By Sarah Osman
Has Annie learned anything? Life can indeed be frustrating, and our insecurities do often get the best of us, but dealing with our limitations contributes to our eventual maturity.
Certain TV shows, films, and books revolve around dull protagonists. Although Harry Potter may be the titular hero of the Harry Potter series, he’s by far the least interesting character. His two friends, Ron and Hermione, are more fun to read about and their personalities change in much more interesting ways. Harry isn’t exactly unlikable — he’s just boring. But in some cases, a fictional protagonist is downright despicable (looking at you, Hannah from Girls). We are assured that these figures are “antiheroes,” but they are too frustrating to care much about.
And that brings us to the protagonist in Shrill, Annie (Aidy Bryant). She isn’t exactly contemptible, nor is she boring. But, as a character, Annie is not all that compelling or satisfying. At times, she can be confident, sassy, and sexy, and that makes her a great role model. But at other times she can be selfish, petty, and insecure. The problem is that, though there are different facets to her personality, she isn’t all that complicated, which means that Shrill is not as profound as it would like us to think it is. Ironically, Shrill‘s supporting characters, from Annie’s delightful roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope) to her post-punk boss Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell) are amusing and add to the joy of the show. So, while Shrill has come up with some remarkable moments — especially with regard to body positivity — there have been just as many cringe-worthy and annoying scenes. Season three will be the final season of Shrill, and it continues that trend. The wrap-up doesn’t quite satisfy, much like its pliant protagonist.
Season three gives us Annie as a single, sexy woman. She has finally dumped her deadbeat boyfriend, Ryan (Luka Jones), and is out on the prowl. Her dating life starts out well, thanks to a cute new suitor, but it quickly turns into a disaster, full of painful moments to watch. While Annie’s dating life is relatable (who hasn’t had a Godawful date?), the decision to go for farce is a missed opportunity. This might have become a much-needed showcase for the kind of love a plus-size woman deserves: it would have been such a powerful message to see Annie with a guy who is her right match. In numerous films slobby men date out-of-their league women, so why can’t we see a plus woman (who’s not a slob) date a man that’s not a loser?
Things go from bad to worse for Annie. She interviews a group of “separatists” for an article that’s outside of her normal beat and she ends up canceled. Annie is trying to write a nuanced article about the separatists, but her editor changes her text to become more click-baitish. Readers charge that Annie was complicit in giving the separatists — who are clearly racists — a platform. Cancel culture has become controversial, so it makes sense that Shrill would bring it up. However, it is quickly dropped. Annie is upset about being canceled and cries because she feels that everyone hates her. Her Black coworker and roommate point out to her that she made a mistake, but she doesn’t seem to learn her lesson. She bakes an apology cake and continues to joke about her actions rather than confront her mistake and grow. Here is another missed opportunity; a chance to explore the complexities of cancel culture — particularly looking at how some white people do not understand it, as well as the struggle the BIPOC and the LBBTQ+ community face, having to explain (over and over again) why certain words and actions are not appropriate. Instead, Annie’s article is forgotten and life moves on. (This instant amnesia could be a larger comment on cancel culture, but it still needs more of a deep dive.)
While Annie’s life falls apart, everything’s coming up Milhouse for her roommate Fran. She’s arguably the most charming character in the series, and it is good to see Fran so happy this season. Fran is in a healthy, loving relationship with her partner, Emily (E.R. Fightmaster) (they even meet each other’s parents!). She is beginning to work at her dream salon, and is winning over her curmudgeonly coworker (who hates everyone else). This domestic contentment is well earned — Fran has shown a lot of growth. A spin-off series focused on Fran’s life might be very rewarding: her background, including being gay, coming from a Nigerian family, and being originally from London, could generate some complex story lines.
However, the show isn’t focused on Fran, it’s centered on Annie, and it’s a shame she doesn’t make that kind of progress. Still, there might be some hope for Annie yet. She eventually falls for a new guy named Will (Cameron Britton) who she initially rejected for…being fat. As Annie gets to know Will, she realizes she had been shallow in a very ironic way: she was treating Will the exact same way other men had treated her. Shrill has always done a great job of handling fat phobia; the series has portrayed plus-size women with feelings, careers, and yes, having sex. Interestingly, the writers have never taken a look at this prejudice from the male perspective — it is refreshing to see a man’s body dissected on screen. Will and Annie’s relationship becomes sweet, but it would have been much more effective had it developed throughout the season, rather than being squeezed into the last few episodes. Credit Shrill with not putting Annie back together with her last boyfriend. But then her relationship with Will ends on a mystifying note, and that falls short of answering an essential question: why can’t we see a plus-size woman date a worthy man?
A few of the side characters, particularly those who work with Annie, finish on a solid note. There is a standout episode in which Annie and Fran go out for a grand night on the town with a few of Annie’s coworkers, who give hilarious dating advice. Sadly, the supporting figures do not appear as often as they have in previous seasons. Gabe continues to spout insane anecdotes from his old punk days: his “memoir” isn’t real, but I would definitely read it if it ever materialized.
So, like its protagonist, Shrill finishes up on a dramatic downturn. Has Annie learned anything? Life can indeed be frustrating, and our insecurities do often get the best of us, but dealing with our limitations contributes to our eventual maturity. Here’s one of the few shows with a plus-size woman at its center, and she was given the necessary depth and nuance to grow into an adult.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for Young Hollywood and High Voltage Magazine. She will be featured in the upcoming anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences under the Trump Era.