No matter what you think of the week-in, week-out quality of Saturday Night Live, the show remains a source of superb comedic talent — and it’s wonderful to watch the continued rise of one of the cast’s most versatile members, Aidy Bryant. In Hulu’s new six-episode comedy Shrill (premiering Friday), the Emmy nominee makes an effortless transition from supporting actress to star, even if the show occasionally undermines itself by placing its concept — plus-size people deserve to live with dignity — before its characters.
Bryant stars as Annie Easton, an aspiring journalist in Portland who allows herself to be dismissed, diminished, and even degraded by the people around her. Her useless quasi-boyfriend Ryan (Luka Jones) makes her leave through the back gate after they hook up, while her boss Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell) brushes off her pitches with unveiled derision. Even Annie’s mom (Julia Sweeney) needles her with unwanted diet tips and passive-aggressive comments about her love life. After a major life event that I won’t spoil, Annie is rattled into realizing that if she doesn’t start recognizing her own worth, no one else will either.
Annie’s journey to (partial) self-acceptance is, of course, rocky. Bryant gives a funny and emotionally nuanced performance, as Annie toggles between her budding confidence and a life-long habit of self-effacement. Lolly Adefope, who plays Annie’s bold roommate Fran, delivers tough love (“That’s what I’ve always wanted for you — a relationship that’s ‘better than nothing’”) with a masterful deadpan. And Mitchell is particularly entertaining as Gabe, a nail-polish wearing douche bag who rails against the establishment while ruling his online empire like a dictator.
Too often, though, Shrill seems more focused on the act of representing overweight women through the character of Annie than it is on crafting a three-dimensional story for her to experience. The series is based on Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, a collection of essays by Lindy West, and Annie is occasionally reduced to speechifying — telling us through a (well-performed) monologue how hard it is to be fat in America rather than showing us through character development. Annie is also disappointingly naïve about the existence of online trolls, one of whom relentlessly torments her with rude comments about her body. Her subsequent obsession with tracking the guy down feels like a less-than-worthwhile mission for such a multi-faceted character. In the most successful episode, “Pool,” Annie attends a body-positive pool party; she arrives shrouded in jeans and a blouse, of course. Over the course of an afternoon, we watch her blossom as she breathes in the atmosphere of acceptance, community, and DGAF pride.
This is all a long way of saying that representation matters, but it isn’t enough. I found myself wishing the show had started with a second-season mentality, inviting us into Annie’s world maybe six months or a year after that transformative party. Making a plus-sized character the heroine of her own story is important; imagine how powerful it would be if that story were about more than her weight. “There is a small person inside of you dying to get out,” an obnoxious personal trainer tells Annie. That is certainly something you should never say to an overweight person. But I will say this to Shrill: There is a full-fledged show here. Right now, though, it remains trapped behind its own message. B