Comedian and actor Michelle Buteau once described her look as an “achievable Beyoncé for government workers” or a “Meghan Markle that let herself go.”
In her new series, Survival of the Thickest, streaming on Netflix, Buteau is simply the fabulous star of her own rom-com. Adapted from her 2020 memoir of the same name, Survival of the Thickest offers a welcome entry into the microgenre of New York Creative Millennial stories. Usually these tales — think Girls, The Bold Type, Broad City, season two of Love Life — feature protagonists in their 20s who are figuring out cash-poor adulthood in one of the most expensive cities on the planet. But Buteau’s Mavis Beaumont is a 38-year-old fashion stylist forced to reset her life after discovering her more established photographer boyfriend dipping his wick into a skinnier doppelgänger.
Mavis finds some internet renown when her client, a maturing supermodel played by Garcelle Beauvais, wears an outfit she’s assembled to the funeral of Beauvais’ first husband leaves a scandalous deposit in his casket. From there, adventure and opportunity abound and Mavis begins styling drag queens at her local bar, CC Bloom’s. (Yes, CC Bloom as in Beaches. Its star may be straight but this is an extremely queer show.)
The plotline is nothing fancy. Buteau’s acuity with rom-com tropes is on full display: her somewhat hapless heroine is guided by a council of pithy friends played by Tasha Smith, Tone Bell, and RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Peppermint. Mavis shares a humble Crown Heights walkup with a harmless, if eccentric, roommate who always smells like salad dressing thanks to an olive oil fixation.
Visually, the show is situated squarely in the contemporary TV rom-com world in which every bar always seems to be awash in the saturated violets, fuchsias and blues that became the defining palette of the 2010s.
Swift action, zippy dialogue, and goofy visual gags keep this eight-episode romp through Mavis’ postbreakup life easy and engaging. (As much as I appreciate the intellectual challenge of prestige TV, it’s nice to have a bingeable confection that doesn’t require the close analysis of say, Succession.) Survival of the Thickest is contained, but not airless. It’s solid, well-executed, unpretentious TV.
Though the star proudly proclaims herself a size 18/20, it’s a relief that Survival of the Thickest is not a show built around a fat character’s fraught relationship with her body. This is not to say that Mavis’ world isn’t filled with skinny privilege — she works in New York fashion after all — but the show proceeds with a refreshing normalcy. Survival abounds with jokes about Mavis’ ample rack, but Buteau’s body isn’t something that has to be addressed, or hidden, or obsessed over.
It’s the character who has benefited most from existing at the center of a skinny-centric fashion culture — Beauvais — who struggles with accepting her own curves and is terrified of appearing in anything form-fitting without the safety net of shapewear. Forget spandex. Mavis fights to wrench a corset from her boss’ stubborn clutches.
Over the past 15 years, fat acceptance/body positivity/health at any size philosophies have been ascendant. And along with these ideas, mainstreamed across social media by influencers such as Gabi Fresh and validated by designers such as Christian Siriano and retailers such as Eloquii, 11 Honoré, Universal Standard, and Dia & Co, came television that dug into the relationships millennial women have with their bodies. Shrill (2019), the Hulu series starring Aidy Bryant, adapted from Lindy West’s memoir, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, was an improvement over earlier forays into the lives and emotions of fat women, such as Drop Dead Diva (2009) and Dietland (2018). Both shows starred fat women as their main characters, but their personalities were heavily defined by their displeasure, if not disgust, with their figures. They existed in a broader culture in which the only acceptable way to be a fat woman in public was to be miserable and obsessed with one’s size, always making a visible effort, no matter how Sisyphean, to shrink.
Furthermore, these shows, and even ones like Girls (2012), were about how white women experience being fat. As with so many aspects of American life, there are significant cultural differences among various racial groups regarding weight. Whereas a white woman in the South might be gazed upon with pity and considered “chubby,” a Black woman of the same size might proudly carry the designation of “thick.”
Conversations about weight have evolved beyond Barbie dolls and fashion magazines as the sources of self-hatred and harmful dieting. See, for instance, the breadth of topics covered by Aubrey Gordon, the author of “You Just Need to Lose Weight” and 19 Other Myths About Fat People and co-host of the popular podcast Maintenance Phase, where Gordon and her co-host Michael Hobbes delight in discrediting junk science used to propel fat stigma. Lately though, there’s been some upheaval, as the introduction of GLP-1 agonists such as Ozempic offer new tools for dropping pounds at the same time singer Lizzo has arisen as everyone’s favorite twerking vegan flutist. There is angst that the recent progress made by fatty baddies will be drowned out by the marketing budgets of Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly and Company.
The charm of Survival is that it doesn’t feel the need to take on all of these issues. Instead, it’s wholly a creature of Buteau’s infectious humor and personality. Buteau delivers a bubbly, scene-stealing ebullience that remains consistent across her performances, such as those in the 2019 feature rom-com Always Be My Maybe and the BET+ series First Wives Club.
Buteau has long been a fixture of the Brooklyn comedy, acting, and podcasting circuit (she and Jordan Carlos co-host the WNYC podcast Adulting) and her borough buddies Nicole Beyer and Carlos appear in Survival of the Thickest along with Sarah Cooper, who achieved early pandemic virality with her lip-synched TikToks of President Donald Trump’s news conferences.
Under the guidance of costume designer Keia Bounds, Mavis’ looks are daring and playful, informed by an adolescence spent flipping through Vogue and an adulthood of amassing the creative hacks to adapt them for her body and wallet. Bounds is not working with the costume budget of Patricia Fields’ heyday at Sex and the City. But she’s also not dressing characters with the resources for legacy brand luxury goods, which opens the show’s wardrobe to New York designers such as Brandon Blackwood. Early middle age looks different on millennials, thanks to the Great Recession and an unshakable albatross of student loan debt.
The first season of Survival concludes with Mavis hosting and styling an alternative prom for queer kids who were banned from their school prom. Clad in a frothy, baby blue puff-sleeve Selkie dress, Buteau becomes a modern fairy godmother, dispensing an earnest, grown-up, cheery self-love to herself and all who encounter her. With that in her pocket, Buteau is bound to do more than survive — she’s a woman built to thrive.