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The Abrupt Ending of ‘Shrill’ Shows the Need for Fat Representation on TV

When I was 12, a school friend’s mother introduced our little group of friends to the wrist test. Your wrist circumference, she explained, was the true demonstration of your bone structure, and an indication of the size you actually could be if you watched your weight enough. She went around our circle of tweens and marveled at the daintiness of my friends’ wrists. Then she reached mine, audibly gasped, and uttered the phrase, “Oh, so you really are big-boned.” I couldn’t tell if I was being let off the hook or thrown on the trash pile. Maybe a little of both.

I never forgot about the wrist test. (In part, because every time I attempt to buy a bracelet, I’m reminded that my bones are so gasp-worthy, no one’s willing to make accessories large enough to fit them.) But I’d also never really heard anyone else talk about it. That was until March 2019, when the very first episode of Shrill came out on Hulu. I couldn’t quite believe it when I saw it, but within two minutes of the show starting, Aidy Bryant’s character, Annie Easton, was being subjected to a wrist test. (Something, she later told the Today Show, had happened to her in real life.)

“You actually have a really small frame,” a complete stranger told Annie in a coffee shop. “There is a small person inside of you, dying to get out.”

“Oh,” Annie quipped back. “Well I hope that small person’s OK in there…” Later in the episode she gets more succinct, offering a simple “fuck you” to the woman.

This was the exact moment that I fell in love with Annie Easton. I fell in love with her because I’d never seen anyone quite like her on TV before.  (The fat girl as the central character, not the comic relief, shouldn’t be a revolutionary concept, but here we are.) I fell in love with her because she was doing her damn best while batting away near-constant fatphobic aggressions, both micro and major. And I fell in love with her because at the end of that very first episode of Shrill, she declared: “I’ve been letting people dismiss me, or say shit to me about my body my entire life. And at this point, I just feel like, fuck them.”

Shrill’s first season was extremely adept at throwing a middle finger up at fat-shaming in all its forms. Fat-shaming by family members, back-handed friends, bosses, medical professionals and well-meaning strangers. It very shrewdly identified all forms of fat hostility, then very gently asked the audience to both recognize it, and stop participating in it. And watching Annie Easton refusing to participate in her own subjugation anymore was an absolute thrill to watch. Plus, Shrill was funny. Really, really funny.

The reason Shrill was so good at being honest, empowering and, yes, hilarious was because it was created, developed and written by women who didn’t just know the Annie Eastons of the world, they were them. Bryant (memorably hailed as Saturday Night Live’s “first ever fat woman” by Bitch Media) developed and co-wrote the first season with Lindy West and Alexandra Rushfield. Shrill took its name from West’s 2017 book of essays. (Almost all of the components for the first season are visible in a single essay from the collection titled, “You’re So Brave for Wearing Clothes and Not Hating Yourself!”) Rushfield had previously written for—and executive produced—other funny, brilliant series like Parks and Recreation and Love. The Bryant/West/Rushfield core trio went on to bring in an incredibly diverse team of writers to pen the episodes that they didn’t. And the show was better for it.

Themes around fat-shaming were also present in seasons two and three—they had to be for the sake of realism—but the show became less concerned about Annie’s size, and more concerned about her development as an empowered, freshly assertive person. Season three, which came out May 7, was particularly adept at exploring the pitfalls of this kind of newly acquired self-confidence, as Annie made cringeworthy mistakes in both her career and her love life. Along the way, we also got very invested in the life of her queer, more gregarious best friend, Fran (played warmly and hilariously by Lolly Adefope).

And then, right in the middle of Annie and Fran’s still blossoming, still messy journeys, it all came to a screeching halt. Shrill ended for good last month, after 22 too-short episodes. I’ve been trying to make peace with that since I binged the new season the day it came out. The knowledge that there will never be another episode has been actively bothering me ever since. And the fact that the cast and writers didn’t find out it would be the last season until they were already halfway through making it has been nagging at me even more. Perhaps if they’d had a little more notice, Shrill wouldn’t feel quite so unfinished right now.

On the promo jaunt for Shrill‘s third and final season, Bryant and West did their level best to put a positive spin on the end of the show. Bryant told Refinery 29: “Something I really like about the end for both Fran and Annie is that they don’t end with these perfect scenarios. They end with scenarios that they’re going to have to work through and grow in order to get through … I think it’s a nice way to show that she’s got more work to do forever.”

In an interview with Esquire, Lindy West said, “I also think that not tying everything up with a big bow lets characters keep living in a way that a more formal finale doesn’t. You’re just stepping back out of their lives. In my brain, their lives go on, and all of these characters are still out there.”

Maybe Bryant and West are right. Maybe an unfinished story is better than a neat one. Maybe the lack of happy ending is more in keeping with the overall tone of the show. But I can’t stop thinking about something West wrote in the book version of Shrill. Right after she pointed out that “looking at pictures of fat people makes you like fat people more,” West gave us an “eternal reminder: representation matters.” And what we are still lacking on television in 2021 are shows in which cool fat women just live their lives with grace and self-love and—godammit—fun.

That Shrill was able to give us that for three seasons is something to treasure, alright. But it’s also not enough—especially when Annie Easton taught us so righteously to always, always ask for more.

Copyright 2021 KQED