Abby McEnany knows there are not a lot of people who look like her on TV. She knew it 30 years ago, when the character of Pat, a chubby nerd whose inscrutable gender was the scene’s only punchline, appeared on “Saturday Night Live.” Here, finally, was someone who did look like Abby on TV. There was just one problem: Pat’s sole reason for making it to screen was so that people could laugh at their appearance.
Nearly three decades after Pat’s “SNL” debut — thanks to McEnany and her co-creator Tim Mason — another androgynous, heavyset, nerdy, butch lesbian has miraculously made her way to television. She’s glorious, she’s hilarious, and she’s definitely having the last laugh.
The show is called “Work In Progress,” and it wraps a superlative first season this Sunday. In just eight 30-minute episodes, “Work in Progress” has radically reshaped what queer stories can look like on TV, blowing the competition out of the water with its sharp black comedy, lovable trans characters, and refreshingly unfiltered take on mental illness, body image, and gender non-conformity.
The series follows self-identified fat, queer dyke Abby (McEnany), as her plans to commit suicide are complicated by an unexpected romance with adorable trans man Chris (Theo Germaine), who’s 20 years her junior. The developing relationship challenges her to open up about her obsessive compulsive habits, suicidal ideation, self-loathing, and sexual hang-ups. If that doesn’t necessarily sound like the stuff of side-clutching comedy, that’s exactly what makes it so damn brilliant.
“The thing about our show is it’s not all palatable queers,” McEnany told IndieWire during a recent interview. “For middle America or whatever America, I’m not a palatable queer. Right? I’m this fat, loud, gray-haired, masculine, queer dyke who’s a mess. But the goal of this show is, hopefully — for folks out there that feel isolated — to show that there’s a life out there without shame, and just stick in there.”
The show works because it is coming directly from McEnany’s perspective, with Mason’s help. The writing duo (Mason directs every episode as well) have been doing improv in Chicago for over 20 years, and they understand how to seamlessly weave comedy into every scene.
“I think honestly I wouldn’t have been ready for this 10 years ago or five years ago. I’ve just been steadily kind of working, and performing, writing, improvising, and acting,” said McEnany. “I think I’m just one of those people that keeps on trying and does stuff at her own pace.”
In addition to Abby’s character, who is gender non-conforming but maybe didn’t identify that way when she was younger, “Work in Progress” has introduced TV’s sweetest trans-male character in Chris. Chris is charming, patient with Abby’s neuroses, and smokin’ hot. Germaine, whom audiences with recognize from Ryan Murphy’s “The Politician,” was thrilled to be a part of such a refreshing series.
“I was really excited because I was like, ‘Yay! Gender identity!’ But also it was dealing with mental health in a way that was really honest and not making anybody a monster and not playing into any tropes,” Germaine told IndieWire. “There’s not really anything I’ve seen yet that has addressed a lot of [those] things. It is a challenge to even process media like this sometimes because you’re so excited to gobble it up because it exists.”
While certain LGBTQ shows, such as Netflix’s recent “Tales of the City” remake or Showtime’s own “The L Word: Generation Q” (which airs right before “Work in Progress”), seem overly preoccupied with bridging the queer generation gap, “Work in Progress” does it seamlessly and with far more fruitful results.
“When I was coming out, it was a very white and cis coming out experience,” McEnany said. “And now I think, especially if you live in a city, you come out, you have this amazing array of every different kind of person, and it’s just so beautiful. It was much more segregated and homogenous back in the ’90s when I was coming out.”
McEnany was able to write the Abby/Chris relationship so authentically and tenderly because it was based on her lived experience. She really did date a much younger trans man, and it really was no big deal.
“It was just not an issue. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my gosh, what does this mean? Am I still attracted … You know what I mean?,” she said. That informed her presentation of the romance in the show. “We just wanted to show it matter-of-fact, and not like, ‘Oh my,’ Very Special Episode stuff.”
But showing gender variant people on TV isn’t what McEnany is most proud of. For her, showing bigger folks as lead characters is actually the most exciting part of getting a TV show on a major network like Showtime.
“To have a fat, older character that has a sexy, young, love interest, that to me is … the fat part is revolutionary to me, too. The way that fat people are vilified. And I’ve got to say, my own internal shame about it is rampant,” she added. “Weight is a huge part of my story. It’s funny, I’m not ashamed of my gender expression, or my sexuality, or my mental illness, but I just struggle with this weight stuff, and I’m just hopefully working it out, you know? And I’m not proud. I’m ashamed of it. I’m ashamed of my shame, I guess. So, that is a big part of this show. It’s been a very healing thing for me.”
The “Work in Progress” finale airs Sunday, January 26 at 11 p.m. ET on Showtime.