The debut season of Hulu’s Shrill is brief — only six episodes, each 30 minutes long — but it’s the kind of story that lingers, leaving behind images that pop up in the mind well after the last of its 180 minutes has ended. One day, it’s the aggression of Toned Tanya, or Lamar’s mixtape of songs “to smash to.” The next, it’s Annie (Saturday Night Live standout Aidy Bryant) falling over the fence she’s forced to climb when leaving a man’s house through the back door, at his request. Loosely based on Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, it’s a warm series peppered with moments of maddening cruelty and unassuming sweetness alike. But of all those moments, the most vibrant and lasting is the Fat Babe Pool Party.
Created by West, Bryant, and showrunner Ali Rushfield, Shrill achieves a delicate balancing act: It makes clear that Annie’s life is about a hell of a lot more than her body, though the world around her never lets her forget that she’s fat, and she’s dealing with an awful lot of shame, repression, and a willingness to accept far, far less from others than she deserves. As a result, her journey in this initial season centers on finding ways to be kinder to herself, to demand more, to be unapologetic about her brains and her thighs and her own enjoyment of life. And that’s never more directly addressed than in “Pool,” the series’ exemplary fourth episode.
In “Pool,” written by Samantha Irby and directed by Shaka King, Annie and her roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope) attend the aforementioned pool party, ostensibly for journalism. Annie’s boss has no interest in the event, but she believes there’s a story there, and stands ready to observe from a distance, not dive in. Yet by the end, she does. There are plenty of questions that Shrill has no interest in asking because the answers are irrelevant, obvious, or not worth giving. Instead, it again and again allows Annie to question herself: Why does she feel this way? What’s holding her back? Why doesn’t she deserve more? This outstanding episode marks a key step on Annie’s journey to answering those questions, and it starts by adding a simple question to the list: “Do you want to get in the water?”
Vulture spoke with Rushfield, West, Bryant, Irby, King, and Adefope about how that incredible pool party came to be, and what it means to the characters who enter that space as well as those who brought the “Fat Babe Pool Party” to life. (This oral history comprises interviews conducted in person and by phone, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
In its first three episodes, Shrill focuses primarily on the aggressions of the outside world and the ways in which those aggressions affect everything from Annie’s ability to do her job to her willingness to settle for an emotionally abusive sexual partner. “Pool” begins as another job story, but quickly turns to the things that Annie keeps herself from doing or feeling.
Ali Rushfield (showrunner): The idea of it was something that we had from the beginning. It was always a pool party, or some event like that. And Sam Irby, who’s an essayist and nonfiction writer, wrote the episode.
Samantha Irby (episode screenwriter): We were in the room, talking about ways for Annie to come out of her shell in this sort of — I don’t want to say “body positive” way, but in a “my fat body is okay” way. I feel like all fat girls have been to or heard about one of these events, usually a dance party, or pool party, some kind of body-positive-exercise party that’s just fat girls all getting together. “Okay, cool, we can all wear our crop tops and hang out in peace.”
Aidy Bryant (co-creator, executive producer, and star): We had talked a lot about the pain of swimming. I remember as a kid, my mom and aunts saying, “Ugh, swimsuits.” That’s just part of existing as a woman.
Irby: A pool party seemed, at least to me, like the most excellent way to have it be on TV. Get a bunch of fat girls in bathing suits on television. It seemed like a coup, if they would let us get away with that. So I pitched it in the room, and everyone was really excited about it.
Bryant: Making it a pool party just puts it all out there from the beginning. The stakes are high. If she can wear a swimsuit, that’s not something she normally would do. And then here are all these people doing that, without any fear. That’s a good way to tell that moment. It’s clear as day what’s going on here. Either you can handle it, or you can’t.
Irby: It’s not just about being in a bathing suit and having so little between your body and other people. It’s being in your bathing suit and also having to project that you’re having a good time. I’m kind of an anxious, uncomfortable person myself, [and it’s hard enough to be] at a regular party inside, fully clothed and trying to have a good time. But when you add on top of it, “How do my legs look compared to their legs,” or, “Do I have pubes sticking out?” Terrible.
Lindy West (co-creator, executive producer, writer of Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman): We would come up with these outlandish ideas [in the writers room], these huge ideas, and we would write dialogue, and over and over again would end up coming all the way back around to what really happened. It was surprising to me how often the truth was the best version. And not just mine. We drew on the experiences of everyone in the room.
Irby: For me, it was a fat girl clothing swap. I’d never heard of [events like that] before. My introduction to the body-positive community, for lack of a better way to describe it, was really pretty late. These girls all had crop tops and little booty shorts and I thought, I didn’t know we could do that. I didn’t know I could wear a crop top out in public where other people could see me. It was eye-opening for me.
Bryant: Truthfully, one of my first experiences of ever seeing someone who looked like me [and feeling like that] was Beth Ditto. It was in Chicago. I went and saw the Gossip at the Metro, and I literally was like, “What the fuck?” I had loved their music, but seeing her perform, it was just … I thought, That’s me; that’s my fucking deal. I’m going to do that. It just gripped me.
Irby: I was definitely familiar with having an awakening, going to a thing and seeing other girls like me who weren’t as, you know, repressed and ashamed as I was. It helps to see other people who look like you enjoying themselves, and not feeling so uptight in their bodies. And we wanted Annie to have that kind of a moment.
Having settled on the pool-party setting, the writers and producers got to work breaking down the significance of such an event, the impact it might have on Annie, and what would happen in such a space.
Irby: I did not grow up in a place where there were tons of fat people. [There was no one] talking about the experience, how hard it is to be fat from a standpoint of, you know, “The clothes aren’t cute, I don’t feel like I can wear what I want, and I don’t feel accepted in every space.”
Bryant: When we first started working on the clothes scene [in which Annie and another pool-party attendee discuss how hard it is to find cute plus-size basics], it was like, “Whoops, okay, here are four pages on that.” I think we were all just working out some pain, you know? “There’s only this, and there’s only that, and if they do this, then they can’t do that,” and on and on. Almost all the clothes I wear on the show are made from scratch because those kinds of effortless, cool clothes don’t exist for plus-size women. [That conversation] was important to me, so that people can see that and maybe think, Oh, I make clothes. I should make clothes like that for that kind of woman.
Irby: Not to put too fine a point on it, but when you find your people, it really is like breathing a huge sigh of relief. “Oh, you understand what I mean when I say how this bra doesn’t work.” When I first found a fat community, it was like, “Okay, I don’t have to try to teach my thin friend who really wants to understand. I don’t have to teach them about what my life is like.” I wanted Annie to have that same feeling of, Oh, what a relief. I found my people.
Bryant: There’s just so much shame. So much shame. Around all kinds of bodies. It’s so unobtainable. So many of us, me included, have been on this journey to have a very thin thigh. And it’s like, for what? Let’s have some fun, unapologetically. That’s the goal.
Shaka King (director): It just has a very clear, cogent, linear narrative. You have this character who is very ashamed of how she looks, and she goes to this event that’s the first step in her liberation from this negative self-perception.
Lolly Adefope (“Fran”): There’s a bit in Shrill [the book] as well, about how [West] kept thinking her life was going to start when she lost all the weight. That’s key to [this episode] in particular. Your life doesn’t need to start when you lose weight. You can have these incredible, amazing times right now.
Irby: I think it’s also important to rep for the girls who are like, “Great, I love my body. I love your body, but I want to keep a shirt on. I’m gonna wear pants here.” Originally, we had some more snark about her wearing pants, but we lessened that. Everybody doesn’t have to be at the same place on their journey. She wants to wear pants, totally fine. [But] when she leaves the reporter Annie behind, and is feeling free, feeling like she could dance, just shaking everything off on the dance floor, stripping off her clothes, [getting] in the pool, that’s great.
It’s one thing to write about a dream party; it’s another to bring it to life. Rushfield brought on director Shaka King and director of photography Joe Meade to take a pool and make it something special. All involved agreed on one thing: It had to feel like a wonderland.
Rushfield: We hired directors who are real visual artists and have their own voices, so I just left them alone for the most part. Shaka King and the director of photography, Joe Meade, they just designed it all. It was amazing. Just amazing.
Bryant: We had a great director for that episode. Shaka King shot the hell out of that pool party, and it makes all the difference.
King: The question was, “Well, what does this need to be for Annie?” This needs to be like heaven. It needs to be not just a place where she feels safe, but a place where she feels celebrated. It has to be right. It had to be really colorful, and the women had to be really enjoying themselves, and they had to be everything that she hadn’t been up until that point.
Irby: This is my first TV show, and I know that I don’t really get a say, but I was fantasizing a little bit and thought, If it could look like Candy Land, right? Where everything’s beautiful and sparkly, and the water’s really blue. Everything’s gorgeous.
Adefope: Even walking to set, when nothing had been filmed yet, you could just tell. There was a buzz in the air. We hadn’t seen the whole set when we did that shot when we walk [into the party]. So just seeing it … [Big exhale.]
King: When we first saw the location and the set, it was like, “Oh, wow.” Schuyler [Telleen, series production designer] and his team just did an incredible job. Everybody had on these crazy colorful bikinis.
Bryant: It was so overwhelming. Just the sense of, “This exists?”
Irby: I remember seeing the pictures from the set before I went out there for the shoot, and almost cried because it was so beautiful. I just really wanted it to feel like a dream. I wanted people at home to understand how Annie’s whole world opened up in this new, bright way. They really made it happen. I knew Annie was going to have this amazing moment in that place, and it was really moving to me.
Bryant: It was totally overwhelming. All the women were openly saying, “Oh my God, this is amazing.”
King: Extras casting did an amazing job. They wouldn’t just bring one person on; they would bring in trios of friends, so people knew each other and it created a real familial-like party environment. You had all these people really making friends in that really colorful environment.
Adefope: You can just tell that they were all having the time of their lives, even when the cameras weren’t rolling. We were just so excited.
King: I’ve shot parties before for TV shows and movies, and it’s always the worst thing. You can tell that there’s no music playing, and people are fake dancing, having to pretend to be inebriated. It all just seems so fake. This didn’t feel that way. This actually felt like a real party. And it was not that warm — later in the day, it was chilly. And people were still enjoying themselves tremendously. It was like, “Wow, this feels like a real event,” even though we made all this shit up.
Rushfield: Time was the only thing that got in the way. The sun was going to go down eventually. Everything else was perfect.
King: I just really loved Aidy’s performance. Since Horace and Pete, I had been a fan of Aidy as a dramatic actor, but I remember being so impressed with her performance.
Three key moments take Annie from sitting on the sidelines in jeans and a blouse to sipping on a frozen margarita in her cute one-piece. First, a woman floats by on a pink inner tube, in an image that’s echoed in a flashback at the episode’s conclusion.
King: The overhead shot, it’s not necessarily what Annie sees; it’s how she sees this woman. It’s not from her vantage point; it’s how she sees her in her mind. I wanted to really portray this woman as being super at peace and just so comfortable, you know? We did that shot so many times because we really wanted it to feel like this woman is where Annie wants to be in life. It just made sense to go really high and wide, and have her glide across water, peacefully and slowly.
Bryant: It’s such a freeing thing to float in water, [and yet] it’s such a fraught experience for so many women.
King: Annie sees this woman that makes her think of not just the moment when she was a kid, when she was afraid to go in the pool, but it conjures up all these thoughts that she’s been having throughout the season.
Then, she’s pulled into an impromptu Ariana Grande dance party.
Bryant: To see 50 women dancing in bikinis, unashamed? It’s not something you see every day.
King: Really, the credit should go to Samantha because it’s all in her script. She said, “Annie sees bellies and legs and thighs.” That was really emphasized in the text. Once I saw that, I said, “Okay, I’m going to objectify these women.” I remember having to say to [the camera operator], “No, no, no, her belly. I want to focus on her stomach, not focus on the eyes.” You’re in Annie’s POV, seeing these women with bodies similar to hers, comfortable and celebrating their bodies. And she thinks, Well, these women can do this, then maybe I can do this.
Irby: I wanted it to feel like the best place you’ve ever been. Because you don’t get that a lot. You don’t get a lot of beautiful fat spaces.
King: [Aidy and I] talked about the dance scene quite a bit. We both agreed that it should take a lot of work for her to ultimately cut loose. Obviously you have this woman who’s trying to coax you out there, but you’re not just going to go out there immediately and feel comfortable. Maybe you’ve got this, you try to give it a shot, but nah, you still aren’t quite there. You’re not quite ready yet to do that, so you go back. I’ve been in that situation, Aidy said she’d been in that situation, and we felt the most natural thing would be like that.
Finally, Annie dives into the pool in a long underwater shot that King says was “surprisingly easy” to shoot.
King: Aidy is a really good swimmer. She said, “I haven’t swam in so long.” But then in rehearsal, it was like, “Oh, you can really hold your breath for a while …” I wanted it to feel … the best example I can give is a movie like Splash. You fall in the water, and it becomes almost a different world. She’s become empowered enough to take off her clothes and jump in the pool. We wanted it to feel like she’s being rewarded by going to this fantastical place.
Bryant: It was really overwhelming and beautiful. It felt emotional and sweet and empowering, all those things. That was truly our goal. That’s everything we set out to do.