In Season 2, “Shrill” Challenges Viewers—and Itself—on Fat Politics

Aidy Bryant as Annie in Shrill (Photo credit: Allyson Riggs/Hulu)

Hulu’s Shrill, based on Lindy West’s 2016 memoir, was one of the most delightful shows to debut in 2019. By the end of the first season’s sixth and last episode, Annie (Aidy Bryant) is determined to take control of her life: She quits her job; stands up to her diet-obsessed mother; confronts her sexist, fatphobic online troll in person, and challenges her fuck buddy to treat her like a person, not a thing. She wants to step into a better version of herself, as evidenced from the articles she writes (and sneakily self-publishes) to the women she surrounds herself with, many who expect more of her, which the only way to please in Annie’s world, is to drastically overhaul her life in an attempt to align with expectations. Season 1’s most powerful moments were ones that specifically zeroed in on Annie’s experiences as a woman in a fat body, so I began the just-released Season 2 hoping for more taboo-busting portrayals of fat disruptors leading regular and shameless lives.

But while it feels exciting to watch Annie continue of her journey of self-discovery, in the new episodes there’s a huge drop-off in body-image discourse. That’s not to say the story falls flat (it doesn’t, thanks to fantastic execution and Bryant’s performance), but the eight new episodes carry a noticeable difference—namely, in that they challenge the show’s own discourse on fatness. The very first scene in Shrill’s pilot, for instance, found Annie pulling her shirt over her knees and crouching down to stretch the fit—a move familiar to many fats, and one that instantly sets the tone for the rest of the show. In “Pool,” arguably the most beloved episode of Season 1, Annie reluctantly attends a plus-pize pool party with best friend/housemate Fran (Lolly Adefope), eventually learning to let herself have fun and cut loose, surrounded by women with soft tummies and rolls galore.

Later, after being scolded by her fat-shaming boss for missing a mandatory company-wide exercise outing, Annie secretly self-publishes an article titled “Hello, I’m Fat” to her paper’s website, and soon after extricates herself from the toxic work environment. She’s new to her role as a challenger of fatphobia, but it’s a role she’s thriving and finding power in. Season 2 is short on these outspoken fat-girl moments; instead, it largely focuses on the aftermath of Annie’s decisions, in particular her attempt to shut down the troll, Kevin (Bryant’s Saturday Night Live colleague Beck Bennett), who left threatening, fat-shaming comments on her articles. “Camp,” the first episode of the new season, launches with Annie, high off the energy of throwing a potted plant through Kevin’s car window, choosing to flee town with Ryan out of fear of retaliation.

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Shrill downplays the harshness of the troll subplot and it comes across as more comedy than horror; but Kevin’s behavior is traumatizing and scary stuff—he leaves a comment on her article reading “I bet your dad got cancer on purpose just so he could die and get away from his fat pig daughter,” and he moos at her during their in-person confrontation. I went into the new season hoping to see justice, but, in the screen adaptation Annie basically lets Kevin off the hook when she tracks him down at work to ask if she can interview him for an article she’s writing about defeating her troll. (Its worth noting that West actually spoke to her troll for a 2015 This American Life segment.)

While Annie certainly intimidates and scares Kevin, they eventually agree to a truce so that he can go back to living without fear of seeing her again; on some level, she ends up feeling sympathy for him. As a viewer, this wasn’t a resolution that felt realistic or satisfying at all. It seemed especially off considering how much more aggressively Annie behaves this season: If she had the guts to show up at both Kevin’s house and his workplace, why is she suddenly so generous? I found myself asking the same question about why Annie begged Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell)—the boss who wrote a response to Annie’s essay titled “Hello, I’m Healthy” and rudely called her out in front of her coworkers for not committing to his new, fatphobic team-workout program—for her job back. It doesn’t make sense that this newly powerful Annie would want to return to a toxic work environment that called her literal body into question.

When Shrill’s new season does allude to its previously robust weight conversations, it most often involves Annie’s mother, Vera (Julia Sweeney), and cutting comments about overeating. In the fourth episode, “Freak,” Annie’s boyfriend Ryan (Luka Jones) meets her family for the first time, over dinner at a restaurant. When bread is placed on the table, Vera says, “Ryan, if you see me reaching for that bread I give you permission to slap me.” During the same meal, she declines dessert because she’s been “bad” (e.g. eating pasta and bread). Annie responds, “How have you been bad? It’s food. We’re just having a meal like every other person in this fucking restaurant.” At the halfway point of the season, this conversation deflates Annie, and her frustrated retreat from the table will be familiar to anyone who has family members obsessed with carb control. For much of Season 2, Annie gets to be on the offense, but her mother’s comments jar her so deeply that, as self-assured as she’s recently become, she nevertheless reverts to a former reactionary and defensive stance on fatness.

Shrill’s sophomore season seems like an attempt to widen the show’s narrative and explore other areas of Annie’s life and identity, which makes sense: Annie is not trying to change her body and she lives a rich and complicated life. As a 200-pound woman myself, I initially wanted more conversations about fatness in Shrill because they made me feel seen, and that’s what the series had conditioned me to expect. But despite my initial frustration and confusion, I noticed that the fatigue I often felt after watching Annie battle with her mother during meals or seeing her push back on a fatphobic boss lessened—it felt good to watch the series, rather than stressful or triggering. The scaling back of weight discourse allows the audience to naturally grow and change as Annie’s character does. It also gives us more time with previously underutilized characters like Fran, who finally gets her own storyline instead of existing solely as a mechanism to develop Annie’s character.

It’s proof that you don’t need a tried-and-true formula for a show to be its best, and that Annie’s hero origin story can have ups and downs instead of instant development and perfection right off the bat.

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However, in the last seconds of the season, Shrill sharply reverses course, and we learn that Season 2 Annie hasn’t left Season 1 Annie entirely behind. Ryan and Annie have hit a rough patch in their relationship, mainly because he’s a man-child who can’t support her career and spills details about their sex life in public. When he shows up, uninvited, to a small, intimate party at Annie’s house, it challenges her patience and she decides to end things right there. “Annie, I told you, I’m past fat. I love you,” Ryan pleads. To which Annie shoots back, so fast you could miss it: “I’m not past it.” Shrill is still a story about fatness, and this last line highlights that society’s constant push for Annie to be a disruptor has forced her to move too fast for her own good.

She has internalized a narrative—from media, from her boss, and from other fat women who are pushing boundaries—that in order to experience proper personal development, she has to shake shit up. While Annie certainly learns to be a better friend and daughter in Season 2 (and even gets a chance to challenge commodified feminism), most of the plot development centers on Annie realizing that life isn’t working out the way she thought it would when she took a chance on herself. Freelancing has stalled. She still craves male attention, despite choosing to commit to a relationship with Ryan. There is no formula for success, especially when she’s trying to use success as a Band-aid for her fraught personal life.

Shrill intentionally skirting around the central conflict for eight episodes only to bring it back in the season’s final seconds teaches viewers a lesson: You shouldn’t always skip past the difficult moments. That may feel like a different viewing experience than shows where character development is quick and easy, but it offers real storytelling to chew on. It feels good to spend time in Annie’s world where growth is not linear, where character nuances are deeper and more mature. It’s proof that you don’t need a tried-and-true formula for a show to be its best, and that Annie’s hero origin story can have ups and downs instead of instant development and perfection right off the bat.

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by Gina Escandon
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Gina Escandon is a culture and beauty editor who loves to screech about wellness, skincare, and millennial and Gen Z internet trends. She hails from Los Angeles and is a Pisces with a Capricorn moon. Connect with her on Instagram and Twitter @ginasescandon.