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Comedian and Actor Michelle Buteau’s ‘Survival of the Thickest’ Is a Flimsy Star Vehicle

The 2000s were an especially tough decade to be a comedian. An increasing push to digital media meant there were more opportunities for up-and-coming comics, but it was less likely that they’d be a successful showcase for anyone’s talent. Comedians had to claw their way for airtime on talking-head clip shows and 10-minute spots on Comedy Central just to get a lick of recognition and stability. If they were lucky, they made it past the audition round of NBC’s Last Comic Standing, and even then, the winner was guaranteed about as much fame and stardom as a winner of The Voice would be today (which is to say: almost none).

Times were tough, no doubt. But comedian and actor Michelle Buteau was there for all of it, climbing the ranks to establish her sharp, observant voice. After years of growing her brand—becoming a staple of talk shows, podcasts, and the host of Netflix’s dating show The Circle—Buteau published her first book, Survival of the Thickest, a collection of essays about her winding road through the aughts to stardom.

Three years later, Buteau arrives with her first proper leading role in a Netflix show that’s loosely adapted from her book. In Survival of the Thickest, whose first season drops on the platform July 13, Buteau stars as Mavis Beaumont. She’s a newly single, novice stylist trying to navigate career, friendships, and family in New York City. If that sounds a bit conventional, it’s because it is. Despite Buteau’s incisive wit and confident performance as a version of herself, Survival of the Thickest falls back on the pillowy comforts of old sitcom tropes, with few efforts to update them for a new era. Its formulaic comedy squanders Buteau’s inherent magnetism by playing it too safe for streaming, but among its abundance of underbaked ideas is a spark that could catch fire outside the confines of Netflix.

Survival of the Thickest works best when it’s focused on Mavis, who is already armed with one of the greatest names that any individual can be blessed with. But a sturdy-sounding name isn’t enough to get a foot in the door when it comes to the competitive field of celebrity styling. Her job might be behind the scenes, but Mavis still spends her time working twice as hard to prove herself as a Black, plus-size woman in a shallow industry. It turns out that work includes competing with the skinny, fashion model-lookalike version of Mavis that her photographer boyfriend, Jacques (Taylor Selé), is sleeping with.

After finding Jacques rolling around on their 10,000-thread count sheets with another woman, Mavis ousts herself not just from her comfort zone, but also from the luxury apartment the couple shared. And what does a New York woman in a bind do when she finds her life suddenly in shambles? She moves to Crown Heights with a bizarro roommate (Liza Treyger) and a cat named Cocaine to start over.

All of these changes for Mavis are established within the first 15 minutes of the show’s premiere, which gives Survival of the Thickest a steady foundation to build its story. Unfortunately, the assured cadence of the episode’s first half is quickly lost, a pattern that the series repeats in almost every episode that follows. Mavis tries to pilot her new life as if nothing is wrong, opting for rebound sex and throwing herself into work to distract from her post-breakup instability. But in doing this, we only get shades of who she really is. Her motivations and personal desires fall by the wayside in favor of rote dating humor, forcing the viewer to spend time trying to invest in the thinly sketched men that she’s paired with to generate a few easy chuckles.

The show might stumble when it’s too focused onMavis’ dating prospects, but Buteau never flinches. As both co-creator and co-writer, Buteau is more than capable of steering the ship, pacing things back up with a singular line delivery or look of disgust and confusion. That’s enough to keep any viewer hooked until she has to do it again, five minutes later. Buteau’s undeniable comedy expertise, paired with the series’ rickety writing, make for a genuinely puzzling watch experience of stop-and-start amiability. The show’s preference for five-second snippets of popular songs over an instrumental score, which could amp up the latent emotion of the scripts, doesn’t help matters.

While Mavis struggles to have it all, Survival of the Thickest spends its eight-episode first season doing the same right alongside her. The dichotomy between her fascinating work life and uninspired dating life might be glaring, but it does mean that half of the series is consistently compelling. Mavis’ styling efforts are genuinely a blast to watch. It’s there where Buteau does her best work, alongside some high-profile guest stars—like Garcelle Beauvais playing a haughty former supermodel, who ends up raising the show’s thematic stakes more than any of Mavis’ will-they-won’t-they relationship with Jacques.

The show doesn’t entirely rely on its bevy of exciting cameos, though—even though it could get away with doing just that. Mavis’ two best friends, Marley (Tasha Smith) and Khalil (Tone Bell), both round out Survival of the Thickest with just enough extra plotlines to keep things moving. Smith in particular is a perfect addition to the cast, herself an underrated character actress who has been stealing scenes in everything from Why Did I Get Married? to Empire without ever getting her proper due. Smith and Buteau play off each other with such a gleeful understanding that I found myself wondering if it were too late to retool the show and make Smith a co-lead.

Some revision would’ve been necessary, anyway, given that a good amount of the plotlines within the first season feel like holdovers from a 2017 sitcom that never got out of production hell. It’s almost as though the show’s title should have a hashtag in front of it, like Mavis is meant to be a stand-in for everyday girlboss characters, vision-boarding their way through New York City life on nothing more than a Red Bull and a dream. Survival of the Thickest forces Buteau into this boss-babe archetype, when the lived experiences that she wrote about in her book were anything but commonplace.

There are interesting conversations, and real resonance, flitting about somewhere underneath all of the tulle that Survival of the Thickest is buried in. A terribly banal, “Do you have a permit for that?”-type Karen sequence in the fifth episode elicits eye rolls, until it ends up as the basis for an affecting discussion of how parents respond to their children being the subjects of racism. The series is constantly facing this struggle to balance comedy and sincerity, making it too tonally inconsistent to even hook audiences all the way to its predictable season finale.

Survival of the Thickest has all of the bones of something truly great, especially with Buteau at the helm. And much of its first season is spent hinting at all of those possibilities waiting just around the corner, if Netflix were to give Mavis a second outing. Maybe that’s Buteau’s plan: play it just safe enough with a garden-variety sitcom to capture an audience, before finally raising the stakes and going all-out. But even if that doesn’t happen, Buteau’s already proven that she knows just how to land on her feet.

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