Let’s start with what “Shrill” isn’t: it isn’t a show about a fat woman taking pratfalls or being a cruel, easy punchline. It’s a confident, gently funny, slice-of-life show that benefits from the streaming model, where niche shows can find an audience, as it explores issues and characters you can’t find on broadcast television.
Based on the book of the same name by writer Lindy West, the new Hulu series, which debuted March 15, stars Aidy Bryant as Annie Easton, a plus-sized young woman living in Portland, Ore. When we first meet Annie, she’s a mousy shrinking violet, who tiptoes through life apologizing for herself.
A random encounter with an eager fitness instructor in the pilot episode illuminates the unsolicited daily indignities Annie must endure.
“There’s a skinny girl inside you screaming to get out,” the woman tells Annie.
“I hope she’s OK in there,” Annie replies, in a breezy attempt to end the painful exchange as quickly as possible.
Annie’s life is peppered with people like this, people who remind her she is not conventionally attractive, unhealthy or even grotesque. There’s her mother Vera, played by the lovely Julia Sweeney, who’s hectored Annie about her weight since childhood; her boyfriend Ryan (Luka Jones), a slovenly man-child, who makes her come and go via the back door so his friends won’t meet her; and Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell), her gay, fat-phobic boss at the alt-weekly newspaper where she works.
Fortunately, she finds support in her father Bill (Daniel Stern), who’s battling cancer; and her roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope). The de facto president of the Annie fan club, Lolly — a full-figured, out-and-proud lesbian and vocal feminist — is a source of unconditional love and strength, who, nonetheless, is unafraid to keep Annie in check.
The season follows Annie on a path to self-actualization after a pregnancy scare starts to put things into perspective. Spoiler/trigger warning: Annie decides to get an abortion in the first episode. The procedure is handled with a respectful matter-of-factness that feels almost revolutionary in how ordinary the entire scene is in shooting and performance.
Following that experience, Annie begins to take control of her life. She asserts herself at work, publishing a pair of confessional stories that get lots of clicks, much to Gabe’s chagrin. (Given West’s great skill as a writer, it was somewhat disappointing not to get a taste of that talent in Annie’s acclaimed stories, which are discussed but never read.)
She also takes charge in her personal life, demanding more of Ryan, who throughout the season shows signs of his own willingness to grow. He’s still a derp who doesn’t deserve Annie, but it’s clear that he really does truly like her and is making an effort in his own dumb way.
But, Annie’s transformation doesn’t happen all at once. It plays out in fits and starts, and is rife with setbacks and missteps. You can’t get to self-actualization without being a little selfish, and the series neither ignores this nor lets Annie off the hook. At times, her efforts to claim her agency ignore the feelings of those around her, and she is forced to deal with the fallout.
At its heart, “Shrill” is a celebration of body positivity. The fourth episode, “Pool,” in which Annie and Lolly attend a pool party for plus-sized women, is the most explicitly so. Initially timid to participate, Annie eventually gives herself permission to have fun. It’s an empowering moment that gives her the confidence to more forcefully push back against her tormentors, including Gabe, whose cruelty she calls out in the pages of his own paper.
Bryant is a charming and riotously funny actor best known for her comedic work on “Saturday Night Live.” Here, she gets to show her dramatic range. (This show is billed as a comedy, but it firmly lands in the sad-com sub-genre along with shows like “Master of None” and “Married.”)
Her reactions are subtle and felt. Her performance gives you a sense of how someone like Annie has learned to internalize all the hurt and shame others heap upon her.
As the season progresses and Annie finds her voice, Bryant gets to uncork some of that indignation. Another chance meeting with the fitness instructor from the pilot goes much differently. A confrontation with an online troll, meanwhile, is a satisfying moment of catharsis that ends the season on a high note.
At a brisk six episodes, “Shrill” feels like it’s just getting started before the season draws to a close. (The short order is a result of Bryant’s tight schedule between seasons of “SNL.”) With Annie’s journey just beginning and a number of story lines still in the air, we’re left wanting more of this delightful, thoughtful and funny show.