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Aidy Bryant stars in Shrill
Photo: Allyson Riggs (Hulu)
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Anaïs Nin saying, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom,” may have launched a thousand email signatures, filled warehouses with Etsy swag, and adorned many an inspirational mug. But, at their core, her words illustrate a stark truth: Growth isn’t always easy. It isn’t like a seed uncoiling underground and reaching effortlessly toward the sun, but muscling up through hard dirt, and climbing, inch by inch, toward the rain and heat that will sustain it. Early in the second season of Shrill, Annie Easton (Aidy Bryant), voices a similar, if less poetic, sentiment to her pseudo-boyfriend, Ryan (Luka Jones). When he marvels about how far she’s come in her willingness to “push back” against anyone and anything that stands in her way, she tells him that at some point it simply got harder to hold her tongue and guard her heart. This serves as a kind of mission statement for the season, which focuses on the grittier, trickier aspects of growing up, without forfeiting the sweet sense of pathos that distinguished the first season.

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The first episode picks up immediately after the gonzo triumph of the first season’s finale—when Annie throws a brick through the window of her internet troll’s SUV and runs off into the night, elated and adrenalized by her own audacity. It’s a startling and cathartic image: a fat woman fully inhabiting her wrath, propelling her body forward into the great unknown. Season two begins with an interrogation of that image, and with the startling and cathartic unraveling Annie underwent toward the tail end of season one: demanding more of her man-child sexual partner; going rogue to post an intimate cri de cœur against fat shaming on her paper’s website; standing up to her haughty fat-phobe of a boss and quitting her job in way that would make Norma Rae fist-pump; and, finally, confronting the internet troll who smears his viciousness, including mocking her father for having cancer, under every article she posts. This season is about the aftermath of epiphany, about how to build a real life once the sugar rush of the epic fuck-you abates. Much to its credit, Shrill affirms its heroine’s right to messily express her justified anger while also challenging her to take that hard-fought consciousness and apply it to an adult life, one that comes with adult responsibilities, like paying the bills and being emotionally present for the people you love.

Early episodes are dedicated to slowly, and not without compassion, deflating Annie’s initially inflated image of herself as some badass, bombastic truth-teller par excellence. She starts off running off into the woods with Ryan, who has borrowed his roommate’s mom’s car and a handgun, as her father, Bill (Daniel Stern), and best friend, Fran (Lolly Adefope), frantically try to reach her. One of the show’s greatest feats of writing and acting is its deft balance of tone. Fran confronts Annie for leaving the people who care about her to twist with worry; she reminds Annie that her awakening, powerful and necessary as it is, has come with casualties. Still, the show wisely refrains from drawing out prolonged and unnecessary unpleasantness between the core characters. If last season was about Annie radically reassessing her relationships, this season is focused on who she wants to be as a writer and young professional.

This new phase of growth comes with its own series of rude shocks: Annie learns quickly that one viral essay does not a career make, and that, for all his pettiness and cruelties, her former editor, Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell), did have a knack for pushing her—sometimes through astute editorial direction, sometimes by just plain pissing her off—to be a sharper, smarter writer. By placing Annie on a more clearly defined trajectory, the show frees up space for other characters. Gabe contends with ageism in the workplace and his fears about becoming irrelevant and uncool; Annie’s mother, Vera (Julia Sweeney), looks back at a life that has been filled with love and joy, but no small share of missed opportunity; and, most crucially, Fran, evolves beyond the brassily sagacious sidekick to become a fuller, more poignant character in her own right.

Adefope portrays Fran as a wounded Venus, a woman who is in love with love until her latest lover, the one she’s truly given herself to, proves feckless and unworthy. This romantic cataclysm propels her to brood about her life and her choices, to wonder if, beneath all her wit and bravado, she hasn’t always been a little lonely. Fran’s arc is a showcase for Adefope, who can, when the time is exactly right, deliver her lines with an immaculate dryness, but who also turns seemingly small moments like Fran’s karaoke rendition of “Shallow” into microcosms of deep personal history. Episode five, the season’s best, allows her to undergo her own painful yet vital growth by confronting her extended family’s judgments and reconciling her mother’s hopes for her with her own desires.

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Shrill remains a deeply compassionate show, one that weds blade-sharp observations about culture and character with an abiding tenderness. A later episode eviscerates the pink-washed “you go girl” jingoism of Lean In feminism, while also showing that this kind of woman-centered movement, as hollow as it is, still offers a sense of community to women who aren’t as plugged in as Annie. The show laces Annie’s desire to build a real career and do meaningful work through this tangle of contradictions. It’s also notable that, while season one focused so acutely, and necessarily, on the sizeism Annie encounters, this season simply and yet radically positions her as any other talented young woman trying to define and follow her passions; she just happens to be fat. It’s a seemingly small detail, but it speaks to the ways that Shrill has deepened and matured. This season plants Annie at crossroads between the brighter, more comfortable side of life and the deeper, more difficult, but perhaps worthier truths, and it asks her to blossom.

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