Michelle Buteau writes & stars in a refreshing sitcom where the main character’s size isn’t the most important thing about her.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.
In 1995, way back last century, I went shopping for a dress to wear to my cousin’s wedding. Accompanied by my mother, it soon became apparent to us both that I, both a big and tall girl, wouldn’t be able to buy a dress in the Juniors section. My options eventually whittled down to one adult black velvet dress that, while the saleswoman assured us was totally chic for weddings, nevertheless showcased to the world that I could not fit into a fun or stylish dress for someone my age and that’s rough. It’s very rough.
In the penultimate episode of the new Netflix comedy Survival of the Thickest, main character Mavis Beaumont (series creator Michelle Buteau) tells a similar anecdote about her prom, explaining how having to dress “like a Greek widow” at a high school dance solidified her desire to open up the fashion world and the concept of self-appreciation to its outsiders. This moment sums up the feeling of Survival of the Thickest in a nutshell: a bittersweet memory dressed up in a joke but reminding us that even the worst moments contribute to where we’re standing. Based on Buteau’s same-titled book of personal essays, the series’ eight episodes are a perfect summertime treat, binge-able of course, but perhaps better taken one or two at a time, just to savor them.
Mavis is a walking ray of sunshine, a talented and encouraging fashion assistant on her way to a head stylist promotion when she catches her long-term boyfriend, fashion photographer Jacque (Taylor Selé), cheating on her in their apartment. Now both single and unemployed (as she worked with Jacque), Mavis moves out to share an apartment in Brooklyn with obligatory kooky character Jade (Liza Treyger). Though Jade’s quirks (she constantly rubs olive oil all over her body and has a cat named Cocaine) are appropriately reacted to by Mavis and her friends, they’re still just a little too much. How has she made it this far in life without anyone telling her that she can’t stand in the shadows and watch her roommate and her date kiss?
Mavis’ other supporting characters make for better viewing, including Tone Bell as Mavis’ life-long BFF (and recovering fuckboy) Khalil and Tasha Smith as boss bitch Marley, a corporate hardass beginning to question her sexuality. Khalil, an artist and art teacher, finds himself falling for one of his hookups, discovering along the way that it’s okay to make some money from your art or buy a couch for your apartment without being a sellout, while Marley learns to chill out from the grind just a little. Though initially not really friends with each other, their love for Mavis bonds Marley and Khalil, and the trio make for a perfect friend group that feels like they’ve known each other for years.
As Mavis works to build her brand and move past Jacque’s betrayal, she finds a new local home away from home at drag club CC Bloom, where club emcee Peppermint (RuPaul’s Drag Race ninth season runner-up Peppermint) helps set Mavis up with her first client. Said client is former ‘90s supermodel Natasha (Garcelle Beauvais), an exceptionally picky and needy individual who has become a near-recluse because of her recent weight gain. Mavis’ work with Natasha helps to boost her profile but lends itself to more complications as she learns to balance her newfound success and everything else in her life.
Survival of the Thickest is at its best when Mavis is at her best. Even when she’s struggling, the show’s optimistic messages shine through; where the show begins to flounder is in the final few episodes, when Mavis’ love life and her physical well-being collide and she starts to make decisions that are messy at best and baffling at worst. It’s not always apparent how or why Mavis is coming to the conclusions that she makes, but Buteau’s charm carries the show when the story slips. The cast as a whole is a dream and the selection of celebrity cameos are uniformly a delight. It’s a refreshingly dreamy experience with enough realism to give it a bite, particularly when it comes to Mavis’ appearance and her wishes for what her career could give to others.
Mavis’ weight is a part of the show without being the show, a welcome change from, well, most everything. She’s unashamed of her size and embraces it, exuding a contagious confidence. She dates “normal” men, men who in other series would be using her or treating her as a fetish object; here they’re just attracted to Mavis because she’s an attractive person. Even Jacque, though unfaithful to Mavis, spends the majority of the series trying to get her back, and at no point does anyone act as though his cheating was something that Mavis should have expected. Mavis’ troubles rarely have to do with her weight, but are instead about money and the future and dreams; you know, everyone’s problems. She’s stylish, witty, hard-working, and sexy, and yes, she’s also fat. Full disclosure: I needed a moment when Mavis, out loud, on television, states that she’s a size 18/20 without it being a regret or a problem, but rather just a fact. “Is that allowed?” I wrote in my notes. “Are we allowed to say that?”
Yes, we are. And Survival of the Thickest celebrates that with humor and delight.
Survival of the Thickest is now streaming on Netflix.