“I ask you for a lapdance, and you give me Twyla Tharp.”
Honestly, some people get crapped on for being too much no matter how smart or crafty or dedicated they are. And you know what, it’s not always about being fat, or just about being fat (though it can definitely also be about that). Some of us just seem to provoke the control freaks and the naysayers and the easily threatened no matter what we look like or what we do. When you’re also walking around in a body that doesn’t play by the draconian rules of our society, though, the strangest things can start to seem like they are happening because of what you look like, and you really might not be imagining it.
Shrill had a tough tightrope to walk, to be sure. To be a genuinely body-positive, fat-acceptance-forward sitcom without being relentlessly about fatness in a “very special episode” kind of way. To have characters who defied stereotype in a medium where stereotypes are a common form of shorthand. To avoid having every story point be about “being fat” or leaning on fat-tropes, while not shrinking from a frank portrayal of life in a plus-size body in a society that doesn’t know what to do with those. None of that is easy if you’re Lindy West, and even if you’re Aidy Bryant.
Hulu’s sitcom adaptation of Lindy West’s memoir does generally succeed. Annie (Bryant) plays with the “I make up for being fat by being agreeable” schtick she has honed on Saturday Night Live, but she doesn’t run it into the ground. She’s not excessively long-suffering and noble; she’s a normal person with a normal amount of inner torment and a normal range of emotions and a normal ability to be insensitive or selfish in her own right. The show does a great job of fully rendering even minor characters—Annie’s boyfriend Ryan (Luka Jones) is painfully clueless, but just when he seems impossibly crappy, he does something so weirdly endearing the relationship continues to be a relationship and not an example of how fat women have to settle for assholes (even though he makes her sneak out through the back door and climb a fence). Her roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope) is aspirationally I-don’t-give-a-fuck but also unexpectedly sensitive. Her mother (Julia Sweeney) is kindly and helpful and a writhing ball of defensiveness and repression in her own right.
Shrill is a sharp and genuine investigation of what it means to become yourself. Its main character happens to be a woman who is fat and whose experiences are unfortunately often tinted by other people’s reactions to her size. But the story is really the more universal one of contending with other people’s projections, deciding what you will and won’t put up with, and finding your voice. Annie has a difficult relationship with her mother, a father who is battling cancer, a boss (John Cameron Mitchell) who is a snide takedown artist son of a bitch, and a quasi-boyfriend who isn’t cruel by nature but who couldn’t be more hurtfully clueless. She’s doing what most young adults do: Living her life, making choices, figuring out who she is. Bryant plays the role with a very gratifying, relatable mix of confidence and raw nerves, psychic pain and optimism, belief in herself and fear of other people’s judgment. She’s funny, and tenacious, and in charge of her own narrative. It’s pretty mature writing for a newborn sitcom and it is scrupulous about ensuring that even the small roles are as fully rendered as they can be (I love Fran’s brother, played by Akemnji Ndifornyen, who comes to town for one episode, and the awkwardness-inducingly foulmouthed office manager Ruthie, played by a kind of unhinged Patti Harrison).
You could say that Shrill pushes some boundaries in its choice to make a fat girl the hero, and you wouldn’t be wrong. If that were all it did, I expect I’d be glad it existed. It does a good deal more than that. It builds a funny, emotionally honest, very affecting landscape quickly, with great writing and solid acting, and it lifts one individual, personal story into the realm of the universal, which I think is probably what all good TV shows manage to do in the end. The show’s not perfect, it’s not earth-shattering, but it’s funny and sometimes touching and totally human.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.