In the last scene of Shrill’s second season, Annie (Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant) breaks up with her boyfriend just as her friends start lighting fireworks to celebrate another friend's singleness. The boyfriend is a doofus—like one of the dumber side characters in a Judd Apatow movie—and the moment feels triumphant.
That triumph is swiftly deflated. Season three—the Hulu show’s last—opens with now-single Annie hooking up. Or sort of, almost. The guy finishes prematurely and produces “just a drop” of semen, then gets embarrassed, then tries to re-woo Annie with barbecued ribs, then engages in some accidental ass-play with barbecue sauce on his fingers, then cries in the bathroom, while Annie falls asleep sitting outside its door to comfort him.
So Shrill—based on the essay collection by Seattle’s Lindy West, but shot in Portland—is still Shrill: awkward, bawdy, ultimately kind-hearted. If you liked the first two seasons, you should enjoy this as well, at least at the momentary level. The characters are still divided into Real People and cartoon caricatures that feel transposed from a Portlandia sketch (Fred Armisen has a cameo; Carrie Brownstein directs two episodes). Where this season lacks is its arc, its culminating narrative. It’s episodic TV that remains episodic—not unlike an essay collection—even as it reaches for more.
Subplots bloom, then fade like unwatered plants. For instance, Annie’s friend Fran (Lolly Adefope) takes a job in a salon called Shave. She has some superficial friction with a coworker, which gets resolved by the end of the episode. Then the plot nearly vanishes. On its own, that doesn’t matter—Julio Torres (of Los Espookys) delivers a great cameo—but the season is only eight half-hour episodes. In those we get two potential romantic partners for Annie; a plot about her heading to a Bundy-like ranch for an article; a Cancel Culture narrative; a bit about medical fat shaming; an array of subplots about Fran and her partner; and, simmering in the background, the collapse of journalism. The Weekly Thorn—the Stranger–like alt-weekly Annie works for—is struggling: pruning writers’ hours, trimming the budget anywhere it can (“it was either the party sub or health insurance”), indulging in click-baity headlines, getting non-writers to become “content creators” to pad-out the website.
This wandering plot didn't bother me for the first six of those episodes—the season is mostly a pleasure—but suddenly in the seventh episode the show changes course, taking long narrative leaps even as it adds unnecessary college flashbacks. There’s nothing wrong with the story it tells, but it feels like a season’s worth of plot tossed into an hour of TV (a little like a narrative version of this John Mulaney bit). The wandering also leaves some of those subplots underdeveloped, reduced to shorthand. The cancel culture episode includes an article titled “Annie Easton Is Canceled.” Got it.
The shorthand isn’t particularly shocking. Shrill is, at heart, a coming-of-age sitcom and sitcoms tend toward easy solutions. But at its best Shrill lifts the genre. As Amy McCarthy wrote in Portland Monthly last week, the show “will enter the annals of television history as one of its most transgressive pieces of media solely because it managed to treat fat people as complex, interesting characters who are deserving of love and lust and nuance and, most importantly, dignity.” It’s also funny and smartly observed. When Annie heads to that Bundy-like ranch, she finds that the family uses a map of California for target practice (with little concentric circles around the cities).
In fact, even though it’s underdeveloped, the ending rings true. Annie has spent the series shedding her meekness, inching closer to the confidence of its title, and making mistake after mistake in the process. In the end she makes a major one, and when we leave her, nothing is solved.