TV talk: season two of ‘shrill’ wears its heart on its colourful sleeve
The supportive best friend. The tragic sad girl. We’ve seen characters from marginalised communities delivered straight from the production line, neatly packaged within these stereotypes for moral convenience. But Annie Easton, heroine of Shrill, proves something different is possible: a character who is equally flawed and inspiring. Watching Annie grow at a rate of fits and bursts is a painful but rewarding experience.
Shrill expands a recent genre in popular media that explores the experiences of minority groups in today’s “woke” political landscape. These shows, such as Insecure and Master of None, often feature writer—actors for whom the show is semi-autobiographical, and employ socially aware humour that feels honest rather than exploitative. The Hulu-released Shrill is no exception. The source material is journalist Lindy West’s 2016 memoir, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman but it also loosely adapts the lives of various crew members (including star, writer and co-executive producer Aidy Bryant), with irresistibly heartwarming results.
Season One began with plus-sized journalist Annie tailoring herself to a world that saw her body as a problem, and politely swallowing coded fatphobia from strangers, her boss Gabe, and her mother. Watching her shed this meek cocoon to quit her job and vandalise her online troll’s car was delightful, and Season Two conjures fresh compassion for her struggle between submissiveness and exhilarating self-possession. We are graced with two 25-minute episodes more than the first season, and they aren’t wasted as the character-driven plot naturally shifts to focus on Annie’s career and relationships.
While the reduced discussion of body image may disappoint viewers hoping for another episode like Season One’s ‘Pool’ (set at a joyous ‘Fat Babe Pool Party’), it allows Shrill to invoke these issues subtly. By exploring Annie’s relationship and career misadventures, the writers create a plus-sized heroine whose body doesn’t define her rich, complex inner world. Annie’s characterisation reflects this, particularly her custom-designed wardrobe, which is patterned, quirky and colourful enough to make any viewer self-conscious of their couch potato uniform. In an interview with InStyle, Bryant, who has her own clothing line, acknowledged that realistically the plus-size market’s limited range wouldn’t offer such outfits, but explains she wanted a fully-realised protagonist with unique tastes. Such aspirational costumes, combined with warmly lit, softly coloured sets, could introduce an artificial note into a genuine harmony, but this reach into pastel-hued paradise depicts Annie as she could be. Such a vision startles in how intoxicating it is.
This character authenticity is applied to Shrill’s wider cast, and thus offers insights into various social issues minus their political veils. Ruthie, Gabe’s assistant, steals her every scene with spectacularly offbeat humour and when a coworker implies that, as a transgender woman, her life must be ‘trauma porn’, she corrects him with characteristic unselfconsciousness. Ruthie’s quirky mannerisms are what engage us in this moment. We see her as a funny, unique human rather than a political token to buy our favor. This ability to speak frankly about various issues can be attributed to the people who brought Shrill to life, as West has emphasised that the show isn’t biographical and drew on the experiences of all those involved. Samantha Irby, one of the show’s writers, enthused to Vice about the understanding of plus-size experience shared in the writer’s room, and how these details were translated onscreen as a ‘…love letter to all my sisters in the struggle.’ The impacts of this intimate understanding speak volumes – Shrill fans are of that heartfelt, passionate breed that only accompany a show that really means something.
The self-indulgence of the show’s joyous visual aesthetic can be excused when such narrative honesty is maintained, and when it manages to be simultaneously defiant, uplifting and realistic about the difficulties of implementing a newly empowered attitude. Shrill’s storyline, content to let Annie flounder somewhat before gaining real traction in the final episodes, can feel like expensive chocolate: sweet, but so fine you’re tasting a memory before it even touches your tongue. However, by strolling in Annie’s wake as the ups and downs of a freelance career, ill father and serious boyfriend occupy her daily life, we have room to process her emotions. Even as Annie earnestly struggles to do the same.
Due to these mimetic moments that reflect Annie’s contradicting emotional experiences, we feel compassion as she grapples with the practical challenges that accompany “being loud” in your everyday life. When Annie attends a female-empowerment convention, expecting another moment of life-affirming clarity as was inspired by the ‘Fat Babes’ of Season One, she is conflicted by her discomfort regarding the exploitativeness behind the convention’s candy-coloured feminist veneer. It takes time for her to identify and act on her feelings, and this is one example of how Season Two recognises that disengaging from the belief system that scaffolded your life is a slow, painful process. There is humour and empathy in Annie’s struggle to hastily chew all she bit off in quitting her job, and she is far more relatable when she falteringly reassures others that she’s ‘got this’ and requests at a job interview that they ‘just let me work here, for money?’ than she would be were her character arc more linear. Showrunner Alexandra Rushfield told Variety that growth is ‘back and forth and incremental’, and by getting acquainted with Annie through the unpredictable kaleidoscope of her emotions, our love for her feels organic.
By deepening this focus on the character at the show’s core, and offering further insight into the equally engaging characters in her orbit, Shrill’s narrative pull may lessen but it also allows us to bask in the pleasant waters of the characters’ complex emotional experiences. It makes for short, sweet binging as our hectic schedules resume, and the time spent with flawed, frustrating and funny individuals will leave you hungry to conquer the new everyday challenges we face. It is nice to be reminded that all the curveballs and missteps make it that much more rewarding when you do find your stride.
Nicola Frassetto is a creative writing student at the Queensland University of Technology.