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In the last last seven years, the world of television has seen a rise in the creation of funny and often painfully realistic shows about the lives of millennial women. To name a few: Issa Rae’s “Insecure,” Lena Dunham’s contentious “Girls,” the Comedy Central hit “Broad City,” and “Fleabag” by British television creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The verisimilitude achieved in all of these shows is so striking that they often become difficult to watch, as was the case for many viewers of Dunham’s show. On all of these shows, the most pessimistic moments of millennial life are delivered with a wry and unforgiving tone. Hulu’s new TV show “Shrill” takes a more bubbly approach to millennial life, and not always with much success.
“Shrill,” which began streaming on Hulu last month, follows Annie Easton, a “fat young woman who wants to change her life — but not her body,” according to Hulu’s description. Annie is played by “Saturday Night Live’s” Aidy Bryant, who is also one of the show’s writers and producers.
“Shrill” has none of Dunham’s pessimism or “Broad City”’s mocking humor. It’s, in fact, quite, cheerful. Annie and her best friend Fran (Lolly Adefope) wrap their arms around one another, jump up and down, and scream “yay” at least once every episode. Bryant’s lines are punctuated with a little giggle at the end. The show’s score, composed by Craig Wedren and Anna Waronker, is a 2019 update on the sappy “Gilmore Girls” one — it’s mainly just acoustic guitar strums, cued whenever Annie is walking around the streets of Portland, having an existential moment. With characters constantly exchanging pleasantries and a pastel-toned set, “Shrill” is sentimental.
That isn’t to say that “Shrill” is only a feel-good show: It tackles serious topics. In the first episode alone, Annie is fat-shamed on multiple occasions, visits her father who’s battling cancer, and gets an abortion. But through the eyes of Annie, “Shrill” has a hopefulness, an excitement about life that other shows in its genre opt out of in favor of a cynical world-weariness. Even when she is assigned to review the underwhelming, gross, and greasy weekday lunch buffet at a local strip club, Annie remains excited: “I’m actually a journalist,” she gushes to one of the strippers, “We’re both here workin’, doin’ our jobs,” she says.
When we first meet Annie, she deals with other people’s horrible treatment of her and her plus-sized body by being sweet and easy-going. When a personal-trainer insults her in a coffee shop, Annie grins and bears it. When Ryan (Luka Jones), her “friend with benefits,” makes her leave his house through the back-door, she laughs and nods. When her boss refers to her as a “millennial dumpling,” she thanks him.
Annie’s search for self-empowerment doesn’t come without its consequences. In the final episodes of the season, Annie is accused time and time again by Fran, her colleagues, and her parents of being selfish, an accusation that is both illogical and misogynistic. This selfishness is artificially induced: Never do Annie’s actions actually appear selfish, rather they seem like actions of a twenty something women who’s just trying to figure herself out. Annie’s father calls her “a little brat” after Annie criticizes her mother for trying to control her calorie intake. And, in the season finale, Annie’s colleague tells her, “It seems like you’re way more interested in yourself than anyone else,” after Annie complains about being recently jobless. The show’s argument that selfishness is a byproduct of female empowerment is a disconcertingly conservative one.
An even more disconcerting part of “Shrill” is its treatment of characters of color. On “Shrill,” characters of color only exist to deal with Annie’s emotional turbulence. Annie is the victim of a lot of fatphobia throughout the season while Fran, a black lesbian woman, seems to just glide through life. Never do we hear anything about her struggles. Fran serves as audience to Annie’s many rants and even accompanies her into the examination room where she gets an abortion, but she never has a fully developed plot of her own.
The biggest shortcoming of the show, however, is that it’s about Annie’s circumstances and not about Annie herself. When Annie has an article published, she is happy. When Annie and Ryan fight, she is sad. Rarely is there a dissonance between Annie’s life circumstances and how she is feeling. More often than not, there is a disconnect between how we feel and how wonderfully or horribly our lives are going. The ability to depict such a dissonance is what makes for mimetic, moving art. “Shrill” very rarely has such an ability except in Episode Four when Annie attends a pool party for plus-sized women. This episode explores Annie as a person, and not Annie as a product of whatever good or bad thing happened to her that day.
Maybe the very best moment of “Shrill” is the last few seconds of Episode One. Annie’s just been called a “fat bitch” as she’s walking down a busy street. Rather than getting upset, Annie swallows back whatever pain she’s feeling and forces herself to keep walking. As Tierra Whack’s fantastic “Pretty Ugly” begins to play, this walk turns into a strut. Annie’s smile reveals as much pain as it does steadfastness. Bryant’s performance is so convincing here — we can see the thoughts racing through Annie’s head. Hopefully, in Season Two, “Shrill” can add to the cheerful tone its achieved an embrace of emotional gradation rather than meekly backing down from it.
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