Aidy Bryant shines as Shrill confronts beauty myths and body issues with heart and humour

Loosely based on Lindy West’s nonfiction memoir, Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, Hulu’s short but immensely satisfying new six-episode dramedy is a thoughtful, funny, and honest portrayal of a plus-sized woman learning to finally accept herself. Starring Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant as Annie, a magazine writer at an alt-weekly in Portland, we find our effervescent heroine repeatedly interrogated about her weight, her looks and her diet.

Even for someone as warm, funny and intelligent as Annie, having everyone around her constantly reinforce her own negative self-image can be emotionally exhausting. When dealing with unsolicited health advice from strangers at a coffee shop, or snide fat-shamers online, Annie chooses to deflect with a smile and a self-deprecating quip – simply because it’s preferable to incurring the hatred reserved for fat women when they appear angry or confident.

This undercutting of self-esteem extends to her love and work life as well. Her boyfriend Ryan (Luka Jones) is a man-child who, despite being a fundamentally good person, is painfully oblivious to Annie’s feelings. Why does she put up with it?  “Maybe if I was just sweet enough, and nice enough, and easy-going enough, with any guy, that that would be enough for someone,” she confides to her exasperated best friend Fran (Lolly Adefope).

At work, her insufferable editor Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell) is an aging and out-of-touch Gen-X hipster who monologues over how he supports “the whole female empowerment schtick” because he “kind of invented it in the ’90s.” Even after Annie’s empathetic profile of the dancers at a local strip club becomes a viral hit, he disregards Annie’s pitches and perspectives, primarily because he sees her body as emblematic of a lazy, entitled millennial.  

It isn’t all bad though. Annie’s aforementioned best friend Fran is a delightful pillar of strength. Her relatively good relationship with her sweet (but passive-aggressive) mom (Julia Sweeney) and ailing dad (Daniel Stern) offer some lovely scenes. And her work buddy Amadi (Ian Owens) is a source of relief at an office where she feels undervalued. Despite the bright spots in her life, Annie does come to realise that she must change how she feels about herself.

It doesn’t come easy though, and the show’s truthfulness comes from it’s sharply-observed, granular specificity. Annie’s challenges are not always as broad as insults or bullying. Take for instance, a pharmacist neglecting to tell her that the morning-after pill is not effective for larger women – forcing her to go for an unexpected abortion. The show is about the issues facing people of Annie’s size, not about getting thinner or winning approval.

There are a few turning points that spur her to demand respect, and to allow herself to take up space in the world – namely her frustrations with Ryan, and her hard-earned professional successes. But one of the series’ most joyous and vibrant scenes (perhaps the best scene in 2019 television thus far), taking place at a “Fat Babes” pool party organized for and by plus-sized women, is the most significant and beautiful emotional pivot.

Even there, in the presence of a crowd of confident women who share her physique, Annie is at first too self-conscious to strip down to her bathing suit. But as Ariana Grande’s “One Last Time” plays, Annie notices an entire floor of plus-sized women cutting loose, daring to put their bodies in motion. She begins to sway, before finally letting go of her inhibitions in an exuberant and infectious dancefloor sequence that will put the widest smile on any viewer’s face.

Annie’s road to liking herself has begun, and while her transition is wonderful, it does come with some growing pains. Sometimes, her newfound self-confidence strays into outright selfishness – and therein lies Shrill’s most inspired touches. She begins to take her friends for granted, caring less about their problems and emotions. She makes her mother cry in an outburst of resentment. She even violates journalistic ethics in order to get back at her boss.

Shrill navigates the evolving and complicated relationship between Annie, herself and the people around her with nuance and tenderness. Written by Bryant, West and Ali Rushfield (Love), this first season is a hilarious and heartfelt gem. Perhaps the only complaint is that at only six, half-hour episodes, this show is far too short. But unlike Netflix’s overlong binge model, there’s something to be said for leaving the audience wanting more. Bring on season two!

Rating: 8/10