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“Survival of the Thickest” masters the dynamic of platonic relationships

I recently viewed Michelle Buteau’s newdramedy “Survival of the Thickest,” in preparation for a “Salon Talks” and was surprised by a number a themes that spoke directly to reality. 

Buteau, a popular comedian is most known for a collection of TV roles including “Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens,” “Rick and Morty,” “2 Dope Queens” and “Russian Doll.” Her hilarious comedy special “Welcome to Buteaupia” is also on Netflix, the same network that houses “Survival of the Thickest.” 

The eight-episode series written, produced and staring Buteau follows her character Mavis – an up-and-coming stylist who seems to have it all – the growing career with limitless potential, the boyfriend Jacque (Taylor Sele), a guy that is as handsome as he is wealthy, and a strong community of friends including Marley (Tasha Smith) and Khalil (Tone Bell), who are excited about celebrating all of her wins. And then her life gets completely blown up when she catches Jacque sleeping with a younger, thinner version of herself. Keep the show’s title in mind, as Mavis references her weight as one of the reasons why Jacque stepped outside of their union. 

The isn’t a “woe is me tale” about weight, though; it’s actually empowering. Mavis’ size becomes an extra bonus when she lands former supermodel Natasha (Garcelle Beauvais) as a client. Natasha, who is stuck in the glory days of when she wore a size 0, is hungry to do anything to maintain the image of her past and garner the attention that came with it. The model is more than willing to wear uncomfortable corsets before squeezing into dresses that could lead to suffocation.

These shows all have one thing in common: a serious lack of authentic relationships between Black men and Black women. 

And it’s Mavis who tells Natasha about the pressures that can come with being heavy, while forcing her to embrace her body and all of the new beauty added by the extra pounds in an inspiring way. This is one of the relationships that will get viewers to fall in love with Mavis as we will see her patience, hustle, compassion and the willingness to make sure everyone around her feels beautiful as well.

I thought this would be the tone of the show . . . until a jogging scene with Marley and Khalil.

There isn’t much to be said of a jogging scene, accept that Mavis was catcalled and enjoyed it. I don’t think the show has a goal of getting people excited about being catcalled as we know how frustrating, annoying and dangerous that could be. I believe that Buteau was trying to show viewers that that experience isn’t as black and white as we think it is. It feels like she is saying that every caller isn’t an a**hole, and every callee isn’t completely against it. 

Still, Mavis is extremely progressive, independent, in control of her own life, experiences and sexuality. So if she wants to take a compliment from some guy on the street, then that’s her business. Societal rules can’t dictate the ways in which she is supposed to respond. As a man, I did not take this as an invitation to catcall, which I don’t do anyway — but did see it as a way for people who aren’t women, to understand that there are no rules to the ways in which women respond, as every woman gets to decide what she will and will not accept. 

What stuck out to me the most, was the way in which Mavis interacted with Khalil. I watch a lot of television ­­– dramas, comedies, murder mysteries and combinations of them all, and these shows all have one thing in common: a serious lack of authentic relationships between Black men and Black women. 

For too long, television has been married to the idea of Black cast members having to hook up, but why? Why can’t Black men and women coexist without messy entanglements? Two Black men have been done well like in “Snowfall,” and Black women friend groups in shows like “Insecure,” “Run the World” and “Harlem” work all of the time, but Black men and women always have to end up crossing the line. In “Survival of the Thickest,” Mavis and Khalil lean on each other like real friends should, by holding each other accountable, celebrating  growth and calling each other out on their bulls**t. 

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When Khalil isn’t being honest with himself about a woman he loves, Mavis brings him to his senses. When Mavis considers reuniting with her ex Jacque after he cheated, because it was comfortable and people make mistakes, Khalil steps in to make sure she doesn’t ruin her life.

Will they let each other down at times? Of course, but’s that’s how real friendships work, and “Survival of the Thickest” nails it. 

“Survival of the Thickest” is streaming on Netflix.

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