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‘Shrill’: Can This ‘Revolutionary’ Fat-Positive Comedy Inspire Industry-Wide Change?

Executive producer Elizabeth Banks, author Lindy West, and showrunner Alexandra Rushfield know that "Shrill" is extraordinary, but what they want to be is normal.

Shrill -- Episode 104 -- Annie & Fran attend the Fat Babe Pool Party. Annie is so empowered by the experience and so furious with her boss, Gabe, that she posts a body positive article to the paper's website that explains exactly what it's like to be a fat woman in today's world. Annie (Aidy Bryant) shown. (Photo by: Allyson Riggs)

“Shrill.”

Andrew Eccles

Like the Lindy West memoir that inspired it, Hulu’s “Shrill” tackles abortion, Internet trolling, love, and being fat (a word the show, and its producers, proudly reclaim). It’s a perspective that executive producer Elizabeth Banks describes as “revolutionary” — especially after she was left nonplussed when a female journalist at the Television Critics Association winter press tour asked: “You’ve been gorgeous your whole life. What did you understand about this material?”

Banks answered the question by simply saying the Aidy Bryant comedy is “something that everyone can relate to.” But afterward, she told IndieWire, “We left the panel, and we thought, ‘We have to make a hundred more of these shows, so that this just gets normal. … Lindy’s book points out that if you put a character like this on television, and make her a role model, that will be revolutionary.”

Added West, “There’s this great lie that if you spend all your money and all your time and all your energy trying to climb up this ladder and get a better body and eventually get the perfect body, then you’ll have a perfect life. And it’s just not real. Because there isn’t any perfection… So the idea that that wouldn’t impact Elizabeth Banks is just detached from reality. We all live in that hierarchy.”

Elizabeth Banks and Lindy WestHulu 'Shrill' TV Show Panel, TCA Winter Press Tour, Los Angeles, USA - 11 Feb 2019

Elizabeth Banks and Lindy West at the Television Critics Association press tour

David Buchan/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

When West published “Shrill” in May 2016, she was initially surprised by the Hollywood interest. “It seemed totally impossible that there could be a show in that book,” she said. However, as the meetings continued she realized “that I desperately wanted to make it.”

She began thinking about the things she wanted in the show: “I want to have an abortion in the pilot. I want to have a fat woman who has sex and is happy, and I want it to be a comedy. I want it to be really funny.”

West expected the development process to take years, but that changed when Banks and her Warner Bros.-based Brownstone Prods. came on board. The studio sent it to showrunner Alexandra Rushfield (“Parks and Recreation,” “Love”), who also found herself seduced by West.

“I really did want to do my own thing, that came from my own head, so when I was given a book I was like, ‘There’s no chance I would be interested,'” Rushfield said. She decided to give it “five or 10 pages, and then I’ll tell them I read the whole thing.”

Shrill -- Episode 104 -- Annie & Fran attend the Fat Babe Pool Party. Annie is so empowered by the experience and so furious with her boss, Gabe, that she posts a body positive article to the paper's website that explains exactly what it's like to be a fat woman in today's world. Tween Annie (Alexis Sorensen) shown. (Photo by: Allyson Riggs)

“Shrill.”

Andrew Eccles

By Chapter 2, she was in. “It’s not like this ended up in the show at all,” she said, “but all the stuff about not being able to sit in chairs in places. When I read it, I was like, I had never thought about that. It just represents not fitting in the world right.”

Further accelerating the process was Bryant’s “SNL” production schedule. “We had two months to write, two months to shoot, and then it was over,” West said.

While “Shrill” is based on West’s life, Bryant’s character Annie is an amalgamation of all the women leading the show — including Bryant, who is credited as co-executive producer. “I’m very proud of the collaboration that they all brought to the table,” Banks said. “Alexandra, who is very dry and very sardonic, just an incredible wit, really balances like Aidy’s optimism and her much sunnier sort of outlook on everything, and I think that’s where the character really lies. And then there’s the confidence and strident nature of Lindy, that’s sort of like sprinkled in there.”

Other changes included the role of West’s father, who died in December 2011; in the show, Annie’s father is sick but surviving. Rushfield said that choice was a “producing thing, because you’re like ‘Oh, it’s Daniel Stern and he’s so good!’ You don’t want him to die.”

Another choice was making Annie more insecure at the beginning of the season. “The show had to pick up at the moment where Lindy wasn’t always like that,” Banks said. “I think Lindy has a truly innate confidence that is incredible. When you meet her, it’s in her writing obviously. We all have to come to being a woman who owns their choices themselves, who’s no longer a child.”

Shrill -- Episode 104 -- Annie & Fran attend the Fat Babe Pool Party. Annie is so empowered by the experience and so furious with her boss, Gabe, that she posts a body positive article to the paper's website that explains exactly what it's like to be a fat woman in today's world. Fran (Lolly Adefope), Annie (Aidy Bryant), shown. (Photo by: Allyson Riggs)

“Shrill.”

Andrew Eccles

Said West, “It was never going to be exactly me. It’s not a biopic. Especially when Aidy came on — once you have actors involved, it’s important that they can take these characters and make them their own a little bit. And that was a big part of it; Aidy wanted to build this character with us.”

Although Bryant’s schedule made it difficult to shoot more than six episodes for Season 1, Banks said that should a Season 2 get greenlit, they have plans in place. “We have arcs for sure, for multiple seasons, ready to go, but we don’t count our chickens before they hatch,” she said. The cast also includes Lolly Adefope, Luka Jones, Dana Millican, John Cameron Mitchell, Ian Owens, and Julia Sweeney, all of whom have the potential for expansion.

West said, should they receive a Season 2, she hopes to increase the focus on the ensemble, because she didn’t want a show “that centers on a straight, white, upper-middle-class woman.” Even if that woman was her. “I don’t want to be that show,” she said. “I want a show with meaningful diversity and a show that tells a lot of different people’s stories with depth.”

That was a challenge in just six episodes, but the creators used the problem to highlight Annie’s increasing self-absorption. “It was important to me to make that real in the show,” West said. “The show itself, in its structure, is kind of narcissistic. Annie is being kind of a narcissist, in a way that is not super-toxic; she’s on this important journey and she’s maybe, in certain ways, thinking about herself for the first time. But she’s neglecting these friendships, and she’s being a bit of a bad friend for the sake of this personal journey that she’s on. I wanted to make sure that was explicitly known.

“I just felt like the least we could do is acknowledge that Annie is selfish,” she said. “And that her problems are not the biggest problems in the world. They’re real problems, and they’re worthy of attention. But the world is bigger, and you have to think outside of yourself eventually.”

The full season of “Shrill” is streaming now on Hulu.

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