Like recent half-hour dramedies Better Things, Take My Wife, and One Mississippi, Showtime’s Work In Progress is a loosely autobiographical work. Series creator and improv vet Abby McEnany plays a fictionalized version of herself—instead of getting laughs at the iO Theater, she’s some kind of office drone. But, no matter her occupation, she still self-identifies as a “queer, fat dyke,” a statement that is just as refreshing for its honesty as for the fact that no one rushes to invalidate her feelings or otherwise gloss over what Abby says. Certainly, no one can do that in the premiere, “180 Almonds,” because just moments after Abby utters those words, she finds her therapist has died mid-session.
The shot of the therapist’s face—frozen in an empathetic expression—is one of several moments of shock and humor that offset the melancholy that runs through Work In Progress’ premiere. There is a ticking clock in the form of a counter covered in almonds (the 180 of the episode title) purchased in bulk by one of Abby’s passive-aggressive co-workers. For reasons that Abby enumerates to her dead therapist (though who knows just how many of those items the poor woman actually heard before biting it), she doesn’t want to keep living. She despairs of feeling “unfinished”—like one of the many, many condo buildings sprouting up all over Chicago, which is where the show is set—while everyone else around her is complete. Everyone else has their shit together, so, after 180 days (which is how long it will take her to throw away one almond per day), Abby will decide whether or not to end her life.
Abby’s resolution and the response it garners get things off to a suitably awkward start for what McEnany once called a “coming-of-age story for a 45-year-old dyke.” Her performance is key to preventing the opening from coming across as mere suicidal ideation or a bit—she’s clearly miserable, but she’s also a little petty and self-centered. She’s so intent on unloading (which, to be fair, is why a lot of us go to therapy) that it takes her longer than it probably should to realize that her therapist is dead. But later, over brunch, she gets mad at her sister Ali (Karin Anglin) for sometimes not listening.
McEnany is charming and self-effacing in the role, but she’s not being positioned as some saintly queer person. Her flaws are on display along with her desires, which include crushing on Chris (Theo Germaine), a server at the restaurant where Abby tries to pour her heart out to her sister. It’s just as significant a development as McEnany getting to play herself in a show on a premium cable network—not only does it remind us that queer folks are everywhere, but sometimes they’re fat, middle-aged, depressed, and/or self-involved. Even for queer TV shows, McEnany and Abby are outside the norm; they’re gender nonconforming dykes (hey, that’s how McEnany self-identifies in real life and on the show) instead of the femmes who’ve populated shows like The L Word, Queer As Folk, and Lip Service.
It’s rather appropriate that The L Word’s sequel series, Generation Q, is the lead-in for Work In Progress on Sunday nights. The L Word help paved the way for a show like McEnany’s, but like Generation Q, Work In Progress is also offering more nuanced LGBTQ+ representation than their predecessor did. “180 Almonds” doesn’t mention Shane or Jenny or any of the other women of The L Word, but it does raise the androgynous specter of Pat, the Julia Sweeney/Saturday Night Live creation that ultimately made gender nonconforming people like Abby the butt of many cruel jokes. Don’t take my word for it, take McEnany’s—she co-wrote the episode that sees her stand-in talk about the harmful effects of that Saturday Night Live character with the very person who originated the role.
There’s no grandstanding or umbrage from either party; despite her initial freakout (read: fainting spell), Abby has friendly but frank conversation with Julia Sweeney as Julia Sweeney. “I didn’t do it to be mean,” this Julia tells her, echoing the sentiments that the real Sweeney expressed in a recent New York Times interview with Dave Itzkoff. The episode then quickly moves past this exchange, not because of any discomfort, but because McEnany, who was also interviewed by Itzkoff, has accepted that she and Sweeney don’t see eye to eye on the character. Also, when she stumbles upon Julia, Abby is actually on an increasingly hot date.
Happily enough, Work In Progress doesn’t sand off Abby’s edges to make her more palatable, nor does it leave her sitting on the sidelines while her conventionally hot friends get it on. The back half of the premiere focuses on her date with Chris, a 22-year-old trans man who’s quite gracious about being briefly misgendered by Abby. The 45-year-old Abby balks for a second at the age difference, but it’s not long before Chris is in her apartment, kissing her and eating one of her almonds. These scenes late in the episode are both sexually charged and a little sad. “You just ate a day of my life,” Abby tells Chris in a moment that reminds me of the closing of Fight Club: “You met me at a very strange time in my life.”
Germaine, who’s also played a devious yet dedicated political aide on The Politician, shares an instant chemistry with McEnany, but Chris doesn’t yet have a full grasp of what he’s getting into here. Maybe the almonds will remain on the counter, knocked into the trash can one at a time, or maybe Abby will be so revitalized by the prospect of new love that she forgets all about her doomsday clock. However things end for Abby and Chris, Work In Progress is off to a smart and poignant start.
- Chris eating one of the almonds recalls Persephone eating pomegranate seeds in the underworld, and being doomed to dwell there for half the year . Does this mean he’ll be in Abby’s life for one day, one year, or...?
- Abby blustering that she’d mention the almonds in a note after her death got the second biggest laugh out of me.
- I think I’ve been to Daisies Chicago, but it’s genuinely hard to tell because so many New American cuisine places have the exact same decor.
- Speaking of Chicago businesses, how long before we end up at Big Chicks?
- We’ll be dropping in throughout the season, so that 1) we can keep following along with Abby’s almond count and 2) determine just how well this pairs with The L Word: Generation Q, which also debuts tonight. Check out Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya’s review of that premiere.