A new TV show can have all the makings of success (a well-liked star, a smart premise, a thoughtfully detailed setting and even a hot-button topic to generate some extra buzz) and still be missing that final, almost ineffable varnish that makes all the difference.
As streaming networks race to overwhelm us with content, viewers wind up watching a lot of shows these days that are passably cool, possibly intriguing and still not quite ready for occupancy. Hulu’s “Shrill” and Netflix’s “Turn Up Charlie” are the latest examples, made with everything their creators scientifically know about hit streaming TV shows at this particular moment, down to the requisite awkwardness, quirkiness and curated song choices. Cynical as we may have become about these tropes, it’s still a bummer when the parts don’t form a whole.
“Shrill” (a show that is anything but, which may be an ironic act of titling), stars “Saturday Night Live’s” Aidy Bryant as Annie, a Portland woman who writes calendar listings for the hip alternative newspaper and yearns to break free from that which confines her: the snide boss (John Cameron Mitchell) who won’t let her write essays and feature stories; the emotionally stunted lover (Luka Jones) who is embarrassed to be seen with her; the mother (Julia Sweeney) whose feelings of concern also entail a lifetime of undermining remarks about weight gain; the anonymous online troll (a surprise SNL-related cameo) who delights in tormenting Annie with profane and often misogynistic comments.
Being fat has so defined Annie’s existence that she’s finally had enough of everyone’s assumptions about its role in her life. She learns to assert herself and even raise her voice sometimes.
At a mere six episodes, “Shrill” lacks the space and depth to figure out what kind of show it wants be, whether its tone is up or down, and if its takeaways are victorious (Annie finds bliss in a bathing suit at a women-only, plus-size pool party) or resentful (Annie’s editor mandates employee participation in a Saturday fitness “grouptivity” bike ride).
Being all of those things means watching as “Shrill” checks off a laundry list of current concerns, which, besides fat-shaming, includes dating rituals, sexism, workplace etiquette and basic rights — both the personal kind and the constitutional. In the first episode, Annie belatedly discovers that the morning-after pill is dosed for women who weigh less than 175 pounds, which means she’s pregnant and needs an abortion.
That she goes out and gets one without fuss and fulmination seems somehow revolutionary, only because of the many times broadcast TV has managed to steer way clear of the subject altogether. “Shrill’s” first declaration, then, is a level-headed assertion of legal fact — when a woman decides she needs an abortion, she should have one, unimpeded. The contrast is thus established: Annie is an intelligent, independent person in charge of her life yet she’s also masking an array of self-esteem issues, nearly all of which lead directly back to her size.
Loosely adapted from writer Lindy West’s 2016 personal essay collection of the same name, “Shrill” is mostly just another show that wants to make fun while also making essentially unarguable points about modern manners, in a society preoccupied with superficial identity and indignant responses. Who are you? What defines your happiness? Don’t you know? Don’t you see that camera over there, waiting to turn your life into a delightful series of relatably uncomfortable, young-adult discoveries?
This particular genre of dramedy can be reduced to a simple phrase: “Welcome to my world.” It involves more portraiture than plot, absorbing us less in what happens than what is felt in everyday, quasi-autobiographical encounters. Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” sits at one extreme of this format; Lena Dunham’s “Girls” on another. Recent triumphs in this vein include Issa Rae’s “Insecure” on HBO and Pamela Adlon’s “Better Things” on FX, both of which prefer intimacy to explication.
“Shrill” at times approaches that level of intimacy, but still falls into a great, oatmeal-filled valley of dramedies; it’s neither better nor worse than much of its ilk and it’s rescued from oblivion by Bryant’s talent for toggling between the show’s sparkly sense of pride and its wounded moments of outrage.
'Turn Up Charlie'
Less can be said, sadly, for Netflix’s clunky “Turn Up Charlie,” an eight-episode British dramedy that stars Idris Elba — known for his work in “The Wire,” “Luther” and your daydreams — as a past-his-prime London musician who frittered away his one-hit wonder success years ago. Charlie now lives with his temperamentally lovable Auntie Lydia (Jocelyn Jee Esien) and subsists on low-paying DJ gigs.
Charlie’s boyhood friend, David (JJ Feild), has come back to England as a well-known star of American action movies, accompanied by his successful music-producer/DJ wife, Sara (Piper Perabo) and their tweenage daughter, a hellion named Gabby (Frankie Hervey) who runs off nannies faster than a Von Trapp kid.
Like some movie that Dwayne Johnson (or Vin Diesel?) already made, it falls to Charlie to try his luck as Gabby’s minder, while hoping Sara will help him restart his music career. Early episodes lean on a tiresome series of mischievous mishaps with Gabby and missteps by the adults that fail as character-building charm offensives. Instead, the viewer quickly learns to despise the neglectful parents, the self-absorbed manny and the bratty kid all at once.
The show’s actors seem to work at cross-purposes — some appear to believe they’re in a tender yet serious cautionary tale of celebrity-class parenting, while others seem to think they’re in an “Entourage”-esque exploration of the international EDM scene. Only Hervey seems to have it figured out, mostly by sticking to the Nickelodeon school of precocious acting.
Though it can be binge-watched painlessly enough (especially by those looking for Elba eye-candy), “Turn Up Charlie” is such a disassembled example of a “Welcome to my world” TV show that it ought to come with its own Allen wrench.
Shrill (six episodes) available for streaming Friday on Hulu.
Turn Up Charlie (eight episodes) available for streaming Friday on Netflix.