Early in the Season Two premiere of Hulu’s Shrill, Aidy Bryant’s Annie bursts into the living room of boyfriend Ryan (Luka Jones) and screams, “I’m a fuckin’ bitch, and I love it!!!!”
That scene takes place minutes after the show’s Season One conclusion, where alt-weekly writer Annie confronted an online troll who got off on fat-shaming her. So of course Annie would be feeling giddy about her own power and ability to turn the tables on her haters. But opening the new season on this note also suggests that Shrill is about to start leaning into its title, putting Annie more on offense than defense after she spent most of that first season grinning and bearing a host of indignities and insults.
I really enjoyed Shrill last year but felt like it was only just getting to what seemed to be the heart of the story: Annie learning to take control of her life and the narrative around it, by any means necessary. So kicking off Season Two with such a bold declaration, followed by an episode where Annie is noticeably more aggressive than before, was profane music to my ears.
The premiere, though, turns out to be more an aberration than a harbinger of things to come. Pretty soon, Annie is her genial old self, and Shrill is back to being a sweet, pleasant show that’s still taking its time getting wherever it wants to go.
Bryant co-created the series with Alexandra Rushfield and writer Lindy West, whose memoir Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman provided the Hulu version with a title and perhaps a theme. But it appears that over time, the creators have modeled Annie less on West than on Bryant’s own onscreen persona as someone with an infectious smile that has to paper over a lot of pain and embarrassment.
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So Season Two quickly settles into now-familiar rhythms, even as Annie’s life is a bit different. She and Ryan are making a go of a serious relationship, after they began the series as self-loathing fuck buddies. She struggles as a freelancer after quitting the alt-weekly, and eventually tries to win the approval of its narcissistic editor Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell). And she tries to repair things with best friend Fran (Lolly Adefope) and her mother Vera (Julia Sweeney) after difficult moments in the first season.
She’s basically the same person as before, though. The biggest change may be that Annie’s weight is largely backgrounded. It’s still a source of tension between her and her mom, but otherwise the show seems to have raced way past the idea that Annie shouldn’t be solely defined by her weight, and decided that it should no longer be a primary subject at all.
Without that, and/or more significant character growth, there’s not a lot to the new season beyond the appeal of the performers. Jones is fun as a more enthusiastic, sheepdog-like version of Ryan, and the show wrings a lot of humor out of Patti Harrison’s unapologetic strangeness as Gabe’s assistant Ruthie. Other than a wedding episode where we meet Fran’s family, Adefope is underused, but Fran scenes always suggest she could easily carry her own show.
Emotional development isn’t linear, and television is built to do great things with gradual transformations if they’re told the right way. Better Call Saul seemed to be ending its first season with the main character assuming his Breaking Bad persona, only for the second season to immediately reverse course on that and get back to slow-playing it. For that series, it was absolutely the right choice. For Shrill, there doesn’t seem to be enough of this version of Annie worth exploring at such length, no matter how much I might like simply spending time in her world.
The entire second season of “Shrill” debuts January 24th on Hulu. I’ve seen all eight episodes.