6:45am PT by Jean Bentley
How 'Shrill' Made It to TV, Abortion and All
Hulu's Shrill isn't actively trying to be a lightning rod for controversy. It's a story about a young woman navigating dating, work and family in Portland, Ore. But Annie, played by Saturday Night Live standout Aidy Bryant, is fat and a little bit meek, and over the course of the abridged first season's six episodes, she learns to be more comfortable in her body and more confident in her life.
In the show's premiere, Annie has an abortion. But it's Annie's growing sense of self-worth throughout the season (and angering of a local Internet troll) that is much more controversial, at least as far as Internet commenters are concerned. Both conflicts were baked into the premise of the show from the start.
The series is based on Seattle writer Lindy West's best-selling memoir of the same name, which documented her own awakening as a feminist and an activist. While West told THR she had always envisioned her book (and events in her life) as a TV series, it was when her agent suggested she meet with Elizabeth Banks and Brownstone Productions that it gelled together as a show for the first time.
"The way that [Banks] talked about it I could tell that she really got the book and that the book had meant something to her," West told THR. "I could tell that she had really read the book. And it just felt like our visions lined up completely and I could tell that she would fight to get the show made. And she did, and we did! I'm so grateful to her and Brownstone. They've just really been so supportive from the very, very beginning and so on board with, 'Yeah, let's have an abortion in the pilot.' There was no conflict at any point. There was nothing too radical that I wanted to do that they balked at."
As Banks tells it, their partnership happened "in the most basic way" — Brownstone's former TV exec Renate Radford saw that West's memoir was coming out, they all met and they made a deal.
"Now, if you're a progressive feminist in the world — especially in 2016 — then you knew who Lindy West was, and you had read some of her stuff. And so we were all really excited that Lindy West had a book coming out," Banks told THR. "So as soon as we got our paws on it, we all read it. It was everything we wanted out of a Lindy West memoir. So we brought her in. I remember the meeting — it feels like it was yesterday even though it was years ago now. Had a great meeting. We were not the only people she met, so she chose us, which I am very proud of."
West didn't necessarily think her story was TV-friendly at first, but she began thinking about everything in the book that normally isn't shown on TV that she wished she'd seen when she was younger — "abortion's normal, it's OK to be fat, and women don't have to be nice to you" — and realized she wanted to bring those fundamental concepts to the small screen.
"It started to take shape in my mind and I realized what it could be, and that it doesn't have to be an exact recreation of my life, which is not what a TV show is. It's taking the things that are important to me, taking all of these really important political concepts and my love of comedy and writing jokes and making them into this package that people will hopefully want to consume just because it's funny, that will also introduce them to some of these more challenging concepts. From there, it felt so natural and so obvious what the show needed to be."
While Brownstone's film executive pushed to make the project a movie, Banks and her team didn't even bring the idea to Universal, where Brownstone has a film deal. "We wanted to tell the story over time," she said. Instead, Warner Bros. (where the company has a TV deal) suggested writer Ali Rushfield, who also had a deal at WB. "I loved the book," Rushfield told THR. "It's a point of view I never thought about. I just loved thinking of turning something into TV. I love the idea of a character that is traditionally, like, a side character being the lead character, particularly a woman, a fat woman, and how the history of television has represented them. I'm sure there's more but Roseanne is probably the only fat woman character [with] a show not about her losing weight."
Next, they needed their star — and as both Banks and West tell it, they immediately wanted to bring Bryant on board.
"We wanted people to see the show when we were in the room pitching," Banks said. "We wanted people to understand that this is the center of the show, and she's going to be our Annie."
Meanwhile, Bryant herself had heard about the project because she'd been searching for a project to pursue outside of SNL, and she'd read and loved the book.
"I had been auditioning for big movies and I was going to multiple callbacks and the whole time being like, 'I don't really like these,'" Bryant told THR. "I was just reading these scripts and being like, 'I don't really like this but I guess this is kinda what I'm supposed to be doing, so maybe I'll just keep going out.' And I wasn't really getting them but I was getting very close and every time I would have this feeling of 'I don't even want to do this.' And so I was starting to really toy with the idea of 'What if I kinda make my own thing,' or something like that. And then I heard that Elizabeth had optioned the book and I'd loved the book when I read it just as a reader over the summer. And I called my agents, and I was like, 'Do you know what they're going to make? Are they making a movie or a TV show?,' and they were like 'Well, its weird that you called us because they just called us about you and you're their first choice.'"
When Bryant met with Banks, West and Rushfield, she told them she wanted to be a part of the project, but not just as a star — she wanted to write and produce as well. "I think it was sort of a timing thing, but also like the material," Bryant said. "I was like, 'I know how to tell this story. I know what to say.'"
With everyone on board, Banks said, "then we just pitched it. We put together a pitch. We always knew the abortion story would be the pilot, because it's such a big turning point in this character's life. And we knew the troll storyline would sort of anchor the larger story."
Including Annie's abortion in the first episode "was purposeful," Rushfield said, "because just like in [West's] book that's this big awakening. We wanted to start it with a big awakening." They also wanted to make sure the tone of the series was relatable and not heightened. Said Rushfield, "It needs to be grounded because it needs to be a show about real people that exist. This isn't some fantasy or whitewashed version of it. This is reality."
From the beginning, West knew what she wanted to say with the series.
"When I was just shopping the option, in every single meeting I said under no circumstances will the lead character in the show, ever in the series, step on a scale and look down and sigh. We are not making that show," she said. "Absolutely not! That was a fundamental rule that I made before anyone else was even on the project. And yeah, her weight affects her life but it affects her life because our society is fucking garbage."
At the center of the show is the relationship between Annie and her roommate/BFF Fran (Lolly Adefope), which was also baked into the concept of the show.
"I think traditional masculinity exerts this pressure to not be too close emotionally to other men, or maybe to anyone. That's sad," West said. "But it's also a really beautiful thing about being a woman, having female friends, and I really, really wanted that to be a big part of her life. And it was important to us that she have a sex life. And not like a sad, unfulfilling, shitty sex life, but a good sex life."
When the series landed at Hulu, it meant the show could have much more freedom in terms of language, of course, but also subject matter. Would a broadcast version of Shrill have included an abortion in the pilot?
"Everything's changing, so who knows.... My hope is that broadcast would've embraced this story and this character and her world and her friends," Banks said.
But the team is not afraid of the pushback they still might receive in regard to the show's more contentious topics.
"I do not live in fear of those things. And if we did, I don't know how I would really call myself an artist anyway," Banks said. "By the way, we didn't set out to be controversial. This show, this story, this journey feels really normal to all of us involved with it. We wanted to tell the most interesting, fun, funny, poignant version of this journey, and we wanted to showcase Aidy and Lolly and Luka [Jones, who plays Annie's hookup, Ryan] and everybody who's on the show who's great. But at the end of the day, we don't consider this show to be particularly controversial."
She continued, "Look, that parallels Lindy's experience, it parallels Aidy's experience, it parallels women all over the world, their daily life. It's partly the moment that we live in, where everybody feels like they can be a critic. It's the Internet's world that we're living in, this grand human experiment of social media — which I truly believe is a grand human experiment that we are failing. And I feel like this show sheds a light on why we're failing. Being different brings out the worst in people. Again, I use the word normal. Everything in this world, to us, feels really normal. We have a dad who's dying of cancer, we have an overbearing mom. We're dealing with really personal, human stories on this show, and a woman who just has a dream about what she can do, knows inside of her that she can do it, and just is trying to wade through all the nos in her life to get to yes."
All six episodes of Shrill's first season are available to stream on Hulu.