It’s a great irony of the streaming age that many platforms built their audience on the backs of sitcoms with vast, bingeable catalogs — only to produce abbreviated, compressed sitcoms of their own. Classics like “Friends,” “The Office” and “Seinfeld” have served as a bridge between a previous era of television and the current one, offering lessons in what can make a show an enduring favorite. One of those lessons is the value of a 22-episode season, which allows room to establish an ensemble while preserving the efficiency of standalone installments. But streamers generally prefer to invest in a wider variety of shows; even when they do make traditional sitcoms that could, in another world, air on NBC, full seasons are compressed into just a handful of chapters.
“Survival of the Thickest” is the latest case study in how this approach does a disservice to an otherwise promising series. The comedian Michelle Buteau is best known as the host of reality competition “The Circle,” a role that showcased her sharp wit while largely depicting her as a disembodied voice. Like “The Circle,” “Survival of the Thickest” airs on Netflix, cultivating Buteau as an in-house talent in the vein of Ali Wong. The show also allows her to step in front of the camera, placing her at the story’s center instead of throwing zingers from the sidelines. But at just eight episodes, “Survival of the Thickest” is too crowded with subplots and themes to facilitate the most effective sort of comic star-making: time spent with charismatic people in amusing, low-stakes situations.
Co-created by Buteau and Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, who fictionalize the entertainer’s 2020 memoir of the same name, “Survival of the Thickest” casts Buteau as Mavis Beaumont, a fashion stylist who dreams of dressing women with larger bodies so they can be their most confident selves. When Mavis’ long-term relationship with a well-connected photographer (Taylor Selé) implodes due to infidelity, the split forces her to go out on her own, renting a doorless bedroom in a shared Brooklyn apartment and seeking out new clients. She also leans on her two best friends: Khalil (Tone Bell), a recovering lothario attempting his first real relationship, and Marley (Tasha Smith), a corporate type who’s confident at work but more tentative in exploring her sexuality.
Buteau, Bell and Smith have great platonic chemistry, giving “Survival of the Thickest” the building blocks of a hangout sitcom set in a particular slice of upwardly mobile Black New York. (“Living Single” is among the nostalgia staples now stocking the shelves of a streaming library, boding well for an updated riff on a similar setup.) But hanging out takes time, and “Survival of the Thickest” doesn’t have enough of it.
In just four hours of run-time, “Survival of the Thickest” attempts to tease out Mavis’ personal and professional self-discovery, a love triangle between her ex and a new Italian paramour (Marouane Zotti), her background as a child of Caribbean immigrants who grew up in the tri-state area, and her friends’ own arcs. Within this crowded landscape, there’s plenty to hold our attention. “Beverly Hills” Real Housewife Garcelle Beauvais plays Natasha, an aging supermodel who hires Mavis to help her stay in the spotlight; celebrities like drag performer Peppermint and fellow comedian Nicole Byer appear as themselves, bantering effectively with Buteau as her character spreads the gospel of style for all. I won’t spoil the particulars of Beauvais’ big moment, but it involves prop work with a sex toy — a sight gag that’s endearingly outrageous.
Yet “Survival of the Thickest” is also serialized, challenging itself to lay the groundwork for some major shifts. When Mavis decides she wants to start a family or chooses between her two romantic prospects, both late-season developments feel rushed and abrupt. Along the way, structural staples of the sitcom — like pairing off two supporting characters, sans lead, to develop their relationship and deepen the show’s bench — get squeezed into a handful of scenes. Were “Survival of the Thickest” made at another moment in TV history, it could afford a slower burn, advancing the plot in fits and starts while giving us time to enjoy the cast’s company.
You can’t fault “Survival of the Thickest” for fitting what it can into the episode order it was given. You can lament how institutions like Netflix have pivoted away from early experiments like “The Ranch,” which mirrored the length of network comedies as well as their look and feel. On ABC, “Abbott Elementary” has spent two seasons proving we don’t need to choose between classic formats and contemporary themes. Mavis’ mission in life is to evangelize the idea that bigger can be better, a maxim that applies as much to TV as the world of fashion.
All eight episodes of “Survival of the Thickest” are now streaming on Netflix.
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