Turns out some people really need to be more selfish. They give it all away — their time, their support, their soul — and frequently to those who don’t deserve such valuable goods. Often, of course, those who ought to take more for themselves, those afraid to risk being perceived as shrill, are women who’ve been bred on inequality and submission.
And heavy women? If you judge by our aspirational culture, they’re lucky to have the chance to deny their needs for some loser guy.
Those are the very strong bones of “Shrill,” a pleasing new Hulu series starring Aidy Bryant from “Saturday Night Live.” The six-episode comedy-drama gives us a heroine — Bryant’s Annie — whose mildness and extreme modesty can be painful to watch. At work at a publication in Portland, Ore., her snippy boss — a legend in his own mind played by John Cameron Mitchell — hardly listens to her article pitches, referring to her as a “millennial dumpling.” The dim-witted Ryan (Luka Jones) forces Annie to leave his house by the back door, so his roommates won’t know he’s sleeping with her. He’s flabby, too, but, you know, he’s a guy. She has unprotected sex with him, which he prefers, because she’s afraid to lose him.
Other women shame Annie, too, including “Toned Tonya,” an exercise trainer who tells her condescendingly, “you could be so pretty” and “there is a small person inside of you dying to get out.” All that people tend to see when they look at her is her body; two café workers happily tell her she reminds them of Rosie O’Donnell, even though the reticent Annie couldn’t be less like the star, except in terms of shape. Only her plus-size roommate and best friend, Fran (Lolly Adefope), sees Annie for who she is: smart, giving, and gorgeous. Fran is a wonderful presence on the show; she’s a Brit who serves as both Annie’s comic angel and her tough-love coach.
“Shrill,” based on the essay collection by Lindy West, unfolds as Annie begins the process of owning her own power. She has been hiding her light — her ironic humor is so deadpan others can’t tell when she’s joking — but she’s ready to change. She is happy with her body, and it’s not her problem, she starts to realize, if others, including her health-conscious mother (Julia Sweeney), are not. In one scene, Annie is timidly trying to cross a busy street when a tall, heavy woman walks in front of her, head high and proud, and the traffic comes to a stop. Annie is in awe, as the confident woman inside her longs to come out.
The show, available Friday, makes its points about weight and culture quite clear, but without yelling in our faces. There’s a groundbreaking component to it, as a story about a fat woman who is content with her weight; but “Shrill” is also a gentle, character-based series. It’s a humane slice of life, like “Better Things” and “Insecure,” with plot strands that sit together effortlessly and side characters who are richly drawn, including her work hubby Amadi (Ian Owens) and her cancer-battling father (Daniel Stern). Even Ryan is more than just an amusing dunderhead (whose scenes on hallucinogenic mushrooms with a dog are priceless); we begin to see that he does love Annie and is prepared, with his childlike abilities, to make her love him.
We also see that, as Annie changes, she triggers unfamiliar feelings in those accustomed to the way she was, including her mother, whose devotion to her husband is selfless. As she becomes more selfish, Annie tests their devotion and challenges their own weaknesses. Bryant is lovely in the part, as a woman in flux. I hope she gets more episodes to pursue Annie’s journey; six is not enough, and the final half-hour of the season arrives too soon. She clearly has more to offer than her excellent “SNL” sketch work. Amy Schumer has covered some of the same territory, but in a broadly comic way. Bryant has a light touch that buoys the humor, and she brings admirable restraint and sweetness to the drama. She’s a treat.
Starring: Aidy Bryant, Luka Jones, Lolly Adefope, Julia Sweeney, John Cameron Mitchell, Ian Owens, Daniel Stern. On: Hulu, first season available FridayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.