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Hulu's 'Shrill' fails to thrill, but lays foundation for future seasons

Earlier this month Hulu released yet another iteration of the “sadcom.” This term or its synonyms (dramedy, half-hour comedy or comedy in theory) is derived from a specific brand of television shows that became prevalent in the last five years. 

These are shows that essentially aim to tell short stories rather than full-season episode arcs, usually centered around a comedian auteur. It seems like every other week a new version of this show premieres on one of the dozens of streaming services or prestige cable networks. The best of these shows are FX’s “Better Things” and “Atlanta,” HBO’s “Girls,” Amazon’s “Catastrophe” and Netflix’s “Master of None.” 

The main driver of all comedies, in theory, is a point of view. These shows are designed for a niche rather than a mass audience. They deliver references and make statements about how the world perceives its characters. This month Hulu released its latest entry in the genre, “Shrill.” It aims high but falls short of the achievements of its "sadcom" predecessors.

“Shrill” stars a charming Aidy Bryant as Portland alt-weekly writer Annie Easton. Hulu summarizes “Shrill” as "Annie, described as a fat young woman who wants to change her life — but not her body. Annie is trying to make it as a journalist while juggling bad boyfriends, sick parents and a perfectionist boss, while the world around her deems her not good enough because of her weight. She starts to realize that she’s as good as anyone else, and acts on it.” 

The hook of the show is that it stars a plus-sized woman in the lead role. Bryant, who also serves as an executive producer and wrote two episodes, is not relegated to the best friend role or simply played for comic relief. “Shrill” aims to deal with and discuss the issues that fat women encounter in the world. The television landscape does need a show like this, but the debut season is heavy-handed and underdeveloped. 

While Bryant’s performance is charismatic and grounded, unlike her performances on “Saturday Night Live,” the writing never matches her talents. Frequently the show opts to show, not tell, leading to drawn-out, grandiose speeches. 

Annie spends most of the show trying to break barriers both in her dating life and at her job. She gets romantically entangled with a deadbeat boy, Ryan (Luka Jones), who has next to nothing to offer her. Ryan cheats on her, fumbles time and time again over commitment and has a strangely close relationship to his mother. “Shrill” frequently finds Annie gaining confidence and agency over her life, but she uses that power to date a certified loser. 

The workplace portion of the show provides the most laughs. Annie works as an assistant at a magazine under the rule of a tortured genius, Gabe Parrish (John Cameron Mitchell). Even though “Shrill” cannot decide whether it is lampooning Gabe or taking him seriously, each scene with him is delicious. As Annie attains more clout through writing an article about the human side of strippers and later about her life as a fat woman, her work life becomes more difficult. Gabe forces everyone to do weekly exercise and Annie attracts several internet trolls. The season climaxes with her confronting one of them in the funniest scene of the show. 

“Shrill” is a landmark show for its subject matter. But I wish it actually had some tighter writing. It plays too much like a traditional sitcom without any of the jokes. In theory, this is fine but the writing is didactic rather than revelatory or natural. Hopefully, if “Shrill” is renewed, the second season will find a more definitive voice to give to its strong cast. 

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