SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the second season of “Shrill,” streaming now on Hulu.
While the first season of Hulu’s “Shrill” culminated in its protagonist Annie (Aidy Bryant) declaring, “Hello, I’m Fat” in a rogue article she posted on her employer’s website, the second season leans away from discussing Annie’s weight.
“Fat is part of her story and part of how she walks through the world and part of her history, but we purposefully didn’t want to make every single story and every single episode have that as the headline because it’s just not true in people’s lives,” showrunner Ali Rushfield tells Variety.
The first season of “Shrill” was based on Lindy West’s 2016 essay collection, “Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman,” and the article Annie wrote was based on one West published when she was working for the Seattle paper The Stranger in 2009. West is a writer and executive producer on the streaming comedy, and although the second season is off-book, so to speak, many elements of it still come from West’s own relationships and work experiences.
“The literal things at this point are that her character’s a journalist and that her father has an illness — not the details of that illness, just the fact he literally has [one],” Rushfield says.
Picking up immediately after the events of the first season finale — in which Annie confronted one of the negative commenters on her article and smashed the window of his car — the second season sees Annie storming into her boyfriend Ryan’s (Luka Jones) house with a newfound sense of confidence.
“We wanted to show someone having a newfound superhero power,” Rushfield says.
Annie found her voice at the end of the first season, and she was empowered by many of the responses she received to her article. But while that makes her “much more assertive now about her work life,” says Rushfield, it doesn’t mean the workforce around her is ready to receive her. After being humbled by her personal blog only receiving comments from “penis bots,” making it impossible to know if anyone real is reading her work at all, and being offered only an unpaid internship position at a news publication, Annie ultimately decides to go back to work for Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell), who had made less-than-sensitive comments about her weight during her initial bout of employment.
“She did shoot herself in the foot, which is more of a thing of people in their 20s I think, and she had to kind of eat s— because she went a little too far in her stance,” Rushfield says. “She sometimes goes too far and sometimes [is] too self-obsessed now because she thought of herself so little before. It’s almost like she got a new car that goes way faster and is trying to learn to control it. We wanted to show that when people make shifts in their lives, it’s back and forth and incremental; it’s not that suddenly you have confidence and that’s it.”
One area on which Annie went back and forth, professionally, was in what she wanted to say about a women’s conference she attended. In the sixth episode of the second season, entitled “WAHAM,” Annie meets a successful “she-eo” (Vanessa Bayer) who has built an empire on empowerment speeches and merchandise that Annie points out is not affordable for all women, although all women deserve to be empowered.
This is a specific episode inspired by a story West has shared. In 2017, West attended Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop Festival and wrote about her experience for The Guardian. “Her takeaway was the takeaway that we have in this: that it seemed like it was monetizing feminism but it also seemed to be helping people in some way, so it was confusing,” Rushfield says.
“Shrill’s” version of this event was “a little more everyday people” than the “polished Santa Monica event like Goop,” Rushfield adds. This allowed the show to broaden the scope of the story out from West’s experience of feeling like “she was the lone fat person at that thing,” Rushfield relays, to explore “all women being held hostage to these empowerment movements that are supposed to help them.”
When Annie couldn’t quite decide how she felt about her experience and therefore how she wanted to write about it, she surprisingly turned to Gabe.
In addition to Annie’s work life becoming more complex in the second season, so too did her personal life. Her parents were very present in her life this season, from her mother’s (Julia Sweeney) jaunt up to Canada to reflect on her past, to her father’s (Daniel Stern) trip to the hospital.
“Her parents — at least her mother is a marker of her own progress in the world. Her mother represents her past and the way she used to think about herself,” Rushfield says.
This became more emotionally layered and complex when Annie went to a wedding with Fran (Lolly Adefope) and got a glimpse into Fran’s relationship with her own mother. “Fran and her mother are so direct with each other and she wants that as well,” Rushfield says of Annie. “And also, just body issues are not an issue between Fran and her mother, and seeing that there is a world where that is possible, it is definitely supposed to play off each other. In the episode following it is a scene where she tries to talk to her mother, and a neighbor shows up, and it was always, ‘How does this scene relate to the rest of the episode — the conference and all that?’ And it doesn’t, really, it relates to the whole season, it’s more about what Annie is taking from her experiences.”
For the majority of the season, Annie was in a relationship with Ryan — and happy about it, despite how he used to make her climb out windows so his friends and roommates wouldn’t know they had just had sex.
“Some people’s instincts were, ‘Shouldn’t she be like, “F— him” and start dating now?'” Rushfield admits. “But women with changes having to do with their physical self, the first change they see might be their career or the way strangers treat you on the street, and the last thing to go from your old self would be relationships and intimacy.”
Annie was also excited to “do the normal ‘introduce my boyfriend to my parents’ thing like most people did 10 years ago,” Rushfield continues, because “she has a boyfriend and she feels normal.”
But as time went on, she became more immersed in feeling “I got what I always wanted, but do I actually want it?” Rushfield notes.
When Ryan got a job in distribution at the newspaper, it began to poke holes in their relationship. “She already felt like they weren’t intellectually matched, but then he crossed over into the parts of her life that were starting to work,” Rushfield points out. Seeing how he fit in (or in many cases, didn’t) and simultaneously seeing new options opening up to her both professionally and personally made her realize, “If I don’t break up with him, this is what I might be missing out on,” Rushfield says.
Additionally, after having sex with Ryan at work, he bragged about it to their colleagues, which caused the company to have to sit down to talk about proper etiquette and sexual politics in the workplace. This was a story area Rushfield says they wanted to explore because “it fit the story and gave her the most public humiliation.” Although such conversations have become increasingly more common — and important — in real workplaces post-#MeToo, Rushfield says the one created for “Shrill” was not born of anyone’s specific experience but rather the writers’ room “trying to think of the funniest things these characters could say” in that situation, as well as a “lot of improv in the moment” from actors on set.
At the end of the second season, Ryan asks Annie point-blank if now she’s going to start dating, and she says that is exactly what she’s going to do. Although “Shrill” has not yet officially been renewed for a third season, Rushfield reveals that should the story continue, future episodes would explore what it looks like for Annie to put herself back out there. The experience, she says, would “probably be a lot more concerns with her weight and her body, and she would backslide in that way because it’s an area that’s vulnerable.” At the same time, though, Ryan would still very much be a part of Annie’s life — and not only because he now works with her.
“From my personal experience, and I won’t get into the details, but those people do not just go away. It could be someone that stays in your life for a year or 30 years, you just never know. And certainly someone like her isn’t just going to be like, ‘Goodbye to that,'” she says.