(Note: This interview contains specific plot details about the just-released third season of Shrill.)
Hulu sitcom Shrill was a game-changer. Loosely based on Lindy West’s memoir Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman, it starred Aidy Bryant as Annie, a plus-size protagonist who takes on fat-shamers and unrealistic societal ideals as she tries to carve out a writing life in Portland. The third and final season of the series just dropped, depicting Annie getting rejected by a crush (Anthony Oberbeck as Nick), finding the most stable relationship we’d ever seen her in (with Cameron Britton as Will), and making major inroads in her career. Best of all, season three showed that the occasionally self-entered Annie had finally learned how to be a better friend, heartily supporting her hardworking co-worker Amadi (Ian Owens) and longtime roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope). Shrill ends in a hopeful but open-ended manner, with Annie and Fran contemplating the twisty roads ahead, work- and relationship-wise. The A.V. Club got to talk to Shrill star/co-creator/writer/executive producer Bryant about the show’s final season, her brilliant comic fusion with Saturday Night Live co-star Kate McKinnon, and why the wine-sign sketch landed so hard this season.
The A.V. Club: Congratulations on Shrill season three. It winds up in kind of an open-ended manner, with a lot of unknowns still out there; while you were making it, did you guys know that this was going to be the final season?
Aidy Bryant: It’s weird, we kind of knew in the middle. I can’t remember exactly when we found out, but I know it was after we had written the whole season and mostly after we shot it, too. So it was more in the editing process where we were like, “Okay, how do we do this?”
I think initially when we were writing it, when we didn’t know it was going to end, we were trying to write toward the possibility of another season. But ultimately I like where it ended, because I feel like it’s sort of a realistic place to land. Which is, there’s more work to be done and there is no magic finish line where I get the goal of confidence. It’s more of an ongoing thing and you can really only change how you approach those problems or challenges.
AVC: And really, the big takeaway is that it ended with Annie and Fran, not with Annie and a love interest. Like, they’re the fulcrum of the whole series.
AB: Totally. Issues will arise, but who’s next to you to help you get through them? Ultimately, yes, you have your romantic partners or whatever, but how do you really process it? And often it is with your closest friends.
AVC: Did you feel like you had more of a say in this season than in the first two?
AB: Well, I had a pretty big say in the first season, too. I helped co-create the show with Lindy and with Ali [Alexandra Rushfield], the showrunner, and I feel really lucky that I’ve been able to produce it from kind of like seed to fruit as far as seeing it all the way through. So it’s definitely like one of the first things that I’ve ever been able to fully make my own with this awesome team of people all the way through.
AVC: It shouldn’t be so groundbreaking that Shrill stars a non-size-zero person, but it is; it’s so valuable to feature that perspective, which just doesn’t get the spotlight very often.
AB: I think the thing that always really kind of blows me away is that so many of the comments we get are about basically how we can approach the idea of size with nuance. And to really be thoughtful about these issues, rather than kind of being like, “Love yourself.” [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s so easy!
AB: Yeah, that “you go girl!” kind of thing, where it’s just not that easy and it is kind of like an ever-going struggle, you know? And some days you feel better and some days you don’t or someone says something shitty to you and how you deal with it. So that’s part of what I love about the show is I think it’s really practical and it’s not like fantastical—maybe other than the clothes [Laughs.]. That’s one thing where we’re definitely living in a world that I wish was reality.
AVC: I want that green dress with the belt. You could make like a million dollars just on that dress.
AB: Oh, that’s my favorite. People ask me, and that was far and away my favorite. I’ll tell the costume designer!
AVC: But in season three, the whole character of Nick, you couldn’t blame Annie for getting so angry when he didn’t return her feelings because there was no reason for those two not to be together except for whatever he had in his head, that he never even actually said. That’s the way I took it, anyway.
AB: I think you’re dead on! In our writers’ room, it was just kind of insane because every single person had a story like that. But it was all about a different person. And I think that’s part of why we all felt like we should have this as part of Annie’s dating experience. That it’s not like a flashy montage of, you know, fun dresses, but that it’s like the time, the energy, the anticipation, the build—and then the letdown. It just feels more real, you know, and a little less dream version. But I also think it’s the kind of the scenario that really lets her later in the season be more practical or be more introspective about her own judgments on those kinds of things.
AVC: It was also really interesting to see Annie’s progressions like that over the three seasons. Early on, Annie would do something, but her friends were always calling her out on it like, “Hey, you’re not asking me about myself at all.” And you could see the change in her even when the white supremacist article came out, and she was really trying to to better herself. You don’t often see that much trajectory in a single character over only a few seasons.
AB: Oh, thanks. That’s really great to hear, because that was totally our intention. It’s so funny because I think a lot of people who are trying to better themselves, me included, there is a way where it’s like a self-absorption. You know, you become fixated on what you’re doing or your own behaviors or how you could be better or what you deserve or who did you wrong. And at the end of the day, that’s like kind of an insane way to go through life, you know, like not very considerate. So I think that’s part of what we’re trying to get at.
AVC: How did that storyline come about? It was such an interesting exploration of “cancel culture,” with Annie trying to explore some larger issues but not realizing how many toes she was stepping on.
AB: It was kind of a couple things at once—just from spending time in Portland, I was always struck by how Portland was kind of this extremely liberal city with this cool culture. And then outside of that, the rest of Oregon is like really rural, and there’s cow pastures and and you see Trump signs or those kinds of things. So I had a little germ of an idea there that may be interesting to see her kind of like fish out of water and go into a different world, kind of like the “WAHAM” episode of season two, but in this different direction. And I’ll be honest, we were writing our our season during June and July and August, and that was all around the murder of George Floyd. And we were taking sometimes Fridays off to go protest or those types of things. And it was our consciousness to think more kind of about Annie’s self-centeredness, like in her own career and how that could affect her relationships and her work. So that kind of started to meld into this idea of like not looking at “cancel culture” as like this huge issue, but trying to make it more personal and a little more about accountability, which I feel like it does, and makes her kind of shake off her own centering of herself.
AVC: When I was a kid, my mom had a calorie counter that we would check all the time; that was just the mentality back then. So when Annie would get so mad at her mom about freaking out about eating bread or something, it was completely relatable. But in season three, the parents weren’t around as much, so it seemed like Annie wasn’t looking back as much as looking forward.
AB: Yeah, I think there’s so much nuance in the stuff with her mom being in the first two seasons. I think so much of it is that Annie feels like it’s an attack on her as her child, you know? But you’re hitting on it exactly where it’s like it’s really about her mom’s relationship to herself and how that then kind of permeates into Annie’s experience. I think that with the parents in the third season, I definitely think we would have loved to go a little deeper into that stuff. But that was a little bit of a COVID precaution where rightfully so, they were pretty concerned. So we wanted to find a way that we could include them while making Daniel [Stern] and Julia [Sweeney] feel comfortable.
AVC: Oh, so that’s why they’re traveling!
AB: So it was a little bit of a cheat! But I still think, it keeps them alive, and it also kind of forces Annie to stand on her own two feet. She’s had kind of the privilege of being able to run home when something goes wrong. And this really makes her get out of that.
AVC: In the third season it also seemed like the secondary characters stepped up more, like Patti Harrison as Ruthie and Jo Firestone as Maureen. It was like the cast expanded and then you could write more things for different people.
AB: Well, I would say if I did choose my favorite part of the show for me, it was building that world of secondary characters and selfishly casting a lot of my friends, who I’ve known through Second City or just like the New York comedy scene. That is who we would build the show around. And generally speaking, we wrote all those characters for those people because we just knew they were great [Laughs.] and I think it kind of empowered them also to kind of own the character, because they knew it was theirs. So we did a lot of improvising and a lot of letting them do their own thing and and trying to keep it within the story. I come from Second City ensemble, improv kind of stuff; I just love setting up people to be able to go and do their thing. Ian, who plays Amadi, is from Second City. E.R., who plays Em, is from Second City. The guy who plays Nick was on my first IO improv team; we took classes together. So definitely a big piece of the show to me is like kind of improv and the looseness.
AVC: And there’s a trust there too. Like on SNL, you and Kate McKinnon seem to have a fused comedy brain, because every time you two do something together it’s just amazing—like the weird ladies on the farm or the lesbian couple in Supermarket Sweep. How does that all come about?
AB: Honestly, it’s a part of why I never really had an interest in doing stand-up. To me, the joy of comedy is like doing it with other people and finding those bonds that then take the material to like a whole other level, because it’s like electricity that you can’t write. It just has to be there. It’s kind of like dating. It’s like you find your partner and you’re like, this is a perfect fit. And I’ve been really lucky to have, you know, at Second City or the Annoyance or wherever, that I’ve found those people for myself. The thing I’m most grateful for, and honestly, I don’t know if I would have made it as long as I have on SNL without finding my partner, my friend, who I know every week we can think of something, and then really great writers to collaborate with who get us, and get us as a pair.
AVC: I have to tell you that this season, my mom friends and I can’t stop talking about the wine-sign sketch. Too close to home, probably. Like if there’s a sign that says “This wine is making me awesome,” what message are we giving the kids if we put this up in the living room? How did that one come about? Was that one of yours or was that just a riff?
AB: Oh my God. I’m so glad, that was one of my favorites. It really wasn’t mine. It was a pure gift that was handed to me by Kent Sublette and Anna Drezen, who are two of the head writers of the show. I feel like it’s sometimes in those moments where I feel like I’m a muse. [Laughs.] I feel like a beautiful muse because they just tap into something where I’m like, “Oh, I can’t wait to play this.” And it’s just the writing is so funny, but also, I feel like at SNL people really like to write me as like the put-upon woman where I’m like, “Oh I’m just trying my best.” And it is like it’s a natural place for me to be. But god, I just the one that I loved was like, “I’m going to sit and drink in the dirt. I’m outdoorsy.” There are just so many in there that were so funny. And the girls were being so funny, grinning at me and being like, “You’ll love this one” or whatever. It was a ball.
AVC: How were you able to do SNL and three seasons of Shrill simultaneously; how did that all compartmentalize?
AB: Yeah, it’s been bad, I shouldn’t have done it [Laughs.] I mean, it’s not a healthy way to live. In that way I’m like, okay, this is a good moment to take a breath and decide what’s next, to take one thing at a time. But I still loved making this show, so I was like, of course, I can write all morning and then go straight to SNL until two o’clock in the morning. Just kind of like this adrenaline delusion, which I think now is hitting me in my back. But yeah, I am working on other stuff. And I do think if you count development, like for the last four years, I’ve only done Shrill and SNL and little things here and there, voiceover or whatever. But my schedule is pretty relentless and has a lot of overlap. You know, I edited this whole season while doing SNL and those kinds of things. It’s really hard and I want to be able to sort of like give my central attention to something.
AVC: What’s your big takeaway that you want people to walk away from with the end of Shrill?
AB: Tough question! I think there’s a lot of things, but if there was really one: I think ultimately, the thing that we’re trying to leave people with is to just like be kinder to yourself as you navigate these kinds of things like body image, self-confidence. It is hard and I think there’s a lot of pain and a lot of shame and a lot of judgment that we impose on ourselves that often is just diminishing. And kind of what I was saying earlier, it so often gets reduced to, “love yourself,” or whatever. And that is such a difficult task. And so I think taking the time to be compassionate and leaning on your friend who’s next to you and supporting each other. It just makes it so much easier and a lot less painful.
AVC: And yet when a lot of people think of one image from the show, they probably think of the inclusive pool party from season one. What a great iconic thing to go out on, just to watch that scene again where Annie’s like, “I can expose my body and be totally happy. And I’m surrounded people who are celebrating that.”
AB: But I think that’s a good example: She can only find that peace because of all these wonderful women around her. And that is to me, the thesis of the show: that it’s these partnerships that get you through the pain.