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Why We’re Already in Love With Showtime's Work In Progress

Comedian Abby McEnany stars in this new comedy about a queer middle-aged woman falling in love.
  • Abby McEnany in Work in Progress. (Showtime)
    Abby McEnany in Work in Progress. (Showtime)

    I'm all for Jean Smart, Baby Yoda, and the rise of glassblowing as a competitive sport, but for me, the most exciting new show is about a "fat, queer dyke" from Chicago.

    That's how the lead character identifies herself in Work in Progress, a comedy whose December 8 premiere on Showtime is compelling for quite a few reasons.

    First, there's the fact that Abby McEnany is the star and creator. The show is loosely based on her life as a middle-aged lesbian in the Windy City, focusing in part on an unexpected romance with Chris — a twentysomething trans man — who helps her cope with crippling depression.

    In other words, this is a series about queer people, trans people, people with mental illness, and people over 40. Yes, please! This is precisely what the fight for expanded representation is about: the chance to hear engaging stories from people who too rarely get to tell them.

    The storytelling in Work in Progress is sharp, funny, and delightfully dark. Abby's therapist dies while she's talking to her, and it's played for neurotic laughs. Later, after she tells a friend that people constantly compare her to Julia Sweeney's "Pat" character from SNL, Abby runs into the actual Julia Sweeney in a bar. It's one thing to critique stereotypes in the culture. It's quite another to bring the artists who created those stereotypes onto your show. It suggests that everyone involved, including Sweeney, has guts.

    But this moment doesn't play like the bitter confrontation in the episode of Louie where Louis C.K. and Dane Cook argue about joke stealing. (And hoo boy, C.K. sure has lost the moral high ground since that aired.) Instead, Abby fangirls over Sweeney, indicating that there's going to be a lot of warmth and generosity in this series.

    Which brings me to Abby McEnany as an artist and person we can generally root for. First of all, she has more than paid her dues. She is a longstanding member of the Chicago improv scene, and she’s been especially active with a group called Virgin Daquiri, where her castmates over the years have included Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong. Those kinds of bona fides speak to her artistic excellence, as does the fact that Sweeney — who has Chicago ties herself and is in the cast of Bryant’s show Shrill — is appearing on Work in Progress. The fact that McEnany — a hardworking, finely honed comedian in her fifties — is getting finally her shot after decades of work earns a load of goodwill from me as a potential viewer.

    Her general moxie is impressive, too. When she made the pilot with her friend Tim Mason, McEnany had never done anything like it before. As in, she didn’t even know what a boom mic was. Still, she pressed on, and the short got accepted into Sundance. After that, her friend Lilly Wachowski (of the Matrix Wachowskis) signed on as a producer, and the Sundance response was so strong that they sold the series to Showtime. (Mason remains as the director of every episode.)

    And even though she’s just now getting a major break, McEnany is already using it to help lift others. She’s spoken about choosing to shoot the series in Chicago so that people in her hometown get work, and says she wants her series to represent the incredible range of queer, female, and alternative artists she has encountered. And sure enough, there’s more diversity in a single scene of Work in Progress than in entire seasons of other "hip" comedies.

    So really… what’s not to love? I can’t wait to see what McEnany and her friends do with this new spotlight.

    Will you be watching Work in Progress? Talk about it in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Work in Progress, Showtime, Abby McEnany, Julia Sweeney, LGBTQ