This review contains spoilers.
Work in Progress is a loosely fictionalized version of the foibles of Abby McEnany, a 45-year-old Chicago improv scene stalwart who identifies as a “queer fat dyke” and, in the first episode, struggles with mental health hurdles that include lining up 180 almonds gifted to her by a “fuckin’ bitch” at work. If her life doesn’t improve by the 180th almond, she tells her therapist, she is going to take her own life. One problem, though, is that her therapist has literally died during her session, almost gleefully staring at the ceiling, maw agape, as Abby details her suicidal ideation. “Are you fucking kidding me?” whispers Abby, once distraught, after lightly kicking her shrink’s leg. It creaks, rigor mortis set in.
It’s a credit to McEnany’s comedic skills that a scene that could have been overly maudlin, even cliché, is actively hilarious, never belittling the depression her character is experiencing but skilled enough to contextualize it with an unpredictable sort of gallows humor. In the pilot episode, which McEnany shot for $3,000 and screened at Sundance before Showtime picked it up for a series, Abby balances a sort of resigned gloom about her future with bursts of often-awkward hope, like when she ends up on a date with Chris (Theo Germaine)—a cute, much-younger trans man working at a lunch spot—after her sister Alison (Karin Anglin) gives him Abby’s phone number.
The date is where the show gets even more awkwardly funny, and becomes transformative for an entire generation of Saturday Night Live viewers who could never figure out why Julia Sweeney’s ambiguously gendered “Pat” character was supposedly so funny. As Abby and Chris begin their date at a bar, Abby realizes that the real-life Julia Sweeney is sitting across the room, having a beverage and reading a book. Abby explains to Chris that Pat—“who nobody could tell was a man or a woman... the only joke of the whole premise”—ruined her life. Chris is obviously appalled—Pat is one of the many SNL characters that thankfully could not be replicated in 2019, a one-note bit that simultaneously seemed to mock nonbinary people, androgyny, fat people, queer people, and nerds. (In 2019, Sweeney explained in an interview that she thought the joke “wasn’t that Pat wanted to be androgynous, Pat definitely felt either female or male, we just didn’t know which one that was... That, to me, was the joke—not that Pat was trying to be androgynous, and trying not to be either female or male.”)
To emphasize how Julia Sweeney “ruined” Abby’s life, Work in Progress cuts to a flashback: 1996, when Abby attends a party thrown both by someone she’s dating, and also that person’s fratty roommates. Inevitably, some barf bag calls her “Pat,” causing a fight between her paramour’s sorority-like but woke roommate and the fratty barf bag. It’s a distillation of the effect Sweeney’s Pat had on Abby, and presumably many others like her, as well as a way to put some resolution to a 20-year-old joke.
Chris, of a newer and savvier generation, approaches Sweeney and brings her to meet Abby, after which Abby promptly faints. When she comes to, Sweeney is nice as can be and apologizes for ruining Abby’s life, which not only provides a sort of redemptive vessel for the viewers who may have been similarly mocked with “Pat” taunts, but also firmly situates Work in Progress in the more progressive, gender fluid present, sweet closure for Abby the character and, ideally, one way her life has improved before she gets to the end of the almonds. Over beverages, Julia apologizes and, in another unexpected and hilarious twist, they make up over Pat’s signature “Eeuuuugghhkkkkkssss.”
Work in Progress’s debut is smart, full of heart, and very funny. I can’t wait for more episodes of this shit!