Shrill, the new Hulu series based on the 2016 memoir by Lindy West, is anything but shrill. It’s a quiet, gentle show, suffused with a kind of tender restraint. In this world, a dinner at a strip club becomes a low-key conversation over hushed music about the importance of grooming and how good the shrimp is. An abortion is over and done with in a single nervous, intimate montage. Against the warm grays of Shrill’s color palette, our heroine’s candy-striped pink dresses glow like scoops of sorbet.
The heroine in question is Annie (Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant), and she is careful about being quiet and gentle and warm, about never doing anything that might be described as “shrill.” She’s fat, and she has no desire to be on the receiving end of the special sort of hatred reserved for fat women when they get loud and angry, or when they appear confident.
So when a personal trainer accosts Annie at a coffee shop, aggressively grabbing her wrist, leaning in, and whispering, “There is a small person inside of you dying to get out,” Annie only blinks, smiles sweetly, and says, “Oh! Well, I hope that small person’s okay in there.” She knows how to deflect with self-deprecation, how to apologize for her body’s bigness by making her personality smaller.
Because Annie knows that when she doesn’t, there are consequences. When the trainer pushes so hard against her that Annie finally snaps and mutters “fuck you” quietly under her breath, the trainer lashes out at her. She calls Annie a fat bitch.
Shrill’s first season runs for six half-hour episodes — each co-written by Bryant, West, and showrunner Ali Rushfield — and its project is to teach Annie that it is okay if other people think that she’s shrill. It’s okay if they call her a fat bitch. What is most important is that she stop spending her life apologizing to those people for existing.
The men in Annie’s life are mostly assholes. They have shaped her existence.
Annie works in the calendar department of the Weekly Thorn, a Portland website with the ethos of an alt-weekly based loosely on Seattle’s the Stranger, and she dreams of being a writer. Lindy West, Annie’s real-life template, wrote for the Stranger at the beginning of the 2010s, and while there she publicly feuded with Dan Savage — the beloved sex columnist and the Stranger’s editorial director — over how to write about fat people.
Accordingly, as Annie strives to transition from assistant calendar editor to full-time writer, she locks horns with Savage analogue Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell), an aging Gen-X cool kid who monologues defensively over how he supports “the whole female empowerment schtick” because he “kind of invented it in the ’90s.” Whenever Annie pitches him another story about life as a fat woman, he rolls his eyes. That perspective doesn’t seem relevant or interesting to him.
Gabe is one of the many men in Annie’s life who underestimate her, and one of the two most prominent. The other is her sort-of boyfriend, Ryan (Luka Jones), who summons her to his crappy apartment mid-day by texting her “Fuck?” and then once they’re done, makes her exit down the back stairs so his roommates don’t see her. It’s Ryan’s terrible treatment of Annie that eventually spurs her to realize that she has to make some changes to her life.
Over the course of season one, Annie tries to train herself to like herself
“There’s like a certain way that your body’s supposed to be, and I’m not that,” she tells her roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope, doing a lot with a tiny role) in the first episode. That’s why she puts up with Ryan, Annie says, because she thought that “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 hates saying it out loud, she adds, but it’s “the kind of stuff that’s fucking going through my head all the time.”
“Okay, well then we need to make sure that it’s not going through your head all the time,” Fran replies. “We need to untrain you from thinking of yourself in such a brutal way.”
So over the course of the rest of the show, Annie sets out to retrain herself: to demand respect at work and in her love life, to allow herself to take up space in the world.
As she does so, she occasionally overcorrects. Transitioning from a passive doormat into a confident human being comes with growing pains, and for Annie, confidence more than once blurs into selfishness. She makes her mother cry; she ignores Fran and Fran’s problems. (She also commits some pretty flagrant violations of journalistic ethics, and it’s never entirely clear whether in the world of Shrill those are supposed to be horrifying or no big deal.)
Always at the core of the show is the toxic, twisted relationship between Annie and the people who hate her for existing. In the season finale, Shrill suggests that relationship is laced with poisonous intimacy. When Annie acquires a troll follower who calls her a fat pig in the comments section of everything she writes, she’s furious — but she’s also a little bit flattered to have someone care so profoundly and exclusively about her that they are devoted to reading her every word.
In counterpoint to that twisted relationship is Annie’s evolving relationship with herself. That’s where the tenderness that is fundamental to this show’s ethos comes into play. Fundamentally, Shrill is the story of Annie learning to become gentle with herself, to take the niceness she directs to the rest of the world and learn how to direct it towards herself.
Shrill will launch on Hulu on Friday, March 15.