'Shrill' Season 2: TV Review

2 Slow 2 Un-furious.
1/24/2020

Aidy Bryant returns as a journalist finding her voice on the second season of Hulu's zeitgeist-chasing show.

As a TV critic, I'm usually brimming with recommendations — and pleas for patience. "Succession was my favorite show last year," I've told many a friend, "but it does take until Episode 7 to really get good." "Ramy is brilliant," I've also insisted. "You’ll see when you get to the fourth episode." I tend to keep track of the installment or storyline where a promising series finally starts to realize its potential, so I can reassure people that greatness is just around the corner.

But with Hulu's Shrill, I'm still waiting.

Critics are supposed to compare a show with what it sets out to do, rather than what I think it should be, so watching Shrill's second season, I strived to get past the fact that a show whose title celebrates female too-much-ness has locked itself in a cage of feminine likability. (The series is adapted from a memoir by feminist writer Lindy West, who made her reputation on her exhilarating rants.) In other words, Aidy Bryant's mousy Annie is loath to speak above a Mr. Rogers murmur, and I just have to accept that.

But even on those terms, the show's second season underscores its weaknesses while barely developing its characters. With its Portland Oregon, setting, muted affect and wan cinematography, Shrill could be mistaken for a particularly unmemorable Sundance film. But after two seasons (comprising 14 episodes, or a whopping seven hours), it feels like we've only reached the end of a screenplay's Act 1. It doesn't help that this follow-up season tacks more toward satire and comedy, exposing how brutally unfunny the show can be.

After a relatively action-packed first season, in which alt weekly journalist Annie came out online as fat, quit her job after locking horns with her chronically disapproving boss Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell) and confronted in real life a troll who had been sending her death threats — events based on West's life — Shrill settles down into a hangout comedy. But for a hangout comedy to work, a show needs a set of sharply defined characters — an asset the series has yet to create for itself (most notably for its actors of color). Without its source material to supply storylines, Shrill simply stalls.

The puttering plots — Annie getting her job back, climbing out from under Gabe's thumb, and reevaluating her relationship with her clod of a boyfriend (Luka Jones) — also reveal Bryant's considerable limitations as a lead actress. The comedian mugs for the camera here as she does on Saturday Night Live, pantomiming emotions with the subtlety of a Greek mask. There are nuances to mine within a meekling like Annie: Gwendoline Christie explored the contradictions of an outwardly fearsome but inwardly cowering female knight on Game of Thrones, and Alyson Hannigan did it with spark and gusto on the first few seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Bryant is clearly out of her depth.

The one episode Shrill could be recommended for is last season's "Pool," in which Annie discovers a haven of body positivity at a pool party for heavier women. The second season's greatest disappointment, among so many, may be its seeming disinterest in most everything weight-related — a decision that allows Annie to be defined by scenarios and themes other than her body, yes, but further highlights the void at the show's core. An episode focused on Annie's friend Fran (Lolly Adefope) and her guilt-ridden tension with her Nigerian immigrant parents, set at a family wedding, feels emotionally unspecific and dutifully obligatory. A visit to a women's business convention (guest starring Vanessa Bayer as a deranged "SheEO") marks the season's de facto peak, but its one-note parodies of lean-in feminism and gruesome beauty routines disguised as "self-care," well, sure would've been cutting five years ago.

Ironically, the most notable castmembers on Shrill are the ones who actually get to be shrill. With a more generous role this season, Mitchell allows Gabe to be huffily insecure, swoon-worthily bitchy — and marvelously talented. As Annie's grasping co-worker Ruthie, Patti Harrison is more uneven, but attention-grabbing — you always want to know what she'll react to. Since their scenes are the only ones that jolt this sleepy show awake, it's hard not to wonder what Shrill might look like if it let Annie be the "shitty cunt" that Gabe admiringly calls her in the first season. But we're stuck with the show we've got.

Cast: Aidy Bryant, Lolly Adefope, Luka Jones, John Cameron Mitchell, Ian Owens
Showrunner: Ali Rushfield
Premieres: Friday (Hulu)