In her 2019 Netflix special, Growing, which she performed while pregnant with her first child, Amy Schumer described suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum, a dangerous, traumatizing complication that exhibits most noticeably as extreme nausea. During the set, she likens it to having food poisoning every day.
The violence of these relentless sick episodes contrasts starkly with the ways in which pregnancy is typically talked about and portrayed in pop culture. In her act, she mocks how movies show women discovering they’re pregnant by cutely puking exactly once in their office trash can; the next time you see them, they’re wearing chic overalls over their modest belly while painting a barn.
In reality, the filming of Growing had to be delayed by seven weeks because Schumer had fallen so ill, vomiting non-stop for five hours, that she had to be hospitalized. These circumstances are jarring to hear about when Schumer discusses them in the special. For many people, the existence of the condition itself will be a revelation. But it’s an entirely different level of exposure to witness it all on camera.
That is the one of points—and the power—of Expecting Amy.
The three-part HBO Max documentary series, which premieres Thursday, chronicles Schumer from the moment she learns she’s pregnant and through the stand-up tour in preparation for Growing, all while weathering the debilitating symptoms of hyperemesis.
“I didn’t know that you got so sick for so much of your pregnancy,” she says in the series. “Is that stupid I didn’t know that? I didn’t know that.”
Expecting Amy also tackles fame, marriage, and how they interplay with her pregnancy journey, intertwined into something of a mission statement.
A selfie-shot video that starts the series portrays Schumer’s decision to film her experience as a whim. That may not be how it actually happened, but it’s here—in a sense of both exasperation and responsibility after awakening to the realities of her impending journey—that the series finds its purpose.
It brings home the point that a series like this, in which the truth of one woman’s pregnancy is told with this much frankness and intimacy, is, somehow, still a transgressive act.
“I don’t resent being pregnant,” she says. “I resent everyone who hasn’t been honest. I resent the culture and how much women have to suck it the fuck up and act like everything’s fine. I really resent that.”
That Schumer has the platform to say as much—and that she will likely be scrutinized for doing so—adds layers to Expecting Amy that the project doesn’t shy away from.
Co-directed by Schumer and Alexander Hammer, the film uses a combination of self-shot footage from Schumer and her husband, chef Chris Fischer (with whom she recently filmed in quarantine the Food Network series Amy Schumer Learns to Cook), and the more classic reality-TV approach of Schumer being followed by a camera throughout her day.
It’s not exactly Schumer-by-way-of-Kardashian, as that might suggest. But it is, in the best way reality TV can be, an unfiltered look into the day-to-day personality of a star outside of controlled environments like talk-show couches and red carpets. That is to say that on top of the important work, Expecting Amy is very funny, because Amy Schumer is very funny.
That’s true when she sits back up after having her head buried in a grocery bag, where she’s just been loudly heaving, turns to the camera and says with a flourish, “I fucking love being pregnant.” Then there’s the revelation that, following the advice of a dog trainer that she assign a name to the act of going to the bathroom in order to make it easier on her dog, she settled on “Kim,” after her sister.
The constant access to her life resurfaces attributes of the Inside Amy Schumer-era, self-deprecating comic—the sheer joy of a woman eating a bagel through the face hole in a massage table during a treatment—as well as more poignant moments as she navigates the emotional terrain of life at a turning point.
That’s true every time we see her process and recover from a bout of pregnancy-related illness, but also in the delicate ways in which she and Fischer work through their marriage. As Schumer has discussed on stage, Fischer has autism spectrum disorder, which he was diagnosed with after meeting her. How it affects their interactions and the degree with which she is open about it in her act is a thread woven throughout the series, and is quite moving.
Expecting Amy is also inextricable from Schumer’s fame, and it leans into that. As such, it’s a window into the ways in which what it means to be Amy Schumer—and the decade of conversations about her existence in the public eye—influence her on a daily basis, from her work to her marriage to, now, expecting her first child.
There’s a scene I keep thinking about where she, Fischer, and her team are on the Long Island Railroad and two guys take a photo of her. “If this is on Reddit with some mean shit, I’m going to find you,” she says, a threat cut with just the right note of humor.
As they’re sniveling over their phones after taking it, she asks what they did with the photo. “I just sent it to my brother,” one of them says. She asks to see. “Apparently, he’s not a fan,” the boy warns. Reading the text and internalizing what was clearly a vile message, she says, “I wonder why you sent it to him, then.”
Later when they’re off the train, she resists the temptation to pile on now that she’s out of their earshot: “It’s not fair to say that somebody looks like an internet troll...”
It’s not that the series demands sympathy for a celebrity who is forced to deal with the toxic elements of fame on a daily basis, at a time when she’s thrilled about pregnancy but also rattled by complications. But depicting that facet of her life is crucial.
Schumer’s projects are interesting because they’re often critiqued at face value for their content, but then also critiqued in relation to what the project says about her, her fame, her harshest detractors, and her evolving perspective.
It must be an exhausting position to be in as a creator, and one that few men are put in. (When they are, they typically belong to underrepresented minority demographics.) But it’s a position that Schumer has tackled with more elegance than annoyance—even when the latter would be warranted. She’s always seemed eager to learn how to use that burden to sharpen her focus, rather than be petulant about it and insist on operating outside of the conversation.
Everything that “Amy Schumer,” the cultural talking point, symbolizes is glanced at in Expecting Amy as part of this look at a person in a pivotal phase of her life: the breakout star, the It Girl, the “sex comic,” the body-positive icon, then problematic celeb, the cultural warrior, the outspoken activist, the movie star, the backlash lightning rod, the celebrity in retreat. Lately, there’s wife, mom, and surprise cooking show co-host, too.
They’re all labels, and labels are reductive. How can you be reduced to one thing when you’re a person who is described by all those things?
It’s conspicuous that the vast majority of those labels are judgments outside of her control, placed on her based on norms that cultural arbiters and, maybe more often, online trolls have affixed: unspoken rules about what a person in her position “should” be.
It makes sense that Growing and now Expecting Amy seem rewarding but also kind of renegade. It’s Schumer taking back control.
Even the initial notes I scribbled about how certain, significant scenes play—that she seems equal parts “vulnerable” or “confident” when she talks about her complicated pregnancy—glared back first as trite, but then as reductive. They’re words that have become almost weaponized in the polar and often exclusive ways they’re used to describe women: You must be one or the other and neither is entirely good.
Yet that’s a living part of Schumer’s legacy. Whatever you might think of her content or her public persona, she’s forced us to evolve the ways we consider and critique women in comedy and women in Hollywood. Now, a woman in Hollywood who dealt with a complicated pregnancy while exerting her power at a major moment in her lucrative Netflix deal.
As a male critic, it’s not exactly my place to police her perspective on issues pertaining to pregnancy and the fallacy of how society talks about it, other than I can say Expecting Amy is nothing I’ve ever seen before on this scale of celebrity and this level of intimacy, and that to me feels exciting and important.
And as a fan of Schumer’s since she first started to gain recognition, I find what she’s doing now gratifying; both new and surprising, and yet exactly in line with the kind of work she does. Both nothing and everything like what I was expecting.