The goofy web series Shugs & Fats is a great many things: a fizzy buddy comedy; a proud platform for Muslim feminism; a glittery hijab fashion show; a Gotham Award winner; and a source of unexpected takes on pop culture touchstones like Girls, Game of Thrones, and 50 Shades of Grey.
Given the scarcity of Desi and Muslim-American representation in the larger culture, Shugs & Fats’s desire to be as many things as possible isn’t surprising -- there are so many gaps that need filling. Writers and stars Nadia P. Manzoor and Radhika Vaz don’t wear headscarves IRL, but they don them while playing their sheltered but curious alter egos in an effort to humanize hijabis, a vast group through whose perspective we rarely see the world.
It’s precisely Shugs (Manzoor) and Fats’s (Vaz) outsiders’ point of view — combined with the improv performers’ relaxed, familiar chemistry — that gives the web series its freshness and distinct sense of authenticity. In its third season, which wrapped up earlier this month, the Brooklynite besties tried weed brownies (“I can hear my face”), watched Christian Grey seduce Anastasia Steele (“She’s not a virgin! She went to college in America!”), and posed as prostitutes while cloaked head-to-toe in bejeweled fuchsia-and-teal abayas to get a free ride back home from Coney Island (they were not successful). Their antics aren’t quite like Abbi and Ilana’s, though; they’re still trying to suss out what freedom should look and feel like, instead of already reveling in it.
For Shugs and Fats — who seem to be immigrants from the U.K. and India, respectively — the U.S. is a wonderland with dark shadows lurking in the corners. In the first season’s best episode, “Postman Pat,” they’re delighted to be summoned for jury duty — their new country finally considers them two of their own. Will it be a murder case? wonders Fats. “Oh, yeah,” concludes Shugs immediately. “This is America.” The two then start to wonder if they’re being surveilled through their mailbox.
Wild-eyed and fidgety, Shugs is the searcher of the two, open to new ideas and prone to existential crises. An enthusiastic physical comedian, Manzoor charms with her willingness to go anywhere for a gag, whether it’s into a laundry machine or flapping her legs under her floor-length dress on a park bench to reverse-catcall a couple of louts in the great Season 2 premiere. Rubber-faced Vaz plays the older, more cynical and traditional Fats, who’s usually reliable for an uncomfortable one-liner, sometimes too dark for a laugh. Watching the cruel death of Shireen Baratheon on Game of Thrones, she cheerily approves: “Sensible man. The father, he has burned her.”
Between juice cleanses, arguments about which animal makes the best pet, and accidental flag burnings at their Fourth of July party, the pair attempt to figure out their place in America and in Islam, especially as women. Shugs and Fats care deeply about the state of Rihanna’s feminism, but it’s really the development of their own — and the two friends’ feminisms aren't quite identical — that makes up the series’s thematic core, whether they’re questioning the fundamentalist view of menstruation as inherently dirty or just Amal Clooney’s post-wedding name change. Their discussions add up to a culturally specific critique of sexism, as well as a model of liberation. But the two comedians have also challenged Western prejudice against Islam, in particular the supposed incompatibility between headscarves and gender equality, in an illuminating video called “How to Spot a Feminist!”
Shugs & Fats lacks the polish and ambition of web series peaks like High Maintenance; there are more clunkers than there are triumphs in their catalogue. The satirical bits work better than the broad gestures, and, for viewers with trouble understanding accents (like myself), some rewinding or rewatching might be necessary to understand Manzoor’s working-class London patois or Vaz’s South Asian lilts. But with each episode coming in at a snappy two to three minutes, Shugs and Fats’s unique rapport, somewhere between roomie and mommy, handily carries most of the sketches. Still single at fortysomething, Fats repeatedly persuades Shugs to get married, even though neither could bear to live apart from one another. In the third-season finale, when Shugs is threatened with deportation, Fats demonstrates what we’ve known all along: that she really does know what it is to be a true friend.