Much mourned are the things people can no longer put in TV comedies, due to a rising intolerance for lazy, backwards jokes that rely on shitty stereotypes. But while some lament losing the gay barbs and racist zingers of yore, others are excited about all the new things people can put in TV comedies that they seemingly never could before.
One of the things Lindy West wanted to show on Shrill, the new Hulu series that premieres March 15 and is based loosely on her bestselling 2016 memoir, is something she never saw on TV when she was growing up: a dignified fat character who takes ownership of her sexuality in a non-funny way and is on the path to self-actualization.
West never imagined she’d have the chance to do so. She was surprised by the frenzy of interest in the TV and film option for her book, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, a collection of essays about her experiences reckoning with the world of men, her body, her abortion, her trolls, and her deceased father. It didn’t necessarily lend itself to the cohesive narrative structure of other megahit memoirs like Wild.
“You don’t think of yourself as a character,” West says. “Where is the television show in just life? Because when you’re experiencing life, at least for me, most of your life is boring. Mostly I’m just on my couch, watching TV. That’s not a show.”
Fans of the book saw it as a fearless manifesto, though, and its author as a hilarious feminist demigod with an acid tongue and a tender heart–the central character in a story worth watching. West started taking meetings with some of those fans, the ones who headed up production companies, but she didn’t want to be a mere passenger on the book’s ride to the small screen. She wanted to drive the development and writing process herself. After a lifetime of TV-watching, she was eager to seize her shot at creating a show of her own.
West worked with the veteran sitcom producer Alexandra Rushfield on the series concept and went into business with Elizabeth Banks’s Brownstone Productions. Now all she needed was her star.
Longtime SNL standout Aidy Bryant isn’t sure exactly when she first became aware of Lindy West, but she thinks it was probably the author’s seminal appearance on This American Life in 2016. And she had already torn through Shrill by the time she noticed that Banks’s company had purchased the rights to it.
“I read the book and I was like, Oh, this is a lot of how I’ve felt my entire life,” Bryant says. “I felt totally in lockstep with so much of it, and some of these things–particularly with bodies–there’s a lot of shame and pain there, but [Lindy] finds a way to lay it out that’s so straightforward and not overtly emotional.”
Bryant called up her agent and asked about reaching out to Brownstone and getting involved in the project … only to discover that the production company had already asked to meet with her.
“Aidy was our first choice,” West confirms.
But just as the author was determined to take an active role in creating her own show, Bryant wanted to do more than just act in the series. Even though West and Rushfield had been working on how to pitch the show to networks for months by then, they welcomed Bryant’s perspective and brought her aboard as star, co-creator, and writer.
“The book and the show are about the particular experience of growing up and living in a body that society told you is too big, and our lives were both shaped by those expectations and those limitations,” West says. “It was just obvious that she would bring a lot to the project.”
Bryant’s input helped make the West-surrogate character, Annie, less explicitly a West surrogate. Many of the tentpoles of the book found their way into Shrill, but the character became an amalgam of both West and Bryant, along with some DNA from the other writers, including Samantha Irby, with some some purely fictional elements thrown in for good measure.
On Shrill, Annie is a writer at a present-day alt weekly in Portland (rather than Seattle, where West hails from) who is dealing with a dismal dating life and an ailing father as she begins to assert herself professionally and find her voice. Rather than mine the book for every last morsel, the creators looked for universal truths within West’s story and built out from there.
For example, one idea that frequently came up in the writers room was how the internet changed everything about how many of the show’s writers felt about their bodies.
“When we were in our late teens, seeing fat women with blogs wearing lingerie truly just opened our eyes to another way to live, and that we didn’t need to hide ourselves or feel shameful,” Bryant says. “We bonded over how we all had that similar experience and so we were sort of looking for a physical manifestation of that for Annie so it wasn’t just her at her computer for 30 minutes–we wanted a way she could step in and see this alternate world.”
The writers settled on sending Annie to cover a pool party for people of all sizes, where she experiences an epiphany as she watches so many women swimming and dancing, totally comfortable in their own bare skin.
West, for her part, was grateful for any invention that went into Annie’s life.
“It was a relief every time we shifted the character another degree away from me,” she says, “because it is really stressful and fraught to have those conversations. If you tell a particularly good story in the writers room, then you have to deal with, Wait, do I actually want this in the show? Because you can’t change your mind once you bring it up. I mean, you could. But if it’s a great detail, they want to keep it and now I have to wonder, Oh, god. Is that rancid dude I dated 18 years ago gonna think I’m still thinking about him because clearly a thing he said made it on the show? It’s a minefield.”
Luckily for West, there were plenty of tragic dating stories to go around in the writers room. Often, the women would share the most abominable bullshit their exes had ever dared to pull, and the male writers would ask whether the stories were actually real. Many of these horrible, hard-to-believe (for men) dating horrors ended up coming to life on Shrill through the vessel of Ryan (Luka Jones), Annie’s love interest.
Although Jones infuses the character with more shambling charm than he rightly deserves, he’s still an underemployed, forgetful slob draped in regulation matador-sized red flags. Ryan’s one redeeming value, though, even if it’s a questionable level of redemption, is his authentic sexual connection with Annie.
“It was really important to me and Aidy that the character have a sex life that is fun,” West says.
“A lot of times, when a fat character on TV has sex, it’s cartoonish,” Bryant adds. “Like, her jumping on the man and ripping his clothes off. A lot of what we tried to do is show the human part of it. For someone exploring their relationship with their body and their worth, sex is a huge part of that, and we wanted to reflect the reality.”
In the same way that Bryant and West wrote the pool party scene to create a moment for Annie to realize there were other ways to live her life, they made realistic sex scenes–and by extension, an entire season of television–in order to create a similar moment of realization for anyone in the audience who might need it.