Towards the end of Shrill’s third season, Maureen (Jo Firestone) says to Annie (Aidy Bryant), “from the shit the flowers grow. And you are covered in shit!” In this final run of eight episodes, we see Annie liberated from her bad relationship with Ryan (Luka Jones) but still at risk of falling into self-destructive patterns. It’s one of the things that makes the show so emotionally authentic; Annie pushes herself to be better or do better but often ends up undercut by the persistent whispers of her insecurity and doubt. Who among us…!
Hulu’s Shrill has always been a breezy series that hangs on the charm of its lead, and Bryant once again arms Annie with an easy laugh and an open spirit. And while Shrill is successful with its quirky comedy and cast of oddballs (especially at Annie’s place of work, the alt-weekly paper The Thorn), it’s when the show challenges that and digs deeper that it does its best work. It’s one reason the Thorn plots, fun as they are especially for those of us who have worked at a local alternative paper, have never landed as well or felt as essential as Annie’s relationship with her roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope) or her love interests.
Still, the casually intimate way that the show offers up its stories creates a personal connection to the material that makes it feel special—even when its beats are expected. Shrill has always belonged to that modern subset of half-hour series that are shot to feel like indie films: short and stylish with a cool, lo-fi soundtrack. But Shrill is more of a traditional comedy than many of these, content to not just offer up the mirthful ironies of this modern world, but specifically writing in one-liners and giving its supporting cast more overtly comedic material. It can work—when it hits, it’s great—but it can also undercut the emotional authenticity that the series builds elsewhere, leaving us with feeling like anyone who isn’t Annie is little more than a caricature.
As such, while the third season gets some easy, well-worn comic mileage from Annie’s new forays into dating, it’s elevated by budding, complicated, familiar, occasionally disastrous relationships with two very different men that define most of the back half of the season. Like Annie herself, the show is pivoting away from focusing on her weight; she no longer wants to be known for just writing articles about being fat, which is one reason she decides to do a deep-dive feature on a group of controversial separatists. That thread isn’t handled particularly well, but it betrays important truths in its smallest moments. Annie is always curious and always learning, and so when we see her be the opposite while on a date with a nice guy (just a regular nice guy, not a Nice Guy), it’s clear something is wrong. Both in this relationship and another, initially more promising one, Annie’s issues are still ultimately about how she sees herself. She might not want others to define her because of her weight, but she still defines herself that way.
Despite these bulbs of perspicacity, for the most part Shrill just glides amiably through Annie’s travails alongside those of her beloved Fran, who is in a stable relationship with the charming Emily (E.R. Fightmaster) and also looking to branch out with her job and her living situation. Most of these stories play out as very loosely-connected vignettes, some of which work better than others, some of which are dropped altogether. A night out with Annie’s female coworkers provides the classic 20s-something party advice of “building your base” eating tater tots and chugging water, and ends up being a fun, familiar dynamic that gives Annie the opportunity to be the star. On the other hand, a flashback to the beginnings of Fran and Annie’s friendship in college is a surprising disappointment and a missed opportunity to reveal something deeper about the pair, instead of repeating what we already know.
Annie is now on the cusp of being in her 30s, and as Emily says to Fran, the two have kept the “college vibe” going for a long time. The cracks in that lifestyle, one that ignores deeper issues and calls it support, are starting to show. Though they try to keep positive, in the final season, Annie is knocked down over and over again—sometimes because of her own choices, other times because of those around her. It all leads to a reckoning both of who she is and who she wants to be that leaves her future in question.
It’s clear in the end at least that change, if she wants it, won’t come quickly or easily. For any of us, it’s not just old insecurities that hold us back, but the comfort of what we know. Habits can become bindings when we give them too much power over us. And that’s where Fran and Annie find themselves in the end. Change is hard, it’s scary, and most of the time it’s a messy road to get there. But Maureen’s words hang over everything like a hopeful prophesy. Yes things are shitty now—but that could transform us into something beautiful if we allow it to.
All 8 episodes of Shrill’s final season premiere Friday, May 7th on Hulu
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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