work in progress

Work In Progress Is Living Up to Its Title

Photo: Adrian S. Burrows/SHOWTIME

Work in Progress, the excellent Showtime dramedy that’s currently in its second season, has always been about trying to become a better person and accepting that mistakes will inevitably be made along the way.

The first season ended with Abby (Abby McEnany), the protagonist and self-described “fat queer dyke” who has depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, committing a grave sin. After getting dumped by her partner, Chris (Theo Germaine), a trans man, she yelled out Chris’s dead name in a moment of anger. In the second season, she wrestles with guilt over that incident as well as other issues: her ongoing search for a new therapist (she stops going to one she likes after he says “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes”); childhood memories that keep bubbling to the surface; and her relationship with Julia Sweeney, played by the actual Julia Sweeney, who keeps trying to atone for her insensitive “It’s Pat” sketches on Saturday Night Live. The episodes are insightful, often hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking, and always brimming with moments that look like they are happening in real life, rather than being staged for cameras.

In the second half of the current season, the tone has shifted as the realities of what’s happening in the wider world — the COVID pandemic, as well as the racial protests sparked by George Floyd’s death — burst into Abby’s Chicago bubble. The episodes, most notably the recent eighth one, titled “FTP,” become more experimental and reflective of the anxious, untethered headspace that Abby finds herself in as a mentally ill person who already found life overwhelming before 2020 started. A lot of series have tried to address the pandemic era, with varying degrees of success. Work in Progress does it more thoughtfully and effectively than most, in a way that captures the constant, swirling emotional confusion of it all.

That is ironic considering that McEnany, co-creator of this semi-autobiographical series, initially did not want to address Covid on the show at all. During a recent conversation over Zoom, McEnany told me that the Work in Progress writers’ room was up and running for six weeks when COVID shut it down, and eventually moved it to the virtual space. The arc for season two’s ten episodes had been established, and first drafts of seven of those episodes had already been written.

“We were having these conversations in April [of 2020] and I was like, ‘I have no interest in writing about COVID, acting in a show about COVID, or watching a show about COVID,’” McEnany says. “It was so early on and again, COVID is a nightmare and it certainly was very bad for everybody. I’m not a snowflake. It was hard for everybody. But there’s just something with OCD and all that depression and that isolation that makes it very difficult. There’s a germ out there that’s going to kill you?” McEnany starts to laugh. “For somebody who worries about germs, it’s not ideal.”

As the pandemic stretched on, though, McEnany came around to the idea, especially after the racial protests began and Covid shone a spotlight on the inequities in who gets care in America and who doesn’t. Ultimately two and a half episodes got tossed and rewritten.

“What was more important to Lilly and myself,” McEnany says, referring to executive producer Lilly Wachowski, who has co-written several Work in Progress episodes and directed one this season, “was the toll of the deaths of Black folks across America and police brutality and the inequity of the world and the inequity of America.”

“FTP” — an abbreviation for “Fuck the Police” — was co-written by Wachowski and Samantha Irby, a writer for the series who is Black, and directed by Black transgender filmmaker Yance Ford, and touches on all of those issues. While the protests following the death of George Floyd are still unfolding, Abby’s clueless boss Susan (Mary Sohn) asks her to write a “solidarity statement” for the company. “We want our statement to show that we’re progressive, but not too progressive,” Susan explains. “We’re not anarchists, you know.”

That sends Abby on an odyssey in which she tries to figure out how she, a white woman, can possibly write a corporate statement that adequately addresses racial injustice. (Spoiler alert: She can’t.) Following Abby’s conflicted thoughts, “FTP” makes sharp turns between scenes. Sometimes, it quickly shoots random images onto the screen, from the “This is fine” meme to newspaper headlines about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Continuing with a device that’s been used throughout the season, it features flashbacks in which current Abby sits with versions of her younger self in college and middle school, listening to presentations about safety that are rife with barely veiled racism. In a really poignant twist on those flashbacks, there’s a scene where Abby’s stepmother, Carol Lynn (Penelope Walker), who is Black, expresses concern when her two grown sons announce they are heading out to join the protests unfolding in Chicago. Carol Lynn and the audience don’t see them as grown men; she and we see two little boys, whom their mother just wants to protect.

Abby has hallucinations during the episode, too. She sees the Grim Reaper, played by T.J. Jagodowski; listens to NPR’s Audie Cornish read harrowing headlines while sitting on Abby’s kitchen island; and, for the second episode in a row, has an imagined encounter with her TV crush, detective Robert Goren from Law & Order: Criminal Intent, portrayed in a cameo by Vincent D’Onofrio. But the most striking scene in “FTP” is one in which Abby’s friend King (Armand Fields), a Black drag performer, stands on a platform in the middle of a downtown Chicago street, wearing a stunning red gown and reciting from the essay Caroline Randall Williams wrote last summer for the New York Times. (“If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument. My skin is a monument.”) Abby just sits in her recliner, also in the street, listening as King speaks. Late in the episode, she also finds out that a Black neighbor and friend lost his mother to COVID. Knowing that they just visited their mother, Abby instinctively backs away, then feels terrible. At a time when she wants to be there for others, her anxiety makes her too afraid to offer reassurance.

If this all sounds like a lot — like, a lot a lot — that’s because it is, by design. This episode is ambitious and takes big swings. It is messy, but messy on purpose,  because that is how it feels to be alive and trying to make sense out of the moment that Abby is living through and that all of us experienced last year.

It shouldn’t count as a spoiler to reveal that Abby does not come up with the perfectly worded “solidarity statement” for her boss. (What she does eventually email to Susan will definitely be interpreted as, um, “too progressive.”) The episode offers no pat answers and doesn’t try to make it seem as though Abby has learned something important. It’s just 30 minutes spent with a person who wants to be a better citizen, is trying to be one, but is also imperfect, which means she’ll have to keep trying. It’s what the whole concept of Work in Progress, the series and the phrase itself, means.

“It is so hard to be human, and I always lead everything like, I fuck up all the time. I want to be a better person. I want to do better. I want to learn,” McEnany says. “It’s not anybody else’s job to teach me, but I want to be open to hearing that and try not to react in defensiveness and all that business. I think our whole show is based on that.”

Work In Progress Is Living Up to Its Title