As a first-time full-time series star, writer and creator, Abby McEnany and her real-life story have threads reminiscent of “Alice in Wonderland.” Or perhaps even “Cinderella.” But as the belle of Showtime’s ball who is digging deep down the rabbit hole of TV production for the very first time with “Work in Progress,” she also brings to mind “The Princess and the Pea.”
If that pea were an almond.
“Not only do I hate almonds, but it’s just like, ‘Get the f— out of my eating area. That’s none of your f—ing business.’ Almonds are the thing, you know? And of course as a fat person it really sucks that my favorite nut is a peanut,” McEnany says.
“There are a lot of people out there who judge fat people and what they eat, and so almonds stand for another thing. People are like, ‘Hey I’m just helping you out.’ No you’re not. You’re telling me I’m wrong and I don’t deserve to have a happy life and I don’t deserve to take up space and I don’t deserve a voice and I’m too loud, and I’m too big, and how dare I?”
Almonds weigh heavily into the premiere of the eight-episode “Work In Progress” as viewers meet Abby, a 45-year-old self-identified fat, queer dyke battling depression. After a co-worker gifts her a jar of almonds she reveals to her therapist that she’s laid out the 180 nuts and plans to throw one out every day. If by the time they’re gone she doesn’t feel any better, she will take her own life.
It’s deep material for a comedy, but a perfect match for Peak TV’s increasing landscape of previously marginalized voices bursting to the forefront. Next to Showtime’s other dark comedies like “Kidding” and “Black Monday,” it’s found a comfortable home.
McEnany and co-creator Tim Mason, who directs all eight episodes, put up $30,000 to shoot the Chicago pilot and entered it into Sundance’s Indie Episodic program earlier this year. It was there that Showtime brass discovered the project and optioned it into a fully-fledged series with Lilly Wachowski at the helm as co-writer and executive producer.
The result is a semi-autobiographical look at McEnany’s life. She’s reveals that she has been — and probably will be again — severely depressed, and that OCD factors heavily into her life. Yet as a staple of the Chicago improv scene, she’s also turned to humor in some of her darkest moments.
“All this stuff that we tackle is stuff that really happened or is happening to me,” she says. “It’s real-life experience and part of my survival is this humor. I can look at really horrible parts of my life, like the death of my mother — my mother was ill for three-and-a-half years with cancer, and some of the funniest things happened during her illness and after her death. Humor is what made me survive and helped our family out a lot.”
In “Work in Progress” McEnany’s fictional family includes her sister Alison (Karin Anglin), her best friend Campbell (Celeste Pechous) and her love interest Chris (special guest star Theo Germaine), a younger trans man. Julia Sweeney, who “ruined” the fictional Abby’s life with her “SNL” character Pat, rounds out the series regulars. As the episodes progress, Abby experiences a growth in self-worth and self-identity, all through McEnany’s signature, self-deprecating comedic lens.
The creative hopes “Work in Progress” can spark conversation the way her “bible,” the novel “Shrill” by Lindy West did when it was released in 2016, or the way the first-season of the Aidy Bryant-series based on that novel did on Hulu earlier this year. (Coincidentally there’s a bit about almonds in “Shrill,” too.) Although one of McEnany’s goals is to help viewers with issues of shame, mental health, gender, sexuality or sadness feel represented, making her first full television series has also been a learning curve.
“I’m obviously only speaking from my perspective and I make no claims; I’m sure we missed the mark somewhere and I’m looking forward to learning from that, but our intentions were certainly in the right place,” she says. “I hope that we show that there’s hope and that there are ways to find a life that is devoid of shame, and that we can all work towards that.
“There are so many wonderful opportunities now as women, and we’re seeing so many more different people on TV, which is great. We’re talking about mental health more and fatness more, and queerness more. I mean God, I hope that this show can be part of that change.”
“Work in Progress” debuts Dec. 8 at 11 p.m. on Showtime.