Halfway through its second season, “Shrill” beat its wayward characters to the punch by figuring itself out completely.
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Based on Lindy West’s memoir of the same name, the Hulu comedy spent much of tis first season fixated on a single cataclysmic event. Annie (co-creator Aidy Bryant), a writer for a weekly paper called The Thorn, had spent most of her life shrinking herself to fit society’s standards, but is forced to confront her issues as she confronts an internet troll who had made it his business to bully her relentlessly about her weight. Echoing West’s real-life experience, Annie ends up finding and calling him out personally, a moment that’s shocking to him and exhilarating for her. With just six episodes, though, the first season doesn’t have much time to develop much beyond this specific thread — which was a shame, because as the excellent second season proved, there was plenty more to explore.
In Season 2, “Shrill” used its expanded order of eight episodes to not only broaden its scope, but deepen its perspective. Annie deals with the rollercoaster of righteously quitting The Thorn and then rejoining it as one of its prized writers. She settles into a real relationship with Ryan (Luka Jones) before realizing that his newfound devotion can’t make up for his lack of ambition or interest in hers. The episode in which she covers a female empowerment convention — “WAHAM,” aka “Women Are Having a Moment” — is a series highlight, combining Bryant’s skill as a comic performer with the show’s shrewd insights on the particular disappointment of hollow feminism.
But the moment when it becomes clear that “Shrill” knows exactly what it’s doing comes in this season’s fourth episode (“Freak”), when Annie’s beloved roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope) takes herself out on a date. Happily stoned and munching on a burrito, Fran walks into a dive bar and promptly signs herself up for karaoke, where she absolutely crushes a freewheeling performance of “Shallow” from “A Star is Born.” Between this scene and the following episode, which has Annie joining Fran for a Nigerian family wedding, “Shrill” recognized once and for all that it had two charismatic leads in Bryant and Adefope, and should balance its stories accordingly.
. Fran’s burgeoning relationship with Em (a scene-stealing E.R. Fightmaster) gets just as much narrative weight as Annie navigating singledom as a woman confident in herself for the first time in her life. The season also allows room for Fran and Annie to have a substantive fight when Annie writes a piece that appears to give racists a pass, and Fran refuses to do the same for her oblivious friend. By the end of the season — and in turn, the show — their friendship has evolved and matured as much as they have.
The third season is so sharp and smart about laying the groundwork for Annie and Fran’s future, in fact, that it’s genuinely startling when it ends on a purposeful anti-climax, thus cutting their stories and the series short. Annie’s been promoted, but finds herself reeling from a terrible argument with her low-key new boyfriend Will (Cameron Britton), a man she’d previously written off before realizing he could be good for her. Fran comes to meet her with a sympathy bottle of wine, because she and Em also just had a huge fight about whether or not they should move in together. Sitting together on a park bench, the last shot of “Shrill,” period, is of Annie and Fran blinking through frustrated tears into the horizon, contemplating the ways in which their lives are about to change if they commit to the kind of change that has previously scared them to death.
It’s a lovely scene, and there’s something to be said for a series that’s self-assured enough to end on a note of uncertainty rather than wrapping every loose thread up in a neater bow. But it’s also undeniably frustrating to realize that this is the last we’ll ever see of “Shrill” and these characters when there are demonstrably so many more rich stories to explore with them.
I would have loved to see how Annie handles being the editorial director of The Thorn alongside her work husband Amadi (a very good Ian Owens) and mercurial Gen X boss (the incomparable John Cameron Mitchell). Watching Fran fight her fight or flight instincts to build a life with Em, the loving and genuinely fun partner of her dreams, would’ve been a joy. Whatever else Fran and Annie might get up to, or however else they self-sabotage despite themselves, “Shrill” proved itself more than capable of telling their stories with wit and a keen eye for the ways in which life proves itself weird, wild and funny when you least expect it. It’s sad to lose a show near its peak, but it’s also a testament to how well “Shrill” developed itself with the time it got that its exit should sting this badly.
All three seasons of “Shrill” are now available to stream on Hulu.
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