Critics' Conversation: The Brilliant Messiness of Showtime's 'Work in Progress'

Abby McEnany as Abby in WORK IN PROGRESS  - 3, 2, 1 - Publicity -H 2020
Adrian S. Burrows/SHOWTIME

[This story contains spoilers from the season one finale of Showtime's Work in Progress.]

On Sunday, Showtime's Work in Progress — Chicago-based comedian Abby McEnany's semi-autobiographical comedy — wrapped its marvelous debut season. Created by McEnany and Tim Mason and co-written by executive producer Lilly Wachowski, the series starts with an offbeat and decidedly dark premise: The fictional Abby resolves to kill herself if her life doesn't improve in six months (with each of the 180 days represented by an almond, a quiet "fuck you" to the nosy, micro-aggressive co-worker who suggested Abby eat more of the nuts to lose weight). But on the same day she sets that countdown for herself, she meets a love interest, Chris (Theo Germaine), who doesn't exactly weaken Abby's resolve, but certainly gives her more to live for.

Featuring a kind of protagonist we still see too rarely — queer, fat, middle-aged, mentally ill, unglamorous, uncharmingly neurotic, even gray-haired and four-eyed — Work in Progress arrived fully realized and brutally funny. Below, Hollywood Reporter critics Inkoo Kang and Robyn Bahr discuss what makes the Showtime series so excellent and distinct. There will be spoilers, but details of the finale only appear at the end of the story.

Inkoo Kang: It's only January, but I already feel like Work in Progress has a healthy shot at making my top 10 list for 2020. A lot of that, I think, is due to the show's unobtrusive but clever advancements in representation. I love how Abby, whose circle of friends are fellow 40-something lesbians, is destabilized by her first relationship with a trans man. I love that she works as a temp instead of as a comedian, the case with so many semi-autobiographical shows by and about comedians. And while I think Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's Rebecca Bunch is a genius creation, I love that Abby’s depression, anxiety, OCD and all-around low self-esteem don't make her some sort of hyper-focused savant, as in so many Hollywood productions. In contrast to Harvard-educated lawyer Rebecca, Abby is a vulnerable contractor whose mental-health symptoms, like her excessive hand-washing, are noticed by her co-workers and rudely commented on. And because worrying about her mental illnesses takes up so much of her cognitive load, Abby frequently comes across as narcissistic, since she has to think about herself a lot more than she does about anyone else. And of course, that's alienating! So few shows feel so honest about the everyday isolation of mental illness, as opposed to the stylized disenchantment of, say, Joker.

Robyn Bahr: One hundred percent agree. Work in Progress already feels like one of the great surprises of 2020, despite the fact that it technically debuted in 2019. Like Abby's signature primal screams — we need more women screaming on TV that has nothing to do with them being murdered! — the comedy at first comes off as a novelty. The tiny, funny, quirky half-hour could merely have been a queer Curb Your Enthusiasm for a therapy-seeking audience: "Look! Abby put her foot in her mouth again!" Instead, the narrative caramelizes over eight episodes, its flavor deepening beyond the ultra-ironic tone of the series cold open, where Abby discusses her suicide plan only to look up and notice her therapist slack-jawed and extremely dead. Soon, her frustrated scream isn't just a wacky or cloying TV idiosyncrasy but an intrinsically empathizable coping mechanism, a guttural "Fuck this shit." We're meant to love Abby and relate to her flaws. We're also meant to be alienated by her spiraling anxieties and intrinsic self-involvement. I, too, adore the choice to make her a perma-temp and not a professional comedian, which wisely pushes back against the ableist, inspiration-porny "mental illness as genius" trope we see all over entertainment.

Notice how Abby is the only character we truly get to know over eight episodes: Her sister, her boyfriend and her best friend all orbit her, but we ultimately know very little about them. For example, the show has hinted at Chris' trauma — a trans man who comes from a rural home life and is so pained by his dead name that he inadvertently baits Abby's obsessiveness when he tells her it's the one thing she can never ask about — yet we get none of what makes him tick, only what triggers Abby. She's practically the definition of "vulnerable narcissism," which is why I particularly loved the fourth episode, one of the best of the season, which centers on bathrooms. For Abby, bathrooms are fraught places, sites of social anguish where her gender nonconformity intersects with her disability. The episode sets you up for a bathroom confrontation where Abby will finally get to tell someone off for denigrating her gender presentation and ritualistic hand-washing. Instead, she's confronted by her own victim mentality. At a Dolly Parton concert (probably the only place in the world that draws eager pilgrims from across the sociopolitical spectrum, from nuns to dude bros to trans folx), Abby monologues to a bitchy cis lady who demands she leave the public restroom. Her years of pent-up frustration come pouring out as she unleashes a torrent of cruelties ... that immediately bounce right back at her when she reveals her more-oppressed-than-thou self-pity.

Kang: One of the things that makes Work in Progress feel so fresh is that Abby's pet obsessions are so idiosyncratic. Some of that specificity has to do with the show's larger project of queer world-building, like Abby's possibly-in-love-with-her-best-friend Campbell (Celeste Pechous), and Abby's lifelong hatred of the otherwise long-forgotten Saturday Night Live character Pat. (Amazingly, Julia Sweeney, the actress who played Pat, not only apologizes for Pat while appearing as a version of herself here, but her fictional character is married to "Weird" Al Yankovic, who, like all cis straight men in Work in Progress, is dreadfully dull.) But other character specificities, like Abby's "conversations" with the picture of her dead therapist on her phone background, her crush on Vincent D'Onofrio (the bug guy from Men in Black!), and her inability to call a Lyft without ordering a shared car (big difference!) make the show's universe feel wonderfully lived-in.

Can we talk about how sexy Work in Progress can be? Robyn, you mentioned Chris' one absolute no-go, but in that same episode, the couple, in a series of Lyft shares, reveal their preferences to one another several hours before their first time together, ratcheting up the anticipation for the big night. Chris wants Abby to avoid his chest, since he hasn't been able to afford top surgery yet, Abby shares that she has herpes, and we find out later that even the red glow from the alarm clock is too much light for the ultra-self-conscious neurotic. We listen, in the dark, as they fumble and rustle and moan, and I appreciate the fact that we hear both of them orgasm. Conservatives tend to mock straw-men college students for suggesting everyone play a game of 20 Questions before sex to ensure consent, but this episode is such an urgent and necessary and scintillating illustration of how much better sex can be with open and honest communication.

And yet, if I'm being honest with myself, I don't quite know if Abby deserves Chris. Do you root for them as a couple? And do you have a sense of what Chris sees in her, since I can't say I entirely do?

Bahr: Sigh. I'm a giant mush, so yes, I root for them. Here's to fellow fat chicks bagging conventionally hot guys! But I'm not sure how to measure the idea of "deserving" versus "undeserving" here. Chris is a fantasy: a fit, supportive, emotionally intelligent guy with a welcoming group of friends, and only a suggestion of personal baggage. Abby is full-frontal with her faults, but Chris doesn't seem quite real enough, because we don't get to see any of his. (Another way the show brilliantly angles us completely toward Abby's perspective and her rose-colored glasses when it comes to him.) As a lifelong TV shipper, I can't help but love the idea of seeing a hurt person transformed by a relationship, and I ached to find out what Chris would do when he learned of Abby's "OCD closet," where she hoards decades' worth of diaries like a survivalist stocking up on ammo. Still, I knew in the back of my heart that Abby couldn't and shouldn't rely on another person to "save" her. And I suspect Chris was looking for someone to save him, too. But we don't really have a sense of his arc because Abby is such a vortex of emotion.

The cold-open where Abby "kills" her therapist during a session in which she confesses her suicidal ideation at first seemed like galaxy-brain gallows humor. But in hindsight, it really sets the stage for the entire season: Abby is looking for an anchor that will keep her tethered to life and believes Chris is it, regardless of whatever shit he's probably dealing with on his own. And I appreciate that when Abby has dinner with her longtime ex in the finale, ostensibly to ask what's wrong with her so she can fix herself for Chris, Melanie (Echaka Agba) immediately calls Abby out on her selfishness.

Admittedly, I am not sure what Chris sought in Abby without diving into Freudian depths of psychoanalysis, which feels seems unfair (and possibly transphobic, as I don't want to assume transition always equals familial trauma). Although we've spent a lot of time picking Abby's imperfections apart (because we both value seeing a truly three-dimensional female protagonist!), let's not forget she's also quite witty and radiant, which is how she's attracted such loyal friends to begin with. I think Chris smiles a lot with her because she's making him laugh all the time. And honestly, isn’t it kinda fun to be around bitchy sass-mouths?

The closing scene of the finale gut-punched me because I wasn't ready for Chris to break up with her on the street, especially without a verbal autopsy of their relationship. I'd gotten so used to his unwavering flexibility that to see him stick to his one impermeable boundary was both empowering and heartbreaking. He rejects being her savior. I wanted him to forgive her for her indiscretion, but I wasn't sure if I was ready to forgive her for how she handled seeing his dead name. She should have told him right away that she not-so-accidentally glimpsed his legal name on a prescription bottle, but her fear and panic instead led her to seek the same answer over and over from friends who smartly reminded her that the lying was the problem, not her moment of curiosity and weakness.

So when she decides to stick the knife right back into him and shout his bleeped-out dead name as he walks away, I thought, "This is why he's breaking up with you." Mental illness may explain some behaviors, but it doesn't excuse abusive ones.

Kang: You've laid out pretty much all my thoughts on that heartbreaking yet wholly satisfying breakup, so I'll just note the hilarious scene in which Julia Sweeney dresses up as “Woke Pat” in an attempt to “take back” a character whose problematic qualities she feels bad about but hardly grasps. Julia going on stage in a fat suit, curly black wig, and the world's most hideous khakis over Abby's protests is a tragic betrayal — and a reminder that, as maddeningly oblivious as our protagonist can be, she lives in a world where precious few truly understand her. Work in Progress shines because it knows Abby so well.