Annie makes amends & demands a place in the world in a quietly powerful sophomore season of the Hulu comedy-drama.
This week season two of Hulu’s effervescent Shrill returns to give us more of the same sharply observant humor and inclusive empowerment—tempered with painful obstacles and real character growth—that made season one a breakaway hit.
Based loosely on Lindy West’s memoir Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman and geared towards a millennial audience, Shrill isn’t always an easy watch. For a show that has more than its fair share of uncomfortable moments, one of the most gutting is when Annie Easton (Aidy Bryant) introduces her boyfriend Ryan (Luka Jones) to her parents. Her mother Vera (Julia Sweeney) tells her she looks “so put together.” It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, but it boils down to Vera being unable to tell a fat woman—her own daughter, no less—that she looks beautiful. The tension between Annie and her mother, Annie and her friends, her boss, and her boyfriend, are still very much a part of the new season, but showrunner Ali Rushfield wisely chooses to make season 2 less about Annie chafing against a world that seeks to minimize her and more about Annie learning to unapologetically take up space in that world.
After the outrageous season one finale that sees Annie blowing up almost every support she has—her friendship with Fran, her relationship with her parents, her job at the Weekly Thorn, we see Annie trying to mend those fences over the course of the season. Luckily her friendship with Fran (Lolly Adefope) is quickly repaired, in part because Fran finds herself dealing with some fallout of her own in her relationship with Vic, and Fran needs Annie as much as Annie needs Fran. Fran has her own stories to tell in this season; reconciling with the fact that she has hurt many women the way that Vic has hurt her, her continuing struggle for acceptance and understanding from her mother, and the developing friendship between her and Emily, played by writer and performer E.R. Fightmaster, a welcome addition to the cast.
While season one focused so much on Annie learning to live in her own skin, season two pulls back and examines so many of the relationships in finer detail. After disappointing Annie so many times, Ryan is now fully invested in their relationship. His earnestness at times is a little endearing, until Annie begins to see the limitations of having a partner like Ryan, who is unable to be anywhere but in the present. In the season opener, Fran rightly points out that Annie ran to Ryan after confronting her troll because she knew that he was the only person who wouldn’t feel the need to check Annie’s impulses. That kind of unconditional support can be incredibly powerful but also incredibly destructive. When Annie’s father, Bill (Daniel Stern) tells Annie that Ryan is “fine,” Annie can see the writing on the wall, but it’s all brought to a head when Ryan gets a job at the Thorn, which goes as disastrously as one might expect.
Showrunner Ali Rushfield wisely chooses to make season 2 less about Annie chafing against a world that seeks to minimize her and more about Annie learning to unapologetically take up space in that world.
Yes, Annie does manage to get her job at The Weekly Thorn back after drunkenly begging a Ketamine-fueled Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell) at Ruthie’s 70’s-themed roller rink birthday party. If there is any unevenness in this season, it’s seeing Gabe go from a fairly convincing Dan Savage avatar to being the churlish, whiny former It Boy trying so desperately to remain relevant. “I was the original prince of the gutter punks,” he tells Amadi (Ian Owens), lamenting his loss of caché, and in one scene of stomach-clenching horror, he croons David Bowie songs in front of dozens of people to his boss Sheila (played by the flawless Illeana Douglas).
Mitchell can sing with the best of them, but it’s his almost pleading desperation that makes the scene so horrifically uncomfortable to watch. It would be too easy to laugh Gabe off as a joke, but he not only gives Annie the second chance she needs, he helps her develop an article about a conference for women-owned businesses into something that is front-page worthy. It’s a huge step up from putting together the weekly calendar, and while the words are all Annie, it’s Gabe that encourages her to tell her story and control her own narrative.
Speaking of the conference, it is almost entirely the focus of the outstanding episode 6 “WAHAM,” directed by Natasha Lyonne. WAHAM is short for Women Are Having A Moment, and explores both sides of female empowerment as a Big Business. “…All day long they talked about self care,” Annie tells Gabe, “but it’s not self care to agree that you’re ugly and you need to be fixed.” It’s Gabe who respectfully encourages Annie to talk about her abortion as real self care (as opposed to makeup for covering “gross leg skin” or $120 marble vibrators) And it’s an important distinction to make. Shrill isn’t reinventing the wheel with Annie being candid about her abortion, but it is absolutely necessary to be reminded that real care is more than sheet masks and bubble baths and that abortion is a perfectly reasonable and normal thing that happens to many people.
By the end of episode eight, we’ve seen Annie and all of her relationships are in a much healthier place than they were at the start of the season, but there are plenty of threads left dangling that would warrant a third season. Will Annie’s career begin to take off now that Sheila has taken such a keen interest in her talents? What about Gabe’s future at the Thorn? Will Annie and Vera ever really understand each other, with the threat of Bill’s health looming over them? Most importantly, will Ruthie ever get the respect she clearly deserves? She is trans, and a veteran, after all.
If season one was a revelation, season two is a quiet triumph that continues the bold narrative that fat people can have successful careers, relationships, and lives. They don’t need pity or censure, they just need to be allowed to exist the same as everyone else. It shouldn’t be a radical notion in 2020.
Season 2 of Shrill is now available on Hulu.