“Shrill” digs into a lot in a very brief amount of time. At just six episodes, all of which run under 30 minutes, Hulu’s upcoming comedy takes the story of a quiet, self-effacing woman named Annie (Aidy Bryant) and spins it into a sharp exploration of self-worth, self-confidence, and even selfishness. There’s edifying scenarios and speeches about micro-aggressions and macro-aggressions tossed toward women that the world looks through instead of at, but there’s also heartbreaking moments of empathy for Annie’s friends and family. To call it a slice-of-life series wouldn’t do justice to the well-honed commentary — on everything from false perceptions of health to institutionalized exclusion — but part of what makes “Shrill” so engaging is its diversity of storylines.
Let’s start with Annie. The Portland-based writer works for a local alt-weekly with an strong online presence. Relegated to busy work for the past two years, Annie wants to dig into stories with a little meat to them — so much so, she’s overjoyed to be given a “restaurant” review where she has to go to a strip club and grade its buffet. She’s similarly content with Ryan (Luka Jones), a scruffy-bearded hipster whose only apparent “job” is hosting a podcast on Alcatraz with his brothers. Annie is so desperate for attention she’s smitten by a text that just says, “Fuck?”
That, though, is about to change. Annie’s timidity mainly stems from her weight. She’s embarrassed by her size, even though the sheer vitality of her expressions shows she’s got more healthy energy than most, and forces herself to do things she doesn’t want to do because of it — like eat weight-watcher meals her (amazing) roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope) says look like “a stillborn puppy.” With Fran’s support (and a perspective-shifting surprise), Annie vows to change her thinking, go after what she wants, and stop letting other people’s shoddy judgements define who she is — she’s taking back the word “fat,” draining it of its negative energy and imbuing it with her own power.
This, of course, is much harder to do than it is to say, and Bryant makes you feel each hiccup in the plan, each slight thrown at Annie, in a moving way. Whether it’s a deflating flinch after reading a negative comment online or a feigned smile to make an offender more comfortable, the actress illustrates each chink in her newly reinforced armor with precision. She can go big, too, delivering vulnerable, heartbreaking speeches with ease and familiarity, knocking down point after point with careful choices that speak to Annie’s fluctuating mindset. Bryant is a force, and an endlessly watchable one at that.
The “SNL” performer also helped develop the series alongside Lindy West (who wrote the memoir on which “Shrill” is based) and Ali Rushfield; all three are credited writers on multiple episodes, and the scripts are tight, dense, and oh-so-smart. For relatively fresh TV writers, there’s a great balance between comedy and drama; between sharp, one-off asides and deep, focused confessionals; between the absorbing primary story and the rich characters it includes.
“Shrill” does hit a few first season speed bumps. Certain plotlines peter out that feel like they could be wrapped up, rather than extended into Season 2. It can skew a bit monologue heavy near the end, and there are the inevitable gripes about accuracy within parts of Annie’s journalism job (which are only nagging because it can be unclear who’s right and wrong during fights with her editor, played keenly by John Cameron Mitchell.) Ryan, a character you’re ready to say goodbye to pretty quickly, sticks around quite a while, spinning the same Portland doofus schtick so long it gets harder and harder to believe.
But each and every one of these minor slights goes toward making one of the season’s sneakier, more complex points. Once you decide to live with confidence, to put yourself first and stop living in shame, you can get sucked into a vortex where you can only see yourself. Annie is not a selfish person, but does she have to be, at least for a little bit, to overcome a lifetime of self-denial? “Shrill” isn’t a pity party — far from it. In future seasons, Annie could believably become many different versions of herself, from an enlightened, empowered friend and writer to an egomaniacal hater ready to take vengeance on the wretched world around her. Those are high stakes, and “Shrill,” too, could go anywhere — an enticing possibility after a first season that covers so much ground.
“Shrill” premiered at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. Season 1 debuts Friday, March 15 on Hulu.