[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for “Work in Progress” Season 2.]
The second season of Showtime’s “Work in Progress,” overseen Abby McEnany and collaborator Lilly Wachowski, not only grows on what the show planted in its first season, but also deepens the roots of what came before. The series, which revolutionized the types of queer stories that TV can tell, focuses on the character of Abby (played by McEnany), a fat, queer dyke (her words!), her circle of friends, her tumultuous love life, her ongoing psychological struggles, and in Season 2, a global pandemic.
Last season saw Abby in the throes of a new relationship with Chris (Theo Germaine), a young trans man several years her junior. Their love story ends disastrously, with Abby committing an unforgivable sin that Chris — and Abby herself — cannot forgive.
But before audiences could even have the opportunity to see how Abby would process this development in Season 2, McEnany and Wachowski would have to, you know, make Season 2 — a prospect that turned out to be much more difficult than originally planned.
“We had four different start dates: three start dates in 2020 and then we started in 2021,” McEnany said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “We already had episodes eight, nine, and 10 planned out. By the time Lily and I realized [the pandemic] wasn’t going to be a one- or two-week thing, we had to go back and figure out how to incorporate these changes.”
For example, the focus of Episode 6 became more about the loss of queer community and less about the co-opting of Pride by corporations. COVID-19 is present in the series, not as a storyline, but as a background fact of life — face masks and open windows and social distancing and isolation, all present, but not the point. And the murder of George Floyd casts its long shadow late in the season.
In the eighth episode, specifically, Abby is asked to pen a “Black Lives Matter support statement” for her company, which spurs her into a long journey examining the country’s shameful history of racism, as well as her own complicity in that space.
Chuck Hodes / Showtime
“That whole episode is really about how do we show up as human beings to people and make sure that, especially with Abby, the white lead of a show, how does this white person show up,” McEnany said, “While also establishing, ‘Look, you don’t need to take care of me, I need to figure this shit out.’ We were very, very intentional that Abby doesn’t speak much in any of those scenes, because it’s not her story. She’s learning [and] she’s observing.”
Throughout Season 2, Abby is focused on being present in the present, while at the same time being inextricably drawn into the past, whether her inability to move on from her psychological violence against Chris, or a surprising new development regarding her father, or her reluctant search for a new therapist.
“We wanted to show, you know, how did how did Abby get here,” McEnany said. “A lot of the show is about history, right? About being your own historian and how memory changes.”
Part of that meant going down Abby’s therapy rabbit hole, reflecting on therapists she’d previously had who impacted her life in addition to testing the waters on a number of new therapists (before quickly eliminating them), like psychological speed dating. The series approaches mental health care with as much nuance as any show in TV history and their depiction of the delicate dance between patient and provider is spot on. If people think finding a soul mate is hard, they’ve clearly never tried to find a therapist they vibe with.
“Abby is doing OK, but really performatively, I think. She’s horribly angry and feels guilty. She committed a crime against Chris last season by yelling out his dead name,” McEnany said. “She can’t forgive herself and she doesn’t want to be forgiven, but she can give herself [that] she doesn’t want to be forgiven. She doesn’t think she deserves it. She needs to really show up and not be in crisis anymore and she wants to show up for other folks, but it’s all very performative. Going into therapy and being able to talk about this thing that she did, which she’s so ashamed of, she finds all these reasons to think all these therapists, some great and some ridiculous, won’t be a match.”
Chuck Hodes / Showtime
“I think it is terrifying for people in between therapists. It’s really easy to say, ‘Oh, you should see a therapist’ — well, finding one can be a fucking hard thing [to do],” she said. “We don’t want to be glib about it. We want to say it is definitely worth it once you find it, but it might not be the first, second, or third person you meet. And it’s really hard to go in and open yourself up for vulnerability and trust. Our approach was to try to reflect that and then, you know, show the humor in it.”
In fact, the whole of Season 2 is haunted by ghosts of therapists past. She renews her search for a therapist to replace Dr. Franklin (Nancy McCabe Kelly) — who dropped dead mid-session in the first episode of the series — but it’s largely lip service.
Dr. Franklin makes her own appearance in the season via flashback, as do many of the therapists that Abby has spoken to throughout her life. Moving often as a child, she’d amassed a little black book full of psychological professionals, many of whom had served as vital touchstones in her continued existence, learning to cope with her OCD and other struggles with her mental health.
In the penultimate episode of the second season, we see Dr. Franklin lay some heavy truths on Abby. After sharing that she’d been in therapy for something like 35 years, Dr. Franklin tells her patient, “That’s great!” Abby is skeptical, admitting that when she thinks about having been in therapy for so long, that she’s convinced that what’s going on in her head will never end.
“Abby, you’re not going to like it when I tell you this: No, it’s never going to end,” Dr. Franklin replies, uttering one of the most painful admissions that someone struggling with a lifetime of mental illness can hear. “But the reason I ask that question is to put it in perspective for you, for you to take a moment to look back on all that work, all you’ve overcome to get to this moment right now, because all that hard work doesn’t go away. It’ll never go away.”
In a way, that might be the foundational message of “Work in Progress:” The hard work you’ve done to improve, to learn and grow and do the difficult work of changing, never really goes away.
“Work in Progress” Seasons 1 and 2 are available to watch on Showtime.