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Arts & Culture

Hulu’s Shrill Is a Revolution for Fat Characters on TV—But It Needs More Breathing Room

There is a moment early in the first episode of Shrill in which Annie Easton (Aidy Bryant) visits a café for her morning coffee. A few seconds before, we watched Annie, a fat woman, go through her daily wake-up routine: she walks her dog, puts on a gray-and-yellow striped sweater for work, looks in the mirror, and frowns. She pulls the garment up to her chest, first stretching it with her hands, then crouching down to pull it over her knees. Next, she’s in the kitchen, eating a meager breakfast of “Thin Menu” diet pancakes. Her roommate, Fran (Lolly Adefope), eyes the cheerless meal and mutters, “Good God.” Annie wishes her goodbye and heads to the café where, after purchasing her coffee, she spots a poster on the wall.

The buoyant Kali Uchis track playing in the background abruptly severs. “Get toned with Tanya,” the poster reads, accompanied by a photo of a woman with a sleek ponytail and sculpted abs karate-kicking a cartoon slice of pizza. She extends her fist forward, as if she’s going to punch you, and instructs Annie to “burn fat and get the body you deserve!” Detachable tabs printed with toned Tanya’s phone number line the bottom of the poster. Annie squints at the ridiculous ad and laughs, reaching for her phone to take a mocking picture of it. 

Like a sinewy wraith, toned Tanya materializes behind Annie, smiling as she snaps the photo. “You can just take my number,” she jokes. Annie demurs; Tanya insists. The offer becomes a demand. “Here, take a tab.” Annie accepts it with awkward kindness. That’s when Tanya grabs Annie’s wrist and goes full-throttle savior complex. “There is a small person inside of you, dying to get out,” she whispers, her eyes glassy and cultish. Annie tries to extricate herself from Tanya’s grip and gaze, but the lines keep coming:

“You weren’t meant to carry around all this extra weight.” 

“I know I can help you.” 

“You could be so pretty.”

Moments like these are what Shrill, Hulu’s series adapted from Lindy West’s essay collection of the same name, does extremely well: the seemingly minor altercations fat people find themselves in by virtue of living. It has become easier to clock the advertising tactics that target fat people—particularly fat women—with faux-sincere “wellness” concerns, if only because so many of them abound nowadays; it can be a great pleasure to call out those strategies and scoff at them. Yet Shrill brilliantly reveals that there is always a person behind the tactic—the toned Tanya constantly prowling for a skinny soul to save, unafraid to invade a stranger’s personal space, touch her without permission, and label her ugly by implication. All fat people have met a toned Tanya before, and this scene chillingly reminds us that they are still out there somewhere, waiting.

The first season’s six half-hour episodes brim with similar crystalline, dispiriting moments. The moment when Annie’s stoner boyfriend Ryan (Luka Jones) asks her after a hookup to dip out through his backyard so his roommates won’t see her leaving; the moment Annie’s boss, the editor-in-chief of The Weekly Thorn, the alt-weekly she works at, makes an offhand comment to her about “lazy bodies, lazy minds” after she arrives late to an employee fitness retreat; the moment Annie learns she has a vicious online troll and, upon complaining to her Thorn superiors, is told there is nothing to be done—the profit garnered by an unmoderated, click-generating comments section simply outweighs the brutal digital harassment of a single fat woman.

For every instance in the show that depresses, though, there is one that heartens: Annie ditching the Thin Menu pancakes for the spaghetti she actually wants to eat, and doing so without shame; Annie standing up to her mother, who loves her and pressures her to lose weight in the same breath; Annie confronting her online troll at his own house, coaxing an apology—and, when he then creepily invites her to grab a drink, tossing a stone planter through the window of his Cadillac Escalade. It is difficult to overstate how revolutionary these moments are for a television ecosystem that has long relegated fat women to predetermined categories: gross, hypersexual (or, alternatively, asexual), subordinate, unintelligent, and of course, shrill. Annie is the unicorn in this ecosystem: a fully textured fat person with needs we understand, flaws we accept, and desires we root for. 

One can’t help but feel, however, that these discrete moments of meaningful representation are holding more narrative pressure than they can bear. With just three total hours of storytelling (a shamefully restrained runtime that neither Hulu, nor any other platform, should ever again attempt), Shrill crams epic-scale character development into an uncomfortably petite package. Annie’s health-conscious mother suffocates her daughter with unwelcome diet talk for the first five episodes of the season; in the sixth, she has a sudden, unearned epiphany about this very tendency while lying on her living room floor, scooping Ruffles potato chips straight from the bag. Annie’s father, who is undergoing treatment for cancer, is her staunchest ally from the beginning. The last time we see him, however, is during an argument between Annie and her mother after Annie writes an article about being fat, publicly revealing details of their fraught parental relationship. With little explanation, Annie’s father lashes out at her during the argument, uncharacteristically raising his voice and cussing her out. Her bedrock crumbles, and neither she nor the viewer quite knows why.

There must be some difficulty inherent in adapting a memoiristic essay collection into a comedy series. The show is humorous and pleasantly breezy, but the conflict on which it centers—the realization and acceptance of fatness as an identity—is heavy, and it is as mental as it is physical. Such a major internal transformation takes time. For Lindy West, whose collection deserves every superlative it garnered after its publication in 2016, acceptance was a years-long process. The essays in her book span the majority of her life, from childhood to the present day. Hulu’s Shrill attempts to distill that lifetime of hard-learned lessons and truths into a mere six episodes.

Only once does the show pull this off. In an episode (“Pool”) that, were it feasible, deserves to be hung in the Louvre, Annie attends a local “Fat Babe Pool Party,” planning to cover the event for the Thorn. She arrives at the party and is stunned by the sight of the attendees (the vast majority of them fat) splashing, dancing, enjoying themselves in a way Annie hasn’t allowed herself to do at a pool in many years. Through flashbacks, we see the shame that kept young Annie from going to the pool with her family on vacation (as well as the secret pleasure she savored by sneaking out of the room at night and swimming—albeit alone—beneath the stars).

Before long, Annie sheds her journo jeans and purple blouse, revealing the glorious one-piece swimsuit she has on underneath. Without a second thought, she jumps in. The camera tracks her as she swims beneath the surface, kicking past the floating bodies of her fellow partygoers. The scene echoes the B-roll footage often found in news reports about “the obesity epidemic.” In such reports, the frame of the newscaster’s camera, carefully lowered to hide people’s faces and confer some semblance of anonymity to its surveilled subjects, focuses instead on their fat bodies. In a similar way, this episode of Shrill focuses on the partygoers’ figures—but as subjects of celebration, not mockery or chastisement. Annie’s lifelong cycle of pool-shame breaks under the weight of their joy. 

I am thankful that, one month after its debut, Shrill was renewed for another season. With the eight episodes slated for the second installment, West will hopefully have sufficient room to expand on the radical moments she delivered in the first. For it to succeed, however, the show needs more than just moments. It needs a woven narrative that allows its characters to grow organically, at a natural pace, without relinquishing the discourse-shattering power that the first season’s best scenes exhibited. In a red-carpet interview for the series’ release, West said she hopes Shrill will be “part of a shift,” in television. Season Two will either dash or fulfill that hope.