One of the first things you see in the new Hulu series “Shrill,” an excellent and surprising adaptation of feminist writer Lindy West’s 2016 memoir, is star Aidy Bryant’s body.
Portraying West’s fictionalized analog Annie, a young journalist starting out at an alt-weekly in Portland, Ore., the “Saturday Night Live” cast member is shown in her underwear hurriedly getting dressed. Bryant’s character, like West, is a plus-sized person reckoning with a body that doesn’t conform to cultural ideals, either in the real world or the wilds of Peak TV.
And while the series (executive produced by Lorne Michaels and Elizabeth Banks) deftly touches on the comic realities of figuring out who you are and what you want in sex, love and work, it’s Annie’s relationship with her body that remains at the center.
Television has tentatively begun to better reckon with the experience of different body types — AMC’s anarchic and recently canceled “Dietland,” ABC’s “Downward Dog” (also canceled) and the bare provocations of Lena Dunham’s “Girls” come to mind — but the universal journey toward self-acceptance has never been drawn as sharply as it has been in “Shrill.”
Bryant, who showed a facility with working outside comedy in Louis CK’s stagey 2016 melodrama “Horace & Pete,” is wonderful here, at first weathering the casual fat-shaming in her day-to-day from her hard-driving editor Gabe (a gleefully sneering John Cameron Mitchell) and an oafish hook-up named Ryan (Luka Jones), who may be a contender for something more.
But as the series goes on, Annie learns to take ownership of her body. In the first episode, Annie winds up needing an abortion, which doesn’t arrive as a blithely considered decision, but it’s ultimately an empowering one as the show sidesteps the usual swirl of shame that accompanies its usual televised depictions. The journey builds to a moving fourth episode (written by essayist Samantha Irby) where Annie reaches a catharsis between the uplift of experiencing a body-positive, all-female pool party before weathering casually cruel comments about her body from her boss at a work event.
“You don’t think the whole world isn’t constantly telling me that I’m a fat piece of [garbage] who doesn’t try hard?” she asks later in a powerful turn from Bryant. Depicting the emotional toll of living as part of another marginalized population, the moment carries the emotional impact of a coming out scene.
But this isn’t to say that “Shrill” is a single issue show. Annie’s parents (comic aces Julia Sweeney and Daniel Stern) are supportive but also enduring her father’s cancer treatments in a storyline that, if you’re familiar with West’s work, carries dire implications. But they too are held accountable for Annie’s difficulties in accepting herself — even as, in a testament to the show’s hand for nuance, Annie discovers that her blossoming ability to advocate for herself can also hurt those she loves.
The series also makes good use of its setting, reflecting Portland’s progressive, sex-positive reputation while avoiding the easy “Portlandia” stereotypes (though “Shrill” nods to the connection with Carrie Brownstein directing the second episode). Drugs are casually legal, and sex — the frank pursuit of it and the self-confidence that makes someone desirable — never fall far out of frame.
Annie’s work life carries a note of authenticity in showing her unbridled joy at publishing her first story alongside the paper’s drive toward clicks and audience engagement amid the perils of online trolls (West worked at the Stranger in Seattle under editor and activist Dan Savage). “I’m a woman who plays games on the Internet,” shrugs one of her coworkers at the inevitability of such harassment. But beyond all that, it also feels genuinely novel to watch a show well outside the usual touchstones of Los Angeles or New York.
“Shrill” also offers a warm look at female friendships in Annie’s roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope), who gets some of the show’s best lines even as her character carries more dimension than a typical TV sounding board of support. “I don’t apologize to white people,” Fran admits at one point, while at another she refers to Annie’s would-be suitor Ryan as “an ignorant bag of expired meat.”
Like most of TV’s coming-of-age stories, “Shrill” is at its core a story of relationships. For as much as Annie is learning to stand up for herself as her self-esteem grows, she’s also something of a vaguely innocent traditionalist who, she admits, hoped to become “Mrs. Expired Meat.”
While the couple’s up-and-down courtship maybe grants Ryan’s character more depth than he’s earned, their romance progresses only as Annie does with reaching acceptance in her own skin. It’s the sort of capacity for growth that’s worth sharing as loudly as possible.
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