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Pitch shifter

‘Shrill’ is the buoyant, body-positive feminist comedy we deserve

SNL star Aidy Bryant in “Shrill,” streaming now on Hulu

I’ll be honest about my bias: “Shrill” hits all the right notes for me. I am the demographic for which the new Hulu show, starring and co-produced by SNL star Aidy Bryant, was written. As a 20-something woman whose conversations in therapy tend to be a series of circular questions that can be boiled down to, Yeah—but am I a real girl?, “Shrill” took me on an all-too-familiar journey. I was hurled back to the times in my own life I felt ashamed of the space I take up in the world as a woman, and the inevitable awkwardness that ensues in the process of learning that I deserve to be met with the same love and respect as everyone else.

The show, produced by Lorne Michaels and Elizabeth Banks, is loosely based on Lindy West’s 2016 memoir of the same title. Lindy has become Annie, an aspiring young writer at a Portland alt-weekly, who navigates friendships, a career, and love as a young fat woman in America. Ever the expert in subtle comedy, Aidy Bryant plays Annie with a disarming buoyancy and a charm that evolves over the six-episode arc. In Bryant’s rendering of this role, Annie isn’t “shrill” by any means, at least not yet. Over the course of the six episodes—which fly by so quickly they almost feel like a tease—we’re given only hints of the emerging outspokenness and unapologetic candor associated with West’s writings and public persona.

In the series’ opening, we meet Annie during a cringe-y exchange on her morning coffee run. A fat-shaming personal trainer whose rude commentary veiled in fake concern is met by our heroine with a joke, a smile, and an apologetic demeanor. However, by the end of the same episode, Annie’s feminist guns are ablaze as she confronts her boss and male coworker, Andy, with a line I’m totally gonna steal next time some dude talks over me: “I’m sorry … you’re great in a lot of ways, but I’m better in most.”

“Shrill” has pretty much everything I want from TV: memorable characters, a sharp look, and a fire soundtrack.  There is the almost-too-on-the-nose Dan Savage impression in the form of Annie’s tyrannical boss, Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell) and his quips which range from clueless—“I love the whole female empowerment shit, I kind of invented it in the ‘90s. I was the original bass player in Bikini Kill”—to cruel. (He calls Annie a “shitty cunt” as a “joke” in episode one, and thwarts her writerly ambitions at every turn.)  A clean, saturated look by Karl Lefevre helps these characters pop on screen, rounded out with music by first-class femme artists from Jen Cloher to Tierra Whack to Angel Olsen. (The show’s musical bent carries over into director credits from Jesse Peretz of The Lemonheads, and Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein.)

Maybe the best part of the show is Luka Jones as man-baby/love interest Ryan, whose sometimes fake-woke bumbling countenance and fixer-upper boyfriend status is so relatable. Because who among us hasn’t wasted our precious time dating a fuck boy with “normcore Ted Kaczynski” vibes? For women who have grown up with a limited-to-nonexistent sense of self-worth, men like Ryan are our cross to bear, until we realize they’re not. Jones is hilarious, though.

Lolly Adefope provides a delightful foil to Annie as her roommate and best friend, Fran. Their heart-to-heart in episode one lays the groundwork for the rest of the season, as Annie confesses her internalized deficiencies: “There have been moments in my life where I didn’t think that I would ever get to have [a partner, a family] because of what I looked like or because there’s a certain way that your body is supposed to be and I’m not that. And that maybe if I was just sweet enough and nice enough and easygoing enough with any guy, that that would be enough for someone.”

Fran’s reply is perfect: “We need to un-train you from thinking of yourself in such a brutal way.”

The creators attempt to pack a lot of action into six short episodes—Annie goes to a strip club; Annie fights with her parents (Julia Sweeney and Daniel Stern); Annie’s man-baby disappoints her; Annie’s article goes viral; Annie goes to a pool party with other fat babes; Annie gets an abortion; Annie has an online troll. But at the heart of this show is a deeper look at something we haven’t seen on TV: the experience of being female in a body that is not thin.     

“Shrill” is for the women who have felt their mothers’ disappointment in the way they look, who have balked at the unconditional love their friends offer, and who have chased after withheld affection from partners who can’t see their value. Aidy Bryant has proven she’s not just “the fat girl” on Saturday Night Live—she’s a goddamn star.