Of all the gripping characters in Lindy West’s vibrant Hulu series Shrill, from the devastatingly charismatic best friend Fran to the dreamy, dare I say smashing, English houseguest Lamar, none transfixed me so much as perhaps its most mediocre man, Ryan. Ryan, played by Luca Jones, is the sort-of boyfriend of Annie Easton, Shrill’s West surrogate, herself brought to life by the triumphantly hilarious Aidy Bryant. And there’s a good reason he resonated with me, and probably you too. I’ve never had a hot guy with an accent and an adorable playlist seduce me via the hypnotic sounds of the club hit “Clarity” as Lamar does Annie. Or even a highly supportive work husband who’s willing to hunt down my internet nemesis with me, like Annie’s buddy Amadi. But I have dated a whole hell of a lot of Ryans. And haven’t we all? While our first instinct may be to shy away from scenes that mirror our regrettable partners back to us, Shrill’s surprisingly multi-dimensional portrayal of them gives us the gift of self-reflection instead.
Ryan is unequivocally stunted. He has no discernible ambition, he’s selfish in bed, and he’s honestly just annoying in that way that white men can be. The psychological pull of a man who treats you like crap can be explained through a variety of theories. For one, many people tend to equate drama with excitement, so it’s easy to wind up sticking with partners who put us through the ringer. For another, if someone is dangling commitment like a carrot over us and we simply can’t win it from them, we might assume this partner himself must be high-value and therefore worth our continued endeavors. We’d be wrong on both accounts, but I digress. Ryan, however, offers that unique brand of loser-with-an-irresistible-something that justifies both the viewer’s and Annie’s continued interest in him. He has a terrible podcast, doesn’t disclose that he has a child from a previous relationship, and admits that he’s seeing other women while also engaging in organized pencil fighting, and even then, Annie still isn’t ready to let him go. Some of this may be tied up in the fraught ways society has leveled the self-esteem and romantic aspirations of plus-size women, but the other part of it is the glimmer of hope we often see in men like this: they’re trying, just the littlest bit.
And no one tries quite as pitifully as Ryan, the bare-minimum boyfriend. Aside from the unhinged comedy he offers the series, like trip-sitting a dog in one of the most unmoored from reality but still so seemingly plausible for Portland scenes I have ever seen, he deftly portrays a guy making an effort to relate to someone in a genuine, supportive way. In the show, we see Annie assert herself and refuse to be his backdoor mistress any longer, and Ryan starts stepping up. But each of his gestures is paired with an equal misstep — it’s just enough so that the audience feels for Ryan but still wants to grab Annie by the shoulders and tell her to buy a one-way ticket to England to be with Lamar and not look back. He takes her on a “real” date, but invites his buddies who crash the restaurant and make a scene. He reads her writing with interest, but wakes her up from her slumber to share his thoughts on it. He drives her to work, but can’t pick her up, as he’s returned the car to his mom. In some ways, Shrill offers a more searing indictment of this type of man than the callous assholes who are fully aware they’re using you; this is Ryan trying, and this is literally the best he can do.
Even with true glimpses of affection for Annie, we know she can do better. So why all the effort put into seeing the lovable goof side he clearly possesses? Perhaps, as writer Saeed Jones posited on Twitter, it’s to help us identify the Ryans in our own lives so that we may rid ourselves of them. But perhaps it goes a step further. It’s not just that we see the Ryans and acknowledge their allure and how hard they are to shake, it’s that we forgive ourselves for the Ryans. Watching Annie, we get a chance to view our own poorly informed romantic choices through fresh eyes and have a newfound sense of empathy for ourselves. We can begin to forgive ourselves for equating a chafing struggle with a thrilling pursuit, for accepting a podcaster when we wanted a partner, and for giving ourselves up for less than we deserve. Hard as it is, there is life after Ryan.