Aidy Bryant stars in Shrill
Photo: Allyson Riggs (Hulu)
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Short, sweet, and full of potential, Hulu’s Shrill does more than fill the dating comedy void left by The Mindy Project on the platform. The series, loosely based on Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman, combines heartfelt commentary on beauty myths with workplace drama and millennial misadventures, while also offering a great spotlight for Aidy Bryant, who stars as one of TV’s few plus-size leads. Occasionally, the show’s ambition leads to a lack of focus, which is exacerbated by an abbreviated first outing—season one consists of six episodes that all clock in at under 30 minutes each. But Shrill’s fitful evolution mirrors that of its protagonist, Annie Easton (Bryant), who ends up on a path to radical self-acceptance as well as realizing her dreams of becoming a writer, hitting a few—okay, many—snags along the way.

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When we first meet her, Annie is an assistant calendar editor at Portland alt-weekly The Thorn, which is similar to but not quite a stand-in for Seattle’s The Stranger, where West worked as a film critic before making her way to Jezebel, and later, the The New York Times best-seller list and masthead. Well, that’s not quite accurate; the series actually opens with Annie starting her day like anyone else, in search of coffee on her way to work. Her eyes are drawn to a ridiculous poster offering personal training services, which shows the trainer kicking at a slice of pizza and a pastry to demonstrate self-control, maybe?, or possibly just the trainer’s flexibility. Amused, Annie stops to take a picture of it with the likely aim of mocking the amateurish design as much as the messaging at a later point when the trainer, who happens to be in the café, pounces. Gripping Annie’s “small”—proportionally speaking, is implied—wrists with an unnerving gleam in her eye, the trainer tells her, “You actually have a really small frame” and “You have a small person inside of you who’s dying to get out” before the classic back-handed compliment: “You could be so pretty.”

The script, from Bryant, West, and showrunner Ali Rushfield, handles the debacle with an incredibly light touch—Annie shows nothing but grace and humor in response to the obnoxious woman, which underscores just how commonplace it is for so-called “straight-sized” people to comment on any bodies deemed unruly. We learn a lot about Annie’s personality even though the focus has been on her body: she’s funny, smart, and too passive for her own good. But the kicker comes after the trainer has returned to her matcha latte, when another customer tries to empathize with Annie, who wards off the pity with another joke. The customer and the barista, looking visibly relieved that they don’t have to feel bad a moment longer, then compare Annie to Rosie O’Donnell: “You’re funny like her.”

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Aidy Bryant and Lolly Adefope
Photo: Allyson Riggs (Hulu)

Shrill shows a mastery of tone and its themes in moments like these, making sharp observations about how patriarchal beauty standards can make life difficult for Annie, who describes herself as “fat” with increasing confidence as the series unfolds, while never reducing her to a struggle. Annie’s life is far from perfect: Her writing talents have been overlooked this whole time by her boss, Gabe (a perfectly cast John Cameron Mitchell); she’s a pushover when it comes to her clueless and aimless sort-of boyfriend Ryan (Luka Jones); and she can’t bring herself to decline her mother’s (fellow SNL alum Julia Sweeney) attempts to “improve” her.

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Though she pines for an unworthy man, Annie also has several healthy relationships in her life—she’s lucky enough to be best friends and roommates with Fran (Lolly Adefope, who’d better get her own show after this and Miracle Workers), a hairstylist and kind of a heartbreaker. She has a supportive co-worker in Amadi (Ian Owens), and a great, if occasionally tense, relationship with her parents, including Daniel Stern as her sweet and abiding dad. Annie’s also great at both of her jobs, as we learn when she publishes her first article, a thoughtful look at strip clubs that she disguises as a restaurant review.

John Cameron Mitchell
Photo: Allyson Riggs (Hulu)

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Annie has a full life, in other words, one that comes complete with circles of friends of varying closeness, parties, lots of sex, professional highs and personal disappointments. And Shrill attempts to explore it from every angle even within such tight time constraints—Bryant’s SNL schedule necessitated a shorter season—which at times makes the stories feel scattered. There are moments both humorous and edifying that aren’t given enough room to breathe, and moving speeches that don’t get the build-up they deserve. It’s not until the fourth episode, written by Samantha Irby, another bestselling memoirist and comedian, that the show becomes the poignant coming-of-age story it aims to be, which Shrill celebrates with a body-positive pool party and some of the most joyous dancing ever seen on TV.

But even when the series misses a beat or two, Bryant’s mega-watt personality keeps it moving. She’s one of the most winsome performers on SNL, and more than capable of holding down her own series; but Bryant and Shrill push beyond a slice-of-life comedy to set Annie on a compelling and hilarious journey. Having a plus-size lead is already a great stride forward, but the series’ writers understand that representation is about more than just showing up—you have to tell a story that is both specific and relatable, which is what they (mostly) accomplish despite limited opportunities in season one. Some of the storylines are taken right out of West’s life; there are also many elements that are universal, like learning to assert yourself or discovering a mutual crush. It all leads to a finale that’s more ellipsis than season closer, one with an emotional payoff that opens up more possibilities. Shrill is very much still finding its voice, but it deserves to be heard.

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