In the first episode of Showtime’s Work in Progress, Abby (played by Abby McEnany) tells her therapist “if things don’t get better” within 180 days, she’s going to end her life. “I’m surrounded by people who are like, full selves,” she monologues, “and I’m like, this building that has been delayed,” an eyesore that’s hard on the other buildings and people that surround it.
When there is no response, Abby looks closer and realizes that her therapist has dropped dead in the middle of the session. It’s a darkly comedic way to start a series and it absolutely works here, setting the show’s tone and setting it apart from the rest of television.
At a time when every series is struggling to stand out and make a mark, Work In Progress (Episode 6 of eight airs Sunday at 11/10c) does so quietly, beautifully, effortlessly. Abby is at a pivotal moment in her life, counting down — using almonds, a passive-aggressive gift from a coworker remarking on her weight — the days before she ends it all. She suffers from depression, anxiety, and OCD. She’s queer, gender noncomforming, single, and spends her time compulsively filling up endless notebooks with every detail of her life. Work In Progress takes this seriously but it’s also laugh-out-loud funny at the same time. It helps that it’s a deeply personal story: it’s co-created by McEnany and Tim Mason (who directs every episode), while McEnany, Mason, and EP Lilly Wachowski (a marked departure from her popular work, e.g. The Matrix) are the only writers. Confronting the personal means specificity and relatability; it means being able to see the humor in your own darkness.
The series kicks off with Abby meeting Chris (Theo Germaine, The Politician), who she assumes is a hot, baby dyke. When Chris asks her out, Abby responds with “I haven’t been out for a drink with an attractive woman in a really long time,” prompting Chris to clarify that he’s actually a trans man. “Well, I haven’t been out with an attractive trans man in ever,” Abby replies without missing a beat. This kickstarts a relationship that I haven’t seen on television before — and not just because it’s a 45-year-old self-identified “fat, queer dyke” dating a 22-year-old trans man.
Their relationship is the most compelling aspect of Work In Progress, and one that’s built on the concept of radical honesty. Abby is open about the aspects of trans culture that she doesn’t yet know, and Chris is happy to help fill in the blanks. Chris openly talks about how he can’t afford top surgery; he says he’s an open book about his entire past except for his deadname. They literally countdown the hours until they have sex for the first time, texting each other in a Lyft about the type of sex they’re into. They’re open about STDs, prompting another Lyft driver to reveal his own in a surprisingly affecting moment.
What stands out the most while watching Work In Progress is the specificity involved. This is especially true when it comes to someone who looks like Abby — and it’s surely relatable to many gender noncomforming people. In the pilot, she spots Julia Sweeney (gamely playing a fictionalized version of herself) at a restaurant and rails against Sweeney’s offensive, recurring Saturday Night Live character, explaining how the sketch ruined her life and promoted people to refer to Abby as “Pat” for years to come.
The episode that quickly won me over, “161, 153, 137, 122, 106, 104, 102 (We’re Still Counting Almonds),” revolves heavily around the problem of feeling unsafe in public bathrooms. It even accurately depicts that look, the one that cis women glare because they think you’re in the wrong bathroom, and Abby’s go-to high-pitched voice she uses to ensure those women that she also belongs in there.
The specificity is apparent throughout the episodes: when it comes to bridging the gap between different generations of queer people, the complexity of friendships, the intersection of multiple identities, the navigation of mental health, and the ways in which we carry our past relationships into our current ones. (Work In Progress utilizes flashbacks to Abby and her ex, contrasting them with her time with Chris.) It’s also at play when it comes to depicting the queer spectrum — and especially when viewed in tandem with The L Word: Generation Q, its Sunday-night counterpart. The L Word is aiming to tell the story of a generation for a generation, which features broad strokes and, often, eagerly churns out plot points over character developments.
Admittedly, The L Word has a better sense of racial diversity but Work In Progress has a better way of casually deploying queer characters and depicting the wide range of the queer spectrum. This is also true when it comes to trans representation. The L Word hasn’t quite figured out its intentions while Work In Progress’ Chris is characterized more than just the sum of his transness but it’s also clearly something that defines him, rather than going ignored. When watching The L Word, there’s often a nagging sense that the series is merely ticking off diversity boxes without showcasing full representation; when watching Work In Progress, it feels like the people you see and conversations you’d hear at the local dyke bar.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: By digging into the nuances of queer culture, Work in Progress has become one of television’s must-watch series.