The Big, Fat World Of Susannah Bohlke's Puffy

“When you’re fat, you learn to enjoy the sweet things in private,” Nettie (Ashley Nicole Black) remarks in the opening moments of Puffy. The 13-minute pilot, produced by Refinery29 in collaboration with TBS, is Nettie’s coming out story. She “comes out” as fat. Nettie, a size 24, is surrounded by shame. She works at a publication (a ruthless New Yorker dupe) where her video pitches get claimed by the nearest thin woman. Her show Park Bark is successful, but Nettie isn’t the one hosting it. Instead, a blonde British woman named Jenny hosts. Early in the episode, Jenny turns to Nettie and asks, “Have you lost weight?” It’s a common question, and one that’s often perceived as harmless. But it’s not, and, for Nettie, it’s one of the final straws.
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“One [of my goals] was really to expose some of the fatphobia that I think people take for granted,” creator Susannah Bohlke tells Refinery29 about the series. Bohlke, a Brooklyn-based poet and comedian, participated in Refinery29’s comedy lab last year, during which Puffy was selected to be produced. Mentored by Black, who writes for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Bohlke developed Puffy into the 13-minute episode that’s now viewable on TBS.com. She wanted to refute “the common idea that saying ‘have you lost weight?’ to someone is a compliment.” Really, it’s “equating being thin to doing well,” a false and damaging equivalency.
“I wanted to expose some of those microaggressions,” Bohlke says. “At the time that this was first pitched, and even still, there hasn’t been a lot of representation of fat in a positive way. It's the butt of a joke. It's the ugly cousin, or the woman who doesn't get dated. The more and more we put people of all body types into normal roles where they have normal feelings and have anxiety and desire and aspiration — that kind solid representation is what's been missing.”
In Puffy, Nettie has friends. Nettie has fun. She gets set up on dates. She’s really good at her job. She has an MFA. Mostly, she lives her life. Occasionally, the world foists the term “fat woman” her way.
“Everyone has struggle in their lives, and we should definitely represent those things, but everyone also has friends, and fun, and moments of fun, and moments when they're just sitting on the couch eating Cheetos," Black, who took the role of Nettie after working on the screenplay with Bohlke, tells Refinery29. "It doesn't need to be about the struggle every episode.”
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Black loves the moment in the pilot when Nettie glances across the room at a party at her friends Gordon (Daniel K. Isaac) and Dena (Sunita Mani). Gordon and Dena give Nettie the all-knowing look of a friend who’s also suffering at a party.
“I was like, ‘I know who these people are, these people who get together in the corner to talk shit about everybody else at the party,’” Black says, laughing. “They're having the most fun there.”
Black worked with Bohlke to develop Nettie, who could have been difficult to write. Bohlke says that Black encouraged her to write a woman who was winning — in the era of deeply, deeply flawed protagonists, it was important to Black to have a main character who was, for the most part, whole.
"One thing she said is just, 'I want to see this character win,'" Bohlke recalls. "'I want her to be good at her job. To help a stranger. To save a rescue pigeon.'..Women are so often shown in these lights where they're not always achieving."
A lot of TV shows give us flawed characters in seemingly perfect worlds. (See: the new and beloved show Succession.) It's rarer — and often more rewarding — to see a character who is largely good grapple with an imperfect world. (See: The Good Place or Parks and Recreation.)
For Black, Nettie stood out because she was genuinely relatable, not TV-speak relatable. "I think what happens, especially with comedy, is like, there become these shorthands for things," Black explains. "If you saw something in a comedy before, the next time there's that kind of character, they'll do that behavior [again]. Like the nerd who pushes up their glasses, or wears their pants really high."
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Bohlke, alongside producer Julie Miller, filmed Puffy in March with director Hye Yun Park (of the web series Hey Yun) at the helm. Bohlke selected Park for the job, and Park herself assembled the cast and crew. (You may recognize Mani, who plays Nettie’s best friend, from the Netflix series GLOW.)
"I feel like women in particular kind of wait for an invitation to do the thing they want to do. Like, if you want to be a writer, women are like, 'Hopefully I'll get a writing job, and then I'll start writing!'" Black says. "But in order to get it, you have to be already doing the thing. Just get together with your girlfriends, and everybody write a script, and read each other's scripts. You don't have to wait for anyone to give you permission to do that."
Watch the pilot for Puffy at TBS.com.
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