Swap out a former Nickelodeon star’s tunes, and this description could apply to any pool party captured by TV cameras in history. But those flights of debauchery-fueled fancy don’t usually threaten tears for viewers — or the people who created it — as their heroine’s hair whips back and forth. Yet, when Aidy Bryant thinks back on the two days she filmed the titular pool party in Shrill’s “Pool,” the star says, “Our whole crew was crying at very different points because everybody was feeling so emotional.” Elsewhere, Twitter is awash with women happily crying through those 24 minutes of television.
The reason Hulu's “Pool” should come with its own tissue budget is simple: Those joyous bodies we were talking about? They belong to fat women of every shape, size, color, and age. It’s a revolution of body inclusion that satiates a pop cultural thirst many viewers never thought was possible, let alone dreamed they could see. Rolls — the kind of rolls almost everyone has but rarely spots on TV — jiggle with happy abandon. Thighs shake and back fat emerges from candy colored, skin-baring bathing suits.
The fervor of the moment is so powerful that Bryant’s indoor kid Annie — a Portland, OR woman who wore dark jeans and a fully buttoned-up navy shirt to a pool party — eventually rips off her clothing to reveal her own brilliantly-hued one-piece suit. “I’m honestly thinking about buying a crop top, which I gotta say was not in the cards for me before,” Annie announces before jumping feet first into the pool.
While Shrill’s six-episode first season is a fun and thoughtful ride all the way through, it’s “Pool” that is destined for the year-end best-of lists that will arrive nine months after its premiere. With that in mind, this is the complete oral history of Hulu’s boundary breaking episode.
The Writing Process: Making Magic “A Physical Place”
“Something that a lot of us in the writer’s room were talking about is how much the internet changed things for us,” Saturday Night Live breakout Bryant explains over the phone. “As far as going on Tumblr or going on fat women’s blogs and seeing them wearing bikinis or wearing cool clothing and not hiding themselves.”
As Shrill writers like Bryant, executive producer Lindy West, showrunner Ali Rushfield, and Samantha Irby agreed on the transformative powers of those digital spaces, one question arose: “How could we put that energy into a physical place?,” Bryant recalls. The answer became a fat babe pool party, which West, whose 2016 memoir gave Shrill its name and inspiration, had previously attended. While Irby, who wrote 2013’s Meaty and 2017 best-seller We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, recalls pitching the summer-y bash, don’t expect to catch her at the next one blowing up your Instagram feed.
“I’m not a pool party kind of guy...I do not want to drown in front of other people while they are celebrating their bodies.,” Irby tells R29 with a laugh, touting her love of all “inside” fat girl activities, from clothing swaps to inclusive dance parties.
Irby believes some of herself might have shone through with Annie’s original covered-up costuming, joking, “I want to rep for the girls who also like to wear a turtleneck at the beach.”
We really have the chance here to do something groundbreaking, something revolutionary. It shouldn’t feel revolutionary, but it is.
Although the bitches gotta eat blogger won’t be sunbathing anytime soon, executive producer-writer Lindy West says the “genius” writer was the “only” choice for the job (Rushfield officially taped Irby for the gig). “Not everyone in the writers room is a fat person,” West says. “For that episode especially, and particularly the part where Annie makes her big speech at the end, it’s really important to me to have someone write that who understands these feelings in a really visceral way.”
The “big speech” West mentions arrives in the second-to-last scene of the episode, when Annie’s terrible boss Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell) has loudly and publicly called her health into question. Annie returns home, fuming about the thinly masked cruelty of Gabe, weird targeted ads, and even her well-meaning mother (Julia Sweeney). “I’ve wasted so much time and energy and money, for what? For what? You know? I’m fat. I’m fuckin’ fat!,” she rages at BFF Fran (Lolly Adefope) and pool party organizer Vic (Heathers’ queen bee Melanie Field).
So, Annie takes her fat self upstairs to post “Hello, I’m Fat,” to The Weekly Thorn website, directly defying Gabe’s editor-in-chief orders. The eager-to-please Annie we met in the series premiere would never.
“As a group, we decided we wanted this to be in this little moment, from the beginning of the end of the party, you see a change begin in her,” Irby explains. “I am not a biblical scholar enough to really like equate her pool jumping in to a baptism or a rebirth, but it does feel like she gets out of the pool and then goes to talk to Gabe, and you’re like, ‘Oh wait. That’s a new person who got out of the pool.’ That is a person who was changed.”
Casting: “I Want To See The Size 28s & 32s”
The magic of “Pool” is that it takes women often pushed to the edges of pop culture — fat women, women of color, queer women, women who are all three — and embraces them. It fills the screen with them in all of their fabulosity.
“Lindy and I were both like, ‘There needs to be some fat girls who are actually fat. I want to see the size 28s and 32s,’” Irby, who wasn’t directly involved in the cast process says. “I immediately was like, ‘We can’t do the typical everyone’s a size 12.’ Like everyone has a little bit of puppy fat … We really have the chance here to do something groundbreaking, something revolutionary. I shouldn’t feel revolutionary, but it is.’”
Lindy West agrees, noting, “Body positivity in pop culture right now really tends towards showing the same kind of bodies that are very similar to the traditional ideal body. We do give attention and screen time to fat bodies [of] hourglass white women with big boobs and butts.”
So, when EP West spoke to the casting team she made her inclusion desires very clear, requesting women over size 24, racial diversity, gender diversity, and physical ability diversity for the background actors.
Filming: “Don’t Be Afraid To Really Show These Women’s Bodies”
If there is a single question to be lobbied at “Pool,” it’s why this deep cut of womanhood is actually helmed by a man: High Maintenance director Shaka King. King never questioned whether he could bring Bryant, West, Rushfield and Co.’s very feminine vision to life. “I don’t think I could have directed this episode without being led by women,” King, whom Bryant tapped to direct the episode after a breakfast meeting years ago, tells R29. “I don’t think this is something I could have thought of on my own and brought to fruition.”
King’s empathy for the female experience appears throughout the episode — he says he recommended Bryant’s Annie dance solo to Ariana Grade’s “One Last Time” for maximum transformative punch. “I remember Aidy saying, ‘I want to see thighs. And stomachs. Don’t be afraid to really show these women’s bodies,’” King remembersWhen his directing team got “squirrelish” about really zooming in on those curves, he set them straight. “I said, ‘Really focus on these parts of their bodies that people try not to look at.’”
As King helped make sure the Shrill writing team’s vision came to life, the women in front of and behind the camera were able to enjoy the wonderland they created. “These women when they got there — they were just glowing,” Bryant says of the 60 or so extras that arrived for the shoot, which was filmed at a country club outside of Portland. Lindy West adds, practically beaming over the phone, “The fun thing about shooting a fat babe pool party is that you have to throw a fat babe pool party.”
There are big bodies trying on cute bathing suits, bopping to music, and getting their glam done. When it was time for Bryant to hop in the pool for Annie’s big “fuck it” swimming scene, as the Saturday Night Live star calls it, “All the ladies in the pool were so helpful. We were all pushing each other to get in the right spot in our floaties.”
Samantha Irby, who was eventually convinced to don a cover-up for a short cameo, was similarly struck by the camaraderie on set when she traveled to Portland for her episode’s taping. At the start of the day, she and West went to greet the extras, who included some of her personal friends from the area.
“We walk into this ballroom, and I almost started crying,” she says. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Hey, can you put some real fat people in there?’ It’s another thing to walk into a room and see your dreams in front of your eyes.”