Survival of the Thickest, a new romantic comedy series starring comedian Michelle Buteau, is a joyful way to get acquainted with Buteau’s star power.
After a cascading list of supporting roles, Buteau emerges triumphant as a leading lady, providing a hilarious and empathetic look at one woman’s attempt at coming into her own after a messy breakup. Mavis Beaumont (Buteau) is a 38-year-old, struggling, plus-size stylist, hoping to climb the shaky rungs of the fashion world alongside her co-worker and boyfriend of five years, Jacque (Taylor Sele).
But Mavis’world is toppled when she comes home to find Jacque in bed with another woman – the “skinny model version” of Mavis whose boobs she just double taped for a photo shoot, no less. Across an eight-episode season, we watch a heartbroken and infuriated Mavis navigate the rolling hills of post-breakup life.
She leaves the couple’s chic flat for a Brooklyn armpit. “These floors look like the stage of Hamilton,” quips Mavis’ high-powered friend, Marley (a hilarious Tasha Smith). Mavis has to rebuild her career roster, untangling her successes from Jacque’s influence. But Mavis also rediscovers herself through this forced independence, holding steadfast to her tribe and learning lessons from a revolving roster of eccentric romantic interests and styling clients.
Survival of the Thickest, loosely based on Buteau’s eponymous essay collection, shines as a raunchy, offbeat exploration of Mavis after her uncoupling. The show, co-created by Buteau and Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, is unapologetically fun and chaotic, allowing audiences to laugh, gawk and wince alongside a floundering Mavis and her awkward embrace of singledom.
The Netflix series goes beyond the typical limitations seen in shows about women’s growing pains. Mavis isn’t a white, twentysomething experiencing a timely arrival of young adult heartache. Mavis is an older, plus-size, Black woman, written with full permission to implode, explode and start again.
Mavis randomly moves in with Jade (Liza Treyger), her white roommate with porous boundaries, an affinity towards olive oil and a (disturbingly) impressive array of appropriated Black hair styles. Mavis gives a blowjob to a hot Italian she just met (Marouane Zotti), accidentally getting wads of gum in Luca’s nether regions. These hijinks are, of course, funny. But they aren’t done to humiliate Mavis or diminish her to comic relief. They feel like the realistic, albeit bizarre, missteps of a person trying to reclaim their power.
Despite being cheated on, Mavis still harbors love for Jacque. She is torn between the intensity of Jacque’s betrayal and the security he provides. Her lingering feelings demonstrate another layer of her humanity: a complicated inability to turn away from the one who hurt you.
Survival of the Thickest joins a category of shows that explore how age does not guarantee a safety net from life’s shitstorm (Insecure, Grace and Frankie). Partners cheat. Long-term relationships end. Interpersonal mayhem and turmoil can upend all expectations of security and assurance. Like Mavis and so many before, all one has is the ability to rally and start anew.
Buteau as Mavis is plucky and endearing, a natural lead, bringing a charm that has been fully displayed in previous supporting roles and in her comedy specials. She’s an impressive comedian, delivering roundhouse zingers with ease. “You don’t have to look like a virgin from Bridgerton,” Buteau waxes to a styling client struggling with body image.
But she is equally equipped in the show’s more dramatic moments, embodying the anxiety Mavis carries given her wobbly future. She is ready to handle grief during early run-ins with her ex. With Buteau at the helm, Mavis remains hearty and full-fledged.
Beyond the impressive central performance, the show provides a glossy peek into the fashion world. Costuming by stylist Keia Bounds puts Mavis into a rainbow of looks, free of plus-size fashion cliches. From a black beret dotted with hearts to an all-red power suit, Mavis’ outfits match her teeming energy and compliment the technicolor of the world.
More time could be spent with Mavis’ growing group of queer friends and clients; the show instead gives undue attention to the romantic exploits of her fuckboy bestie, Khalil (Tone Bell). For example, Peppermint, a New York drag queen who plays Mavis’ peer, gets little screen time or story despite her commanding and entertaining presence.
At times, the show also succumbs to the Netflix sheen (how many Netflix shows sound and look alike). The show’s soundtrack is mostly a mash of TikTok’s top 100 shuffled alongside anonymous pop music.
But Survival of the Thickest is delightful, easy going, and real to the struggles of beginning again. Buteau’s embodiment is a gift – an outlandish and cringy gift that’s not afraid to get honest.