Early in the new Showtime dramedy Work in Progress, Abby (Abby McEnany) tells her therapist, “I’m 45, I’m fat. I’m this queer dyke who hasn’t done shit in her life, and that is my identity?”
This withering self-assessment comes only moments after Abby has announced plans to kill herself in 180 days if things don’t improve. She is depressed about how small and dull her life seems in comparison to all the fun and excitement the rest of the world — straight and, especially, gay — seems to be having around her. Her vow to commit suicide seems more empty rhetoric than genuine threat of self-harm. That said, if Abby were to somehow know that the TV show about her would be debuting immediately after a glamorous revival of The L Word, she might be inclined to move up her timetable.
But the fact that the small-scale Work in Progress can be paired with the soapy L Word: Generation Q says a lot about the current state of queer TV. There still aren’t nearly as many LGBTQ characters on TV as there could be, but we’re long past the one-size-fits-all era where a show like The L Word had to be all things to all lesbians(*).
(*) Abby doesn’t even like the word, telling a friend, “I’m a queer dyke! Lesbians are old women.”
Created by McEnany and Tim Mason, Work in Progress fits neatly into the recent half-hour memoir mold of Better Things, One Mississippi, and Maron. Unlike the real McEnany, who’s a veteran of the Chicago improv scene (along with Mason), the fictional Abby has a boring office job. But it’s clear that her struggles with her own identity and her place within both the gay and straight world have very real and often painful origins.
The creative team — which includes The Matrix‘s Lilly Wachowski, making a big departure from her usual sci-fi/action specialty — manages to keep things relatively light, even as the show opens with Abby’s suicide talk. Abby has always felt self-conscious about her androgynous presentation, for instance. That manifests here as a chance encounter with actress Julia Sweeney, whose popular Nineties SNL character Pat — today viewed as a cheap effort to score laughs at the expense of gender-nonconforming people — bore an unfortunate resemblance to Abby at the time. Sweeney, who has been reflective about Pat’s unintended impact, gamely takes her medicine (which goes down all the smoother once another fictionalized celeb shows up as her husband), and her scenes deftly toe the line of being funny while also acknowledging the hurt that Pat still causes Abby.
The season also manages to feel hopeful because much of it deals with an unexpected new relationship. Abby’s sister Ali (Karin Anglin) sets her up with Chris (Theo Germaine from Netflix’s The Politician), an attractive young coffee-shop server whom both siblings take at first for a lesbian. Instead, Chris turns out to be a trans man, which forces Abby to ask even more questions about herself — starting with why this hot twentysomething is at all interested in her. (When they go to a burlesque club catering to Chris’ age group, Abby whines, “I look like Mitt Romney Jr!” To which Chris replies, “‘Junior?'”)
Chris is perhaps a bit too perfect and understanding — he seems to exist only to help our troubled older hero grow as a person — though Germaine and McEnany have an easy chemistry with each other. Work in Progress has fun with how new this kind of relationship is for Abby, particularly in a sequence where the two of them are texting about acceptable sex positions and terminology while stuck in a rideshare with an obliviously chatty woman.
The show also smartly recognizes that even an exciting romance isn’t going to fix Abby’s deeper problems. Between her severe OCD and the way she’s often mistaken for a man, public restrooms tend to be a nightmare for Abby. So when she and Chris go to a Dolly Parton concert together, it leads to a hilariously squirmy sequence in which Abby slowly but surely offends every person in the ladies room (including a couple of men who blindly followed her inside), as much through her own cultural blind spots as theirs.
In an earlier episode, Ali’s husband asks Abby to explain “this new person you’re dating.” Abby rolls her eyes and goes off on a long and clearly well-practiced monologue about how “it’s not the job of the queer community to teach the straight cis community” things they could easily Google or read about. (One of the show’s running gags involves Abby’s love of telling people, “Read a book!” — an insult that never hits as hard as she assumes it will.) Work in Progress is similarly not here to educate straight viewers about the fluidity of gender and sexuality. It’s a character study, and an endearing one at that. But it’s also smart about offering insight into different queer experiences without ever being didactic. It’s left to the audience, for instance, to draw a line from Abby’s exasperation at being taken for a man to how gently Chris responds when Abby assumes he’s a woman.
Abby counts down the 180 days she claims to have left on earth via a bag of almonds that a passive-aggressive coworker gave her to encourage weight loss. Each time she throws an almond in the trash, she’s one day closer to deciding whether she wants to stick around for the long haul. By the time the four Work in Progress screeners (out of eight episodes) ran out, I wasn’t hugely worried about what choice Abby would make, but I did very much want to spend more time with her and that dwindling nut collection.
Work in Progress debuts December 8th on Showtime.