Four episodes into “Shrill,” shy writer Annie (Aidy Bryant) goes to a party, makes new friends and slowly but surely allows herself to let loose. It’s a scene TV has done a million times, and yet in the hands of “Shrill,” it’s an extraordinary moment that looks and feels completely different from anything that’s come before.
Annie is, as she calls herself with increasing confidence, fat. She has never quite fit into the world the way it seems to want her to, causing her to spend much of her life smiling tightly through the unsolicited condescension and pity she constantly gets from strangers and family members alike. So when she goes to a pool party that’s an explicit celebration of plus-size women, she’s overwhelmed by the sheer joy surrounding her, radiating from faces like her own in a way she never imagined possible.
These scenes, directed by Shaka King and written by Samantha Irby, represent the best of what “Shrill” has to offer. Based on writer Lindy West’s memoir and co-created by West, Bryant and Ali Rushfield, the Hulu comedy centers on a woman who might otherwise be relegated to quirky best friend status — or worse still, a sad punchline that doubles as a cautionary tale for skinny protagonists. It’s no accident that West named her book “Shrill,” defiantly reclaiming a word that many have thrown at her through the years for daring to speak loudly and take up space on her own terms.
In the TV version of “Shrill,” West’s facsimile struggles to push back on the sad-sack narrative so many others have assigned her over the course of her life. When we meet her, Annie has so far followed the lead of the hateful or just plain careless people around her, including her sneering boss (John Cameron Mitchell) and pseudo boyfriend Ryan (Luka Jones). Even her well-meaning mother (Julia Sweeney) enacts her concern for her daughter’s health by trying to cut her off anything more flavorful than egg whites, banishing criticism of her efforts as unfair.
As she is worn down, Annie devalues her own wants and needs to make herself smaller for the comfort of others. The early going of the series can be tough to watch as people stomp on Annie over and over again, especially when it’s slacker Ryan crushing her feelings under the weight of his apathy. (Jones is almost too good at playing such oblivious indifference.) Over time, however, Annie learns to embrace the parts of her that others can’t — or more accurately, won’t — to become a version of herself that refuses to settle for scraps anymore.
Unfolding in six episodes (the most that Bryant’s demanding “Saturday Night Live” schedule would allow), Annie’s difficult road to self-acceptance in relation to herself, her parents, her boyfriend, her work and even her best friend (a scene-stealing Lolly Adefope) can sometimes feel disappointingly scattershot. There are several pivotal conflicts that would almost definitely land harder with more room to breathe; in fact, the last episode feels more like a penultimate chapter revving up to something bigger than the finale it actually is.
But when “Shrill” warms up, it sparks in exactly the way that has made West’s fiery writing so satisfying over the years. Annie’s sporadic moments of real anger at the way she’s been treated — and has treated herself — are stark, passionate and undeniably cathartic. It also can’t be said enough how much Bryant, so good on “SNL” since her debut in 2012, brings to this long overdue starring role. Her Annie is smart and funny, forgetful and flawed; Bryant never lets you overlook that she is a whole person rather than a bland emblem of body positivity.
So when the time comes for Annie to realize the same, standing at the edge of a magical pool party in her black jeans and blouse buttoned up to her neck, Bryant imbues it with such palpable confusion and longing that it’s almost physically painful to witness. But then, out of this hurt comes one of the greatest pleasures of “Shrill.” As Annie finds the courage to dance her heart out alongside women who can understand the gravity of it, jumping and beaming with thrilled abandon, it’s just about impossible not to share her jolt of happiness at finally getting a real chance to be her truest self. Hopefully, “Shrill” will get more of an opportunity to see that journey through.
Comedy, 30 minutes. (6 episodes; all watched for review.) Premiered at SXSW on March 11; premieres March 15 on Hulu.