the patients' own points of view. The first act ends with the conflict fully exposited.

ACT TWO

Usually begins with afternoon group. This is a free-for-all, where issues are really revealed. Group is a great place for wisecracking, as patients reveal their own and one another's problems and attitudes. At Sunnyside, Group often gets out of control. People tell their dreams, launch into elongated and illogical rationales for their behaviors and generally cut loose. The staff takes turns running Group, and the tenor of the discussions vary depending upon who is running them. Art’s groups tend to be boast-a-thons, while Michelle runs her groups with a lot of scolding and guilt-tripping. In the end, walls and facades come down. Insights are reached and problems solved. Exercise class is also an opportunity for more interaction and slapstick. The exercise instructor, ELECTRA, is a spiritual hippie who speaks very softly, and totally lacks the cheerily optimistic, high-energy attitude of most exercise instructors. She is obsessed with her own issues and sometimes forgets to exercise. A patient who is a focus of one episode may be only a silhouette in the next three episodes, as his or her matter has been resolved.

Script Excerpt
Written by:
Format:
TV Pilot
Starring Roles For:
Zooey Deschanel
Alicia Silverstone
Nick Nolte
In the Vein Of:
You, Me and Dupree
Twenty-Eight Days
My So-Called Life
Posted:
05/26/2011
Updated:
08/02/2020
Author Bio:
I'm a produced screenwriter. I graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English.

I wrote the feature film, Murder in Fashion, about the murder of designer Gianni Versace, which played at theatres and festivals and was reviewed in the NY Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/22/movies/22murder.html?_r=0

My Script "A Dressmaker's Daughter" was a top Ten Finalist in the Bruce Geller Memorial Screenplay Competition

I collaborated with producer Don Murphy (Transformers, Natural Born Killers) on the script "Fast Fade.

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