I’ve been assigned to review the new Hulu TV sitcom Shrill not because it’s a great show (it isn’t yet, though it could be in the near future) but rather because it’s set at an alternative newsweekly. I’ve spent my whole professional career at the publication that you’re reading right now, so I have the credentials. The same could be said for Lindy West, the former op-ed writer for the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger who loosely adapted the show from her memoirs. (She also pops up as an actor on the show.) So I took in the show’s six half-hour episodes this past Sunday and drew some conclusions.
The show’s co-creator and star Aidy Bryant (of Saturday Night Live) portrays Annie Easton, a plus-size woman working at a media site in Portland called The Weekly Thorn, a name that only works for an alt-weekly in the Rose City. Her job title is “assistant calendar editor.” As the calendar editor here, I can tell you there’s no way a news outlet in a city the size of Portland would need more than one person to manage its event calendar. Although, we never see a senior calendar editor, so maybe Annie is doing that job by herself with an assistant’s title. Given that she’s something of a doormat in her personal life, that’s plausible.
Thankfully, our editor bears no resemblance to Annie’s boss (John Cameron Mitchell), a gay male douche who dismisses all of Annie’s woman-centric story ideas while nevertheless saying, “I dig the whole female empowerment thing. I kinda invented it in the ’90s.” He works at a standing desk, hates his employees’ kids, has a bitchy receptionist (Patti Harrison) who keeps people away from him, and lines the paper’s reception area with his husband’s giant homoerotic nude self-portrait photographs. This character is inspired by West’s ex-colleague Dan Savage, though apparently the two are OK with each other in real life.
When Annie finally snags her first writing assignment, it’s a restaurant review for a buffet at a strip club. We don’t do that, but I recall times in our early years when our editors might have been desperate enough. Anyway, Annie talks to the strippers and makes the review about them, and the piece goes viral. I dare say any alt-weekly writer whose first two articles generated a combined 30,000 clicks would be the star of the paper instead of being belittled by an editor who thinks she’s too pushy. He’s on more solid ground when he’s criticizing her for posting a lengthy article on the site without running it by him.
The truest-to-life thing about this show’s depiction of life at an alt-weekly is the way that Annie scrolls past the many positive comments on her stories and focuses on the vile threats made by one troll in particular. She tracks the troll down with the help of a twitchy IT person (Jo Firestone) who’s sympathetic to her: “I’m a woman who plays video games. Everybody wants me to die. Well, some of them want me to get naked and then die.” In future episodes, the program needs to show us Annie’s writing and her confidence when everyone praises it and how that disconnect exists with her personal insecurity. That would go a long way toward fulfilling Shrill’s enormous potential. In the last episode, Annie throws a brick through the troll’s car window. That’s a start.