When Mavis (Michelle Buteau) discovers her boyfriend of five years has been unfaithful, what stings almost as much as the betrayal is the narrative she imagines surrounding it. “If someone cheats on Halle Berry, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, how that man cheat on Halle Berry?’” she laments. “But if someone cheats on someone like me, a thick girl with problem areas? They’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I get it.’”
And though her best friend, Khalil (Tone Bell), gently pushes back on that “silly-ass narrative,” Mavis isn’t entirely wrong: Plus-sized women, and indeed all those who fall outside the straight-cis-white-skinny box, do tend to go ignored or sidelined or disrespected in love stories. Netflix’s Survival of the Thickest is a welcome and too-rare exception — a comedy that puts Mavis front and center as a worthy heroine, with mostly enjoyable results.
Survival of the Thickest
The Bottom Line
More likable than lovable.
Airdate: Thursday, July 13 (Netflix)
Cast: Michelle Buteau, Tone Bell, Tasha Smith, Liza Treyger, Anissa Felix, Garcelle Beauvais, Taylor Selé, Marouane Zotti
Creators: Michelle Buteau and Danielle Sanchez-Witzel
The infidelity, Mavis soon realizes, hasn’t just disrupted her relationship — it’s upended every aspect of her life. She moves out of the posh Manhattan apartment she’d shared with Jacque (Taylor Selé) into a cramped Brooklyn pad with awkward stranger Jade (Liza Treyger) and her needy cat, Coco (short for “Cocaine Xavier,” Jade clarifies cheerfully).
Without Jacque, a fashion photographer, to help get her foot in the door as a stylist, Mavis scrambles to find new clients. And of course, now that her hopes of marrying Jacque have been dashed, she’s forced to consider what she truly wants at this point in her life — 38 and single, childless but with aspirations of becoming a mom someday.
Survival of the Thickest, based on Buteau’s book of essays and adapted by Buteau and Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, is gentle with Mavis as she makes her way through the mess. After stealing scenes in romcoms like Marry Me and Always Be My Maybe, Buteau proves a charismatic romantic lead in her own right.
Though the series never quite manages to spark the sort of chemistry that might make a viewer swoon, she finds a sweet, sexy dynamic with an Italian tourist suitor (Marouane Zotti) and taps into anger and vulnerability with Jacque. Mavis’ initial fears notwithstanding, the series is resolute and refreshing in its insistence that Mavis is every bit as deserving of fun or commitment or unconditional love as any Halle Berry type.
She’s reminded of that fact, often, by her loyal sidekicks: Khalil, an artsy anti-capitalist fuckboi (“fuck-man,” he protests) who might just be ready to change his ways; and Marley (Tasha Smith), a no-nonsense businesswoman on a journey of sexual self-discovery following a divorce.
The trio are sufficiently close to know when to offer a comforting shoulder, a dose of straight talk or an affectionate eyeroll. They’re nice people with good-natured jokes and relatable romantic problems, and simply getting to kick back with them as they pass around a joint or gossip over drinks is one of the series’ breeziest pleasures.
But if agreeableness is one of Survival of the Thickest‘s chief assets, it can also be an unexpected liability. The series seems determined to be a little bit of everything, and not too much of anything. (Noticeable ADR made me wonder if some earlier version struggled to find a cohesive tone.) Ultimately, it struggles to distinguish itself enough from countless other stories in the “New York creative struggles to get their act together” subgenre, like Freeform’s Everything’s Trash or Netflix’s Glamorous.
While the show’s jokes veer at times toward broad comedy — one storyline hinges on a truly epic fart — it seems content to land chuckles rather than belly laughs. Though it goes over the top here and there, as with an ex-supermodel client (Garcelle Beauvais) who can turn a funeral into a viral diva moment, it never bites hard enough to draw blood. Its occasional attempts at seriousness land clumsily. I don’t doubt the sincerity behind an emotional conversation about racism following a nasty run-in with a Karen, for instance, but it feels like a detour for a show that otherwise avoids going too heavy or too dark.
The irony of Survival of the Thickest is that though it chronicles one woman’s decision to take a chance on herself, to give herself room to pivot or make mistakes in pursuit of finding the most unapologetic version of herself, the series itself lacks that same moxie. I found myself, by the end of eight half-hours, wishing for more edge — a sharper sense of humor, a more ambitious mix of storylines, a willingness to let its characters get really messy or weird.
As it is, the series’ pleasant tone goes down easily, and probably makes it ideal for binging over a glass or four of rosé. But Mavis, in the end, refuses to settle for the familiar and practical route when she could hold out for the challenging and exciting one. Her show shouldn’t settle for it either.