It is important to note that Abby McEnany’s therapist is not dead. Specifically, she did not die while in a session with her.
“Oh my God, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed ever again if that really happened,” she tells me. “How do you ever recover from that?”
The clarification is needed given the confessional, semi-autobiographical nature of McEnany’s new television series, Work in Progress, which premieres Sunday night on Showtime. It opens with Abby speaking to her therapist through tears.
“I’m going to kill myself in 180 days if things don’t get better,” she says. “I mean I’m 45. I’m fat. I’m this queer dyke who has done shit in her life, and that is my identity?”
She brings up “this bitch at work” who bought her almonds because she knows she’s been struggling with her weight. So Abby lays out 180 almonds and vows, at the end of each day, to throw one away. If there’s one almond left and she doesn’t feel better, she’s out. In her note, she says, “I’m gonna tell that woman that it was the almonds that pushed me over the edge.”
At this point she notices that her therapist’s facial expression hasn’t changed in a while, just kind of staring wide-eyed and slack-jawed at her, unmoving and unblinking. The realization hits. In the middle of talking about her plan to commit suicide, her therapist died. Abby lets out a blood-curdling scream. The sequence is, it must be said, incredibly funny.
As LGBT+ audiences search for characters and stories on TV that reflect where they identify on the spectrum, it goes without saying that there’s never been a character like Abby in a leading role before. McEnany being on TV is on its own inherently revolutionary, but the depth with which her humanity is explored adds to the significance.
In addition to the strong reviews the series has been receiving, there have already been headlines—and sure to be many more—about its surprising and cathartic interrogation of Saturday Night Live’s controversial character Pat, played by Julia Sweeney in the ’90s. The joke about Pat was that no one could tell if they were a boy or a girl. The character haunted, and in some ways still haunts, McEnany. She wrote that pain into the show and, to everyone’s delight, Sweeney agreed to co-star in a plot about coming to terms with it.
The original tagline for Work in Progress was “a coming of age story for a 45-year-old dyke.” It’s loosely autobiographical. The degree to which the plot and her character’s emotions reflect her own life “depends on the day and who’s asking,” McEnany says.
“It's a show about a fat, mentally ill, clinically depressed, sometimes suicidal queer dyke who has given up on love,” she continues. “And has a lot of shame, not about her sexuality or her gender, but about her fatness. She’s surrounded by people that love her, but she’s just not sure if she can continue.”
In the first episode, Abby goes to lunch with her sister to debrief the eventful therapy session. They’re waited on by a young, cute trans man named Chris (Theo Germaine), who asks Abby out on a date. “It’s like, why is this person so great that I'm actually willing to give him a chance?” Abby explains. “Because I've been burned so much by love and it's not worth it.”
After a silent beat, she lets out a loud cackle. “So that’s not exactly a soundbite!”
She’s still getting used to being in the spotlight, apologizing several times for telling long, rambling stories or going off on tangents in response to what may have been direct questions—unaware, perhaps, that these are the very quirks that make a great interview subject. If nothing else, she ranks among the most candid TV stars I’ve talked to this year. But McEnany is, of course, more than that, too.
She’s casually witty. There’s something about the cadence of her voice and the fleeting details she peppers into her stories that give the conversation a comedic buoyancy even when we’re discussing darkness and trauma. She’s self-aware about her demons while also able to articulate her struggles in defeating them, which I think many of us can relate to, even if we can’t express that tension as intelligently.
Work in Progress was born out of a solo storytelling show that McEnany was performing in Chicago in 2016. “Julia Sweeney Ruined My Life” was one of its more notable stories.
Her creative partner of 20 years, Tim Mason, wanted to work on a show together and, after floating a few more high concept ideas around, they realized that something in which Abby explored being Abby was far more interesting than anything else. The $30,000 pilot they created went to Sundance, after which Showtime picked it up and Lilly Wachowski, the co-director of The Matrix who publicly came out as trans in 2016, joined as executive producer.
Wachowski and McEnany actually live in the same Chicago neighborhood. At the time her agent sent her McEnany and Mason’s pilot, Wachowski had one foot still in Hollywood and one foot out the door.
“My agent kept sending me stuff, and a lot of science fiction,” Wachowski told reporters at the Television Critics Association press conference in August. “It’s good stuff, science fiction. You get to talk a lot about a lot of subjects. There’s always, like, fabulous subtext in science fiction. Since my transition, I’m not really interested in subtext at this time, so he sent me this show.”
They met each other on a street corner in their neighborhood, and the rest is history. Actual history. “Whenever you put on a trans person or a queer person in a role like this, it is a revolutionary act,” Wachowski said. “Because you don’t see characters like this on TV, really. It just doesn’t happen.”
To that point, Wachowski insisted that the entire world of Work in Progress be populated with queer people—baristas, Lyft drivers, strangers on the street—reflecting how she and McEnany really see heir neighborhood. There’s a game of charades Abby plays with her queer friends that, at risk of overusing the word, is again revolutionary in its spectrum of visibility.
“This is pretty exciting that we're showing, I think, what real people look like,” McEnany says. “We wanted to show that on TV, these people who are not made-for-America queers that people are comfortable with.”
Then there’s the Julia Sweeney of it all.
Pat was one of Sweeney’s recurring characters during her SNL stint in the early ’90s, proving popular enough that a movie, It’s Pat: The Movie, was released in 1994. Because of Pat’s short, curly hair, almost as if permed, and doughy body shape, no one the character encountered was able to determine his or her gender. A running gag about androgynous gender expression would be pilloried if it ran on the sketch show today. Back then, the send-up of gender norms was ruled hilarious.
Even McEnany admits she thought the bit was initially funny. But years after Sweeney left SNL she would be teased by people who called her “Pat,” used as a bigoted slur and not a joke, because of the way she dressed, how she wore her hair, and her body shape. It was hurtful. Pat became a wound.
In Work in Progress, Abby and Chris spot Julia Sweeney at a restaurant. Abby musters the courage to confront her about the ways in which Pat affected her. They talk. Sweeney apologizes. They come to an understanding and, eventually, become friends themselves.
After McEnany and Mason contacted Sweeney about appearing in the pilot, she responded immediately that she’d do anything to be involved in the show, let alone play herself. She never protested the way the conversation was portrayed, or the role she may have had in any harm the sketch inflicted. When the pilot premiered at Sundance, Sweeney canceled a show she had booked in Denver and flew herself to Park City to be there for it and do press to promote it.
“She’s the most generous, giving person,” McEnany says. “I can’t say enough good things about her.”
As on the show, McEnany and Sweeney had long, honest conversations about the character. They don’t see exactly eye to eye on it, but they’re close. “It's an important thing to get,” McEnany says. “Especially now in this fucking fucked-up, vitriolic, hateful world. Someone who disagrees with you doesn’t have to be a villain. We don’t agree on everything, and I love her.”