'Shrill': TV Review | SXSW 2019

Not as sharp as it should be.
3/15/2019

The Hulu dramedy stars Aidy Bryant as an overweight woman figuring out which indignities she will accept and which she will reject in a world that prizes thin bodies.

Warning: A fat woman has written this review.

Why does this matter? Because a television show that purports to depict the lived-in experiences of being a fat white woman in America is contractually obligated to give me fee-fees. Like Annie — the protagonist in Hulu's languid-cute dramedy Shrill — I, too, have been compared to Rosie O'Donnell simply for the fact of my brown hair and corpulence. I, too, have believed that I needed to cultivate a winning personality to deflect from my supposedly broken body. I, too, have stretched shirts so they fit, been placed on diet programs before the age of 10 and put up with far too much immature bullshit from heterosexual men just to feel an ounce of acceptance from them. This show was made for people like me, meant to set us aflame. So why does it leave me feeling only lukewarm?

Shrill features Aidy Bryant in a starring role I've been waiting for since her sparkling debut on Saturday Night Live in 2012. Her Annie, a Portland, Oregon-based aspiring journalist, radiates grace, warmth and sweetness as a plus-size young woman figuring out which indignities she will accept and which she will reject in a world that prizes thin bodies.

First, there's her Peter Pan beardo hookup (Luka Jones), who makes her leave from the back entrance of his apartment after condom-less sex so his roommates can't spy her. (He's so charming, he texts "Fuck?" as an invitation to hang out.) Then there's her mom (SNL alum Julia Sweeney), whose insidious comments about Annie's weight, always couched around "health," have chipped away at her daughter's self-esteem for 20 years. Finally, there's her narcissistic editor (a puckeringly sour John Cameron Mitchell), who firmly believes that a fat body equals a lazy mind and resists Annie's ambitious pitches. Even complete strangers feel the need to implore her about the "small person inside of you dying to get out." It's right there in the title, folks — unassuming Annie's got to find her authentic voice amid all this droning noise.

We've seen this arc before. Annie's timid and honeyed charm may be the problem, but it's also the point. “Maybe if I was just sweet enough and nice enough and easygoing enough with any guy, that would be enough for someone," Annie confesses to her bestie in the pilot's thesis moment. Inspired by feminist writer Lindy West's collection of essays, Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, a funny and searing take on growing up fat and female, the series forms a loose narrative based on West's time as a burgeoning cultural critic in the Pacific Northwest. Known for her salty ALL CAPS approach, she covered weight, sexual assault, reproductive justice and more. She also crafted my personal favorite line from the #MeToo movement: "Sure, if you insist, it’s a witch hunt. I’m a witch, and I’m hunting you."

But you don't get any sense of Annie's gift as a writer here, an issue that magnifies as the six-episode season progresses. Shrill is intended to be a superhero origin story — except we have no sense of what makes her particularly powerful yet. A few storylines revolve around her publishing longform pieces that rankle her editor (for reasons that are unclear beyond a need for story conflict), but we don’t hear her written voice, only the supportive or trolling comments from her readers. Like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the show tells us our protagonist is funny, yet rarely proves it. Even Carrie Bradshaw couldn't help but wonder what was up with that.

Shrill views itself as a revolutionary exploration of fat feminism from the perspective of actual fat writers and performers, particularly following a premiere episode that ends with a decision we infrequently see on television. However, a number of TV shows in the past 10 years have given us radical visions of female fatness: Millennial comedy Girls proffered eye-popping casual nudity; young adult drama My Mad Fat Diary delivered grasping teenage sexuality; and bonkers thriller Dietland spat out abject politicized anger. Shrill, with its mild pastel palette and wan gray tinting, is somewhere between a rom-com and a grief-com, a half-hour with more profound tears than laugh-out-loud gags. Like its tonal forebearers Fleabag, Baskets, Transparent and One Mississippi, this series is in mourning — grieving for its protagonist's wounded past and also lamenting the merciless culture women like Annie have inherited.

The season’s best episode is its fourth, titled “Pool,” a joyous dissection of how swimming in public can be a fat woman’s worst nightmare — but doesn’t have to be. The episode features full-figured women of all shapes and sizes bedecked in colorful bikinis and just generally enjoying each other’s company in and out of a public pool. It’s transformative for Annie.

Elsewhere, the show putters along with little urgency, its humor dry and snappish. "You’re a shitty cunt. And I like it," her boss cracks. (A 2019-style "You’ve got spunk. I hate spunk.") The show might have more narrational bite if we were treated to a fully realized setting instead of a micro lens on Annie's small place in it. Shrill even recognizes this, with Annie's friends quick to criticize her sudden "selfishness." In truth, she's only experimenting in the naval-gazing phase of someone ready to finally affirm her own existence. Self-revolution is a process; there will setbacks and relapses. She's less "self-centered" than finally centering herself.  

I like Annie. I like being with her. Unfortunately, her relationships are too underdeveloped to emotionally invest in. Her best friend/roommate, Fran (Lolly Adefope), is given little more to do than be the confident black lesbian angel on her shoulder. Her hinted love interest, work-husband Amadi (Ian Owens), literally has no personality other than "there." My favorite supporting player is comedienne Patti Harrison as bitchily unhinged office coordinator Ruthie, the only character to make me laugh more than once. ("It’s a double suck! Best done standing up," she squawks, defining a well-known sex act.) Daniel Stern and Julia Sweeney are also a welcome pair as Annie's aging hipster parents, their tenderness jiving well with Bryant's smart everywoman appeal. Yet somehow, we end up spending the most time with the least interesting character  — Annie's tepid non-boyfriend, Ryan, who even she describes as "a disrespectful baby, but a man who should know better."           

Shrill is palpable. It's relatable. You will probably cry. Better yet, though, take Annie's cue: Get dick; eat spaghetti.

Cast: Aidy Bryant, Lolly Adefope, Luka Jones, John Cameron Mitchell, Patti Harrison, Julia Sweeney, Daniel Stern, Ian Owens
Executive producers: Lorne Michaels, Elizabeth Banks, Ali Rushfield, Max Handelman, Lindy West, Andrew Singer
Premieres: Friday (Hulu)