Shrill, Hulu's witty new comedy filmed in Portland and based on Seattle writer Lindy West's 2016 memoir of the same name, is (sadly) groundbreaking for its focus on issues faced by fat (a term the show proudly reclaims as wholly positive) women. Internet and public shaming, unconscionably shitty men, sex and abortion are all tackled in this series—each of these topics is actually broached in the very first episode. However, Shrill never feels bogged down by its subject matter and instead handles with incredible deftness the balance between laugh-out-loud moments and the shocking casual cruelty Annie (a wonderful Aidy Bryant), the protagonist, experiences every day.
This could become the rare program that's seen as a cultural cornerstone (and, dare we dream, a turning point) because of the way it addresses significant issues—like the dehumanization of overweight women—without ever coming across as preachy. The Portland premiere and post-screening Q&A session with West at the Hollywood Theatre were undoubtedly jovial, but the room filled with audible gasps when Annie was mistreated by a female yoga instructor ("You don't have to look like this.") and a terrible lover who forces her to exit through the backdoor so his roommates won't see her.
With its heroine so frequently disrespected due to her appearance, Shrill illustrates how these incidents can add up and take a toll on a woman's self-confidence. Mirroring West's life (she used to write for The Stranger), Annie works for a fictional Portland alt-weekly, where she's been relegated to assistant calendar editor for two years, too timid to ask her Dan Savage-like boss (John Cameron Mitchell) for more fulfilling assignments. After the screening, one viewer wanted to know how much of Mitchell's flamboyantly dickish character was based on the newspaper's editorial director. West laughed, then demurred and said, "It is and it isn't—but it's not," before telling the audience she and Savage happened to ride together on the same plane to South by Southwest and had a friendly chat about the show.
Watching Annie begin to change her life via self-belief and being comfortable with who she is underscores what a ride Shrill is and how much ground each of the 30-minute installments covers. Painfully touching nods of recognition from individuals who understand Annie's plight far better than I were visible throughout the theater, making it readily apparent the series will prove to be empowering for women who are sick and tired of being shamed for their existence.
That being said, Shrill is going to connect with anyone who appreciates well-crafted TV. The writing and cast are top-to-bottom terrific, with scene-stealing Lolly Adefope shining as Annie's roommate Fran and Luka Jones' turn as Annie's hipster-douche love interest Ryan being particular standouts. Fran answering Ryan's inquiry of "What do I look like?!" with "Normcore Ted Kaczynski?" received the most uproarious response of the night.
As good as the supporting cast and writing are, Shrill's success hinges on its lead's ability to convey West's magnetic personality onscreen, and Bryant has never been better. She's a godsend as Annie, breathing vitality into a deceptively complex role that is at turns hilarious and heartbreaking. Bryant, who also helped write and produce the series, has been a star in the making on SNL, and Shrill should firmly establish her as such.
West's personality is as engaging as her writing, and it's unsurprising she could land names like Bryant and Portlandia's multitalented treasure Carrie Brownstein (who directs Episode 2) for the project. Listening to West speak about the need to be kind to yourself, it's impossible not to root for such an exuberant, vivacious person—and that feeling translates to the character of Annie. Every so often art has the capability to help us look outside our own experiences toward others with a newfound empathy; the touching and uproarious Shrill is one of those projects.
SEE IT: Shrill streams now on Hulu.