Following the premiere of “The L Word: Generation Q,” queer audiences who lined up outside viewing parties for the nostalgia-TV event of the year would be wise to leave the TV on for another half-hour. If they do, they will be delightfully surprised by “Work in Progress,” the most radical queer show to ever make its way to television.
Showtime’s new half-hour comedy stars co-writer Abby McEnany, a Chicago improv mainstay who created the show with director Tim Mason (Lilly Wachowski is also an EP and writer). The semi-autobiographical series follows Abby — a suicidal, funny, heavyset butch with OCD — as she embarks on a relationship with a much younger trans man. In the four half-hour episodes provided to critics, “Work in Progress” sensitively mines comedy from body shame, mental illness, trans literacy, consent, and gender policing — all through Abby’s hilariously neurotic point of view.
Playing a fictionalized version of herself, McEnany is able to navigate such otherwise heavy topics with lightness and humor because she is driving the narrative, both behind the scenes and on camera. She can be self-deprecating, exploring the various shades of self-loathing that come with having a body that doesn’t fit into society’s impossible standards, because she surrounds her character with loving friends and a hot young love interest. Behind the anxiety, depression, and panic attacks, the audience can rest easy knowing there is a writer who actually loves herself — at least enough to make a hilarious TV show about her life. Abby the character may not see herself as desirable, but her show does.
“Work in Progress” opens with Abby telling her therapist of her plan to end it all, which involves throwing away an almond for every day of her life. The almonds provide a catchy structure to the episodes, their ritualistic plunk into the trash creating a pithy reminder of the stakes whenever things get too silly. And silly they get right away; after explaining her elaborate suicide plan, Abby realizes her therapist has died in session.
At lunch with her straight sister, Abby meets a cute waiter named Chris (“The Politician” star Theo Germaine), a trans man whom she initially mistakes for a baby dyke. The ensuing romance is unlike anything seen on TV before, and it unfurls with such a cute neuroticism it’s impossible not to root for these two. By putting an older butch dyke and a young trans man together, the show can explore more than one side to the experience of gender non-conforming people, an experience as varied and textured as humanity itself.
In the second episode, Abby schools her brother-in-law that, “It is not the job of the queer community to educate the cis straight community on something they could easily learn from a public library.” When she then allows his question, he has the right response: “Yeah, I’m good.” But it doesn’t feel like an after school special; Abby delivers this very important trans etiquette lesson in a flippant squawking tenor while sipping a Capri Sun that she needed help opening.
One of the show’s most brilliant turns comes from an interaction with Julia Sweeney, the former “Saturday Night Live” cast member most famous for the gender-confusing character Pat. As Abby explains to Sweeney, who plays herself as well, Pat’s jokes stemmed from the fact that no one could tell if Pat was a man or a woman. With Chris’s help, Abby confronts Sweeney over the character she says “ruined her life,” and Sweeney invites them over for dinner with her husband, played by a delightfully weird surprise guest star.
Surprisingly, one club scene in “Work in Progress” contains more diversity of bodies, gender expressions, and races than the entirety of “The L Word: Generation Q.” In yet another scene, Chris’s crew of polyamorous Chicago queers feel authentic and real, but they aren’t presented with any glaring arrow announcing them as such. The show doesn’t have to overly perform its queerness; its baked into its very existence. Every queer person knows someone like McEnany, (though maybe not as funny), but we almost never see people like her on TV. The title could just as well refer to Hollywood’s slow-but-steady embrace of queer characters that look and behave like actual queer people. It is a work in progress, and it just took it a giant leap forward.
“Work in Progress” premiered on Showtime on December 8.