TV review: Shrill comedy shows subtle face of prejudice

Shrill (2019–2021) is a three-season comedy-drama set in Portland, Oregon. It stars Saturday Night Live cast member Aidy Bryant as twenty-something journalist Annie Easton. British comedian Lolly Adefope plays Fran, a hairdresser and Annie’s housemate.

The show is known for its positive portrayal of plus-sized people and its critique of fatphobia. It follows Annie’s journey as she learns to ask for respect at work and in her relationships. Shrill is based on Lindy West’s book of essays, Shrill: Notes from a loud woman.

I started watching Shrill with low expectations, imagining it would be preachy. But it really is very good television. What I like most is the realism of the character writing. While it’s true that many characters have exaggerated traits for comedy’s sake, they also display a realistic mix of good intentions and personal flaws. (Spoilers coming up.)

Annie’s troubled relationship with problematic boyfriend Ryan is a great example of the show’s sophistication. In many ways Ryan is bad. Just bad, very bad. At the start he’s ashamed to be seen with Annie. Later on, he fails to respect her professional life and embarrasses her at work. Yet, Ryan is also depicted endearingly as someone who loves Annie as much as he is able to. In many ways he is a well-intentioned individual limited by his own stupidity. I’m not sure that Ryan can help being Ryan.

A big part of Annie’s journey is about learning that she deserves a boyfriend who treats her properly. She stays with Ryan for a long time, because he cares for her, not because he’s right for her. If problematic Ryan were shown as a straightforward villain, we wouldn’t see how it’s possible for Annie to stay with him. That’s why it can sometimes be useful to write bad boyfriend/girlfriend characters sympathetically. It helps viewers to understand that it’s not always easy to know when someone is wrong for you.

Annie also makes mistakes. In season three she’s so keen to make a name for herself that she gives a platform to white supremacists. This is to the dismay of British-Nigerian Fran, who points out that she herself wouldn’t be physically safe on the white supremacists’ property. Annie is cancelled (although it doesn’t seem to do her writing career much harm in the long run).

In the show the white supremacists are depicted as strange and somewhat chilling. Yet they’re hospitable to Annie and send her away with a nice baked fruit pie. Of course, Annie doesn’t see the full picture because she is a white woman. But the encounter also echoes a confusing ambiguity that seems to crop up again and again in the show.

As a fat woman Annie often meets people who are charmingly nice and then suddenly fatphobic. A fitness expert tries to encourage her and then is extremely rude. A gynaecologist chats pleasantly about her downstairs parts, then recommends bariatric surgery. Even her own mother, who clearly loves her, made her young child eat cereal while those around her ate full meals. And then there’s Annie herself, responding badly on a blind date with a plus-sized man.

In the real world this is often what prejudice looks like. A person can be friendly, delightful, well intentioned and charming, yet capable of being deeply prejudiced. Shrill highlights this dynamic across the three seasons, not only in relation to fatphobia but also to race, gender and sexuality too. In season three we see much more of Fran’s romantic relationships with women and with non-binary Em.

I review television shows that I like because I want other people to watch them. So far, I fear, I’m making Shrill sound too serious to be enjoyable viewing. It’s not like that at all! As a comedy it really works.

I personally don’t think Shrill is laugh-out-loud funny, but it is warm and humane. The storylines kept me interested and I enjoyed watching a sensitive show in which there were few real villains, just misguided people.

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