There’s never a second that Abby (co-creator Abby McEnany) is unaware of all the things that make her different from the characters we’re used to seeing on TV, let alone those that typically get to anchor their own shows. She’s a butch “queer fat dyke” (her words) with OCD whose deep insecurity about all the above manifest in often debilitating suicidal tendencies. She knows all this about herself, and she accepts it. (As does “Work in Progress”; one of the best things about the show is how it shades Abby out in such a way that reducing her to any one of those bullet points is impossible.) But the pressure of constantly being othered and struggling to regulate herself also makes her life consistently hard enough that, as she tells her therapist in the first minutes of the series, she’s determined to end it in 180 days time.
All of this sounds as bleak as can be, and as befits suicidal subject matter, it often is. But as written by McEnany, Tim Mason, and Lilly Wachowski, “Work in Progress” is also nuanced and funny, wrenching jokes and compassion from the most unexpected places. In a particularly compelling early scene, for instance, Abby ends up face to face with Julia Sweeney, the former “Saturday Night Life” comedian whose androgynous character “Pat” has made Abby and countless other gender nonconforming people the butt of a cruel joke ever since. Sweeney, playing herself with bleeding heart sincerity, listens as Abby tells her what makes Pat so destructive, and acknowledges that she never fully understood the character’s implications. It’s a didactic moment, sure, but did I mention that it also starts with Abby fully screaming in Julia’s face before fainting? I didn’t? Well, it does, and it is glorious.
Even the way Abby tells her therapist about her grand plan to commit suicide unfolds in such an unexpected way that describing it in more detail would ruin one of the more surprising (and downright hysterical) scenes I’ve seen in a minute. This isn’t even to mention the method Abby’s chosen to count down what she insists will be her last 180 days alive. After her most frustrating coworker gave her a jar of almonds, as if almonds might be the key to curing her depression, Abby vowed to throw one almond away per day until they’re all gone (ergo, 180 days). Throughout the first four episodes, those almonds loom large in Abby’s mind and the show itself as she keeps plucking them out of the snaking line she’s arranged on her kitchen counter. Each of the show’s episodes (directed by Mason) finds a new way of marking time, often through clever cuts to title cards whose subjects range from days of the week to bathroom capacity. But the almonds remain a specific, disturbing constant — and what’s more, the almonds stick around even as things start to get better, most notably when Abby begins to fall in love.
Abby’s romance with Chris (Theo Germaine) is a shock to her system and a particular joy of “Work in Progress.” In many respects, Chris represents change for Abby; he’s both 22 years-old to her 45, and a trans man. Abby is more overwhelmed by the former than the latter, especially when socializing with his Gen Z friends during “family brunches” or at a sexy nightclub that used to be a chill lesbian bar when she frequented it 20 years ago. Many shows would have no problem keeping Chris in that somewhat exoticized role of a new possibility for its main character. “Work in Progress,” however, works to make Chris his own full character in and of himself. For instance: when he and Abby have sex for the first time, at the end of a swoony episode in which they can’t stop counting down to it, he draws just as many boundaries as she does, making it clear what he’s comfortable with in a way that she, a woman who’s only dated cis women, can understand. It certainly helps that Germaine (most recently seen as a cutthroat aide in Netflix’s “The Politician”) is so ridiculously charming in the role that Abby falling for him feels more inevitable than anything.
Having only watched four episodes, I’m not entirely sure where the season is going (though the end of the almond line seems like a natural climax). And yet, from what I’ve seen, “Work in Progress” is a remarkably solid debut from a comedian who knows her own voice, knows it’s funny, and is nonetheless unafraid to admit when she doesn’t like it. If more comedians could do the same, TV would be better off.
“Work in Progress” debuts Sunday, December 8 at 10 pm on Showtime.