Writer and executive producer Lindy West and star, EP, and writer Aidy Bryant are creating characters who can reverse bias and flip perspectives.
Lindy West is sitting with her back turned to a haven of her own creation. Behind her, the cast and crew of “Shrill” Season 2 are shooting Episode 6, which sees Annie Easton (played by fellow executive producer and writer Aidy Bryant) reporting on a lavish convention meant to support women in business.
Titled WAHAM for “Women Are Having A Moment,” light streams through the glass walls, ceilings, and walkways as guests enter the open space, lush with indoor plants. Hanging pink banners with white lettering proclaim, “Women are here!” and “Women are now!” Vendors tout “beautiful and powerful” products from female-led small businesses. Bathroom stalls are emblazoned with the hashtag “#TakeThisMoment.”
But for its lush setting and well-branded positivity, the convention isn’t all that it seems. What’s made to look like a celebration of working women is quickly exposed as a way to monetize feminism. Entry fees run upward of $300 per person. Makeup products are designed to hide flaws that may only be flaws because there’s a product to hide them. WAHAM’s founder (played by Vanessa Bayer) whips the crowd into a frenzy like a TV preacher in need of money, but offering nothing close to a miracle in return.
Annie, a character who began as a surrogate for West, soon comes to see the convention as only its first syllable. While some women may feel supported by the setting and empowered by their fellow female entrepreneurs, not everything about this “Moment” is designed to make women feel good. For many, it’s just a con, and exposing that con is what makes this set an actual haven.
“The ways women are taught that there are all these things wrong with us and it’s self-care to spend money on products to fix fake problems — what a stupid trap that is,” West said, perched comfortably in a plush gray chair on an upper floor of the Oregon Convention Center. “That’s something we see our mothers do, that we do in front of our daughters, and it’s this cycle that just saps our money and our power and our time.”
West’s revealing insights and ability to share them with permeating clarity is how “Shrill” came to be in the first place. The Hulu comedy was adapted from her 2016 non-fiction book, which started as a means to push back against accepted societal discrimination, especially in regard to fat-shaming.
“People freak out if you’re, like, ‘I’m fat and I am not sorry and I get to be happy.’ People are, like, ‘No,’” West said. “I remember just thinking, ‘These people don’t know me. I’m really nice, and if they knew me, they maybe wouldn’t feel that way,’ and could I create a little document that’s funny and interesting and compassionate, and then you read it and maybe you go into it thinking, ‘I hate fat people,’ and then at the end you’re, like, ‘Oh, no. I like one,’ and then it changes your brain.”
West sees the series as an extension of that mind-shifting ethos. By getting audiences to identify with Annie on her rocky road to self-acceptance, as well as supporting characters like her roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope) and even her derpy boyfriend Ryan (Luka Jones), the show encourages empathy, especially as people grow, change, and make mistakes. West wanted to use the series to explore “the day-to-day indignities” various characters experience. How they respond isn’t always perfect, and that’s OK. Sometimes you have to slip-up to see the world in a new way.
Bryant agreed. The Emmy-nominated “SNL” star penned the Season 2 pilot solo before tackling the finale alongside West and fellow executive producer Alexandria Rushfield, framing a set of episodes that expanded the show’s focus while taking an even deeper look at Annie.
“I think the thing that people really responded to (in) Season 1 was that it’s the evolution of a person; that we’re all always changing, and who we are a year ago is different than who we are now,” Bryant said in a separate interview. “Especially at that time in your late twenties where you’re trying to adjust and be an adult. In a weird way, the first six episodes allowed us to dip our toe into like, ‘Hey, what it is to try on being confident?’ Now the second season is about pushing that two steps further, but still not knowing how to do it.”
“I would say all the body stuff is still there, but we’ve widened the lens a little bit to talk about ways that the pressures that we put on women affect our whole lives and not just our relationships with our bodies and our weight,” West said.
Allyson Riggs / Hulu
On set, Bryant is hands-on and high-spirited. She takes each new episode director (seven in Season 2 alone) out to dinner so they can talk over tone and prepare for the upcoming episode. She touches all the scenes and enjoys giving notes. When filming a brief two-hander with Bayer, she’ll try out different jokes or push the banter beyond the scene, either to see what might work or “just to make (Bayer) laugh.”
“Even though I’m an actor in it, I keep my producer hat on,” Bryant said. “You’re trying to change the energy in the room, or keep it light, or keep the crew laughing. I think it encourages even more creativity, or spontaneity, so I always like to change it up at the end or throw a curve ball in — get a real reaction out of someone.”
Both Bryant and West emphasize that Annie is now far removed from West’s voice in the original book. While the foundation remains, honing in on story arcs involving Annie’s work and family life have created a character unique from West herself. Plus, the show has generated far more characters to invest in than its lead. Season 2 belongs predominantly to Annie, Fran, and Annie’s mother, Vera (Julia Sweeney). Through all three, “Shrill” shows its audience distinct, autonomous women on different paths with different goals, who nevertheless reflect universal desires within us all.
“The great thing about working with such an amazing cast is that they bring so much to the characters,” West said. “(We’ve) gotten to build these really interesting, funny, and dynamic human beings with the help of really interesting, funny, and dynamic human beings who we cast on the show — that’s going to sound ridiculous in print, but it’s been really sweet and fulfilling.”
More than anything, “Shrill” asks us to question what really matters versus what only seems to matter. Annie’s search to differentiate the two illustrates how to lead a better, more harmonious life.
“Even Annie’s relationship (with Ryan) is sort of like looking at the gap between what you’re told is fulfilling and what actually is fulfilling, you know?” West said. “Like: What do you really want? What really makes you happy, and what is just prescribed to you?”
Bryant and West are helping viewers answer those same questions, infusing “Shrill” with an open-mindedness that’s meant to make everyone feel a little bit better — no convention, no con, just compassion.
“Shrill” is available on Hulu.