UK TV review: Shrill Season 3
Helen Archer | On 04, Jul 2021
There is a scene towards the end of the third season of Shrill in which Lolly Adefope’s character, Fran, sits atop a large white horse in the stables belonging to the parents of her lover. She has just dined at the family mansion of Em (ER Fightmaster), having had no idea of the wealth they came from. As Em’s parents reminisce about their preppy formative years, to the visible discomfort of non-binary Em, Fran understands more about the layers of the person she’s dating. But this is Fran’s moment of subtle self-celebration. Letting Em lead the horse by the reins, she begins to give up control, finally allowing herself to love and be loved. It is unforgettable and emotionally satisfying, leaving no doubt in the viewer’s mind about Adefope’s star power.
And it’s apt, as this is really Adefope’s season, where Fran blossoms from being merely the long-suffering housemate and best friend of our main character Annie (Aidy Bryant), into a fully fledged, multi-dimensional character, dealing with her personal uncertainties. It also signifies a major shift in the programme, as the writers veer away from Lindy West’s collection of essays on which the series is based, instead creating a universe that is all its own. It’s a shame, then, that this is the last season of Shrill, just as not only Adefope finally receives the recognition she deserves, but also as the programme finally finds its feet.
The two previous seasons had a power of their own. The story of Annie’s relationship with her body – and of society’s relationship with it – was all-encompassing, not only normalising fat heroines but also celebrating them, as in the glorious pool party episode of Season 1. But it left little room for the development of other characters. The third season continues to examine what it means to traverse the world as a fat woman, and yet it expands to become something much more well-rounded.
It starts with a throwback to the pilot episode – the memorable moment when Annie snaps, shouting down a body-shaming personal trainer at a coffee shop notice board. Here, she goes for an Ob-Gyn appointment, where the doctor, unprompted, suggests a gastric band. As with that very first episode, she finds her voice, and is able to direct it at those people who think nothing of their casual fat-shaming. This time, though, her fury doesn’t land as, waiting in the car park to give the gynaecologist a piece of her mind, the doctor is deafened by her ear plugs and is thus oblivious to the anger she’s provoked. But Annie now has another outlet, and is able to articulate her feelings in an article for The Thorn, the edgy magazine in which she she is now fully embedded. Naming the doctor publicly will have consequences, but this, it turns out, is a mere dipping of the toe in the pool of journalistic ethics – later in the season, she will find herself “cancelled” after writing about a white supremacist group. In the way of these things, she is, of course, not “cancelled”, but is merely forced to face her personal blind spots.
Of which there are many. One of the great things about Shrill is that it is unafraid of making its main star by turns thoughtless and endearing, dominant and submissive, fragile and resilient. That the character was so well-developed only served to highlight the lack of care given to the supporting cast. Even in its third season, some of the staff at The Thorn seem more like stereotypes, unfleshed out, their purpose purely to be foils for Annie. While Ian Owens as Annie’s “work husband” Amadi offers an understated performance, and John Cameron Mitchell is suitably over-the-top as boss Gabe, others are less able to fight their way out of the boxes they’ve been confined to.
But it’s Annie and Fran’s relationship that has been the focus throughout. The final season treats the viewer to a friendship genesis story, with flashbacks showing how they met back at college. And while the show ends with uncertainty about whether Fran and Annie’s romantic relationships will develop, their bond remains as strong as ever. It is, like most endings, bittersweet. We can but hope it’s just the beginning for Bryant, Adefope, and – perhaps most pertinently – for all those actors, creators and storytellers who don’t quite fit into the default body mould. That would be Shrill’s greatest legacy.
Shrill: Season 1 to 3 is available on BBC iPlayer until October 2022.