Over the course of the six-episode first season of Hulu’s Shrill (March 15th), Aidy Bryant’s Annie, an alt-weekly staffer in Portland, Oregon, is repeatedly interrogated and hassled about her weight, her dress size and her caloric intake. Strangers feel compelled to offer unsolicited diet and exercise advice, or even to grab certain parts of her body to figure out whether, as one puts it, “There is a small person inside of you, dying to get out.” (“Well, I hope that small person’s OK in there,” Annie quips, sadly used to such behavior.) But the dramedy’s most important measurement is not discussed, though it will be plain to anyone who watches: It’s the small but unmistakable distance the corners of her mouth have to travel between the winning grin that is her face’s natural resting state and the frown that appears whenever someone assumes her physique is an open invitation to insult her. There’s a lifetime of frustration and pain contained within those few millimeters, no matter how optimistic she manages to appear most of the time.
Written by Bryant, Ali Rushfield (Love) and Lindy West — loosely adapting West’s memoir, Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman — the season is short but a slow burn. When we meet Annie, she has plenty of reasons for that smile, and just as many for those frowns. She’s living with best friend Fran (Lolly Adefope, having a busy spring between this and TBS’ Miracle Workers), on mixed but relatively good terms with her mom (Julia Sweeney, playing all the right passive-aggressive notes) and ailing dad (Daniel Stern) and has frequent sex with Ryan (Luka Jones), a man-child who views her as one notch below a fuck buddy. (He makes her climb over his back fence to leave every time so his roommates won’t see her.) Her boss Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell, perfectly insufferable) shoots down all her article pitches, even after her empathetic profile of the dancers at a local strip club (assigned as just a review of the place’s buffet lunch) hits big — his dismissiveness primarily motivated by his disapproval of her looks. And her online success brings with it the nastiest of trolls. (“He wrote, ‘Eat shit, which I know you will, because you’ll eat anything,’ ” she shares about one commenter, before quoting even more of his vitriol too disgusting to include here.)
The show is very much about Annie’s size but not about her attempt to get thinner or otherwise win the approval of fat-shamers. Rather, it’s about her learning to be comfortable in the body she has, to stand up for herself and try harder for the things she wants. Shrill gets granular about some of the challenges of being big in America, like Annie’s ill-timed discovery that the morning-after pill is much less effective for her than it would be for a skinny woman. Mainly, though, it’s about the feeling of never knowing exactly when or how your weight will become an issue, but knowing that it inevitably will. One of the series’ more powerful and joyous scenes takes place at a pool party for plus-size people. Even there, Annie is reluctant at first to strip down to her bathing suit. As Ariana Grande’s “One Last Time” plays, Annie starts to modestly sway to the music, worried that people will gawk at her for daring to put her midsection in motion. But when she realizes that nobody cares, she cuts loose in the exuberant, infectious manner that fans of Bryant’s Saturday Night Live work will recognize.
The sketch-comedy version of Bryant is not on display here. Nor, for the most part, is West’s cutting persona. This first season is an origin story — like the start of a superhero franchise, the second installment seems designed to be the more exciting one. But even in this more self-conscious version of the role, Bryant’s a star, and Shrill lets her shine as brightly as Annie so badly wants to herself. Laugh-out-loud moments are few (often coming from the idiocy of Ryan or the smarm of Gabe), but before long you’ll be smiling as broadly as Annie.