Client: Abby McEnany - Executive Producer, Talent, Co-Creator
Season two of Showtime’s Work in Progress — the critically acclaimed, slice-of-life comedy starring co-creator and executive producer Abby McEnany — debuted Sunday night. It picks up with its lead (McEnany playing a version of herself) still reeling from a bad break-up, still searching for the perfect therapist, and still supporting best friend Campbell (Celeste Pechous) as she mourns the tragic death of her dog.
While Abby’s relationship with Chris (Theo Germaine) proved to be a central storyline for the first season, don’t expect her love life to get equal airtime in forthcoming episodes. That is by design.
“This show was never about a love story,” explained McEnany on Saturday evening while seated on stage inside the Directors Guild of America’s Theater 2 during an Outfest special preview event presented by Showtime in partnership with The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m somebody who’s usually single and I’m very happy about it. We live in a world where people, especially women, are often seen as valuable or worthwhile if they’re loved by somebody. It drives me to the fucking brink — add it to the list. It’s just a trope that really pisses me off. So, no, this show is really about how people get through life. How do people come together as a family? I survived because of my friends and my family.”
McEnany had many friends in the theater listening to her speak on a panel alongside her Work in Progress collaborators: executive producer and co-star Julia Sweeney, co-star Armand Fields, and writer and co-star Brendan Dowling. She gave a special shout-out to Chicago improv peers, some of whom attended the screening and represented a city that not only provides the backdrop for the series but fuels it with talent.
But about that survival she mentioned, the rest of this season will continue to follow her character as she navigates a mental health journey in the shadow of wanting to commit suicide. “In season one, Abby really is in crisis basically the whole time,” McEnany explained. “This season, we wanted to show that Abby shows up for other people, but then privately, she’s still a mess, but it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting just being mentally ill, right? It’s exhausting to always be a burden and it’s valid and I own it.”
McEnany joked on stage about the challenge of speaking about herself and then speaking about her character, Abby, since they share many similarities. Dowling was then asked where Abby the character begins and where Abby the real-life person ends. Dowling came to work on the series after having known McEnany from Chicago’s improv scene and helping her shape her one-woman show as its director.
“That’s something we talked a lot about in the [writers] room and about how Abby, the character, is a different person and we would always be very careful to talk about Abby the character versus Abby the person,” Dowling noted. “But in terms of where they began, I think both Abby, the real Abby, and the character Abby, are super loyal to their friends. They show up for them time and time again. Their friends mean everything to them. But [the show] is a heightened version of Abby. We take all the things that we love about Abby in real life and then heighten them.”
Dowling also spoke to McEnany’s talents off-screen as well as her loyalty. She drafted many Chicago peers to work on Work in Progress, and in many cases, gave people opportunities to staff on a major Showtime show they might not have had otherwise. “Abby is a force of nature,” he said. “When you meet her, you just get drawn into her orbit and are soon a part of her life.”
That is true for Fields, too, who met McEnany years ago, out and about on the Chicago scene. When Work in Progress went to series, Fields was able to audition. “We got to see each other,” Fields recalled. “And it was, like, this huge love fest. When I got [the part], it was amazing. And here we are — it’s wild.”
Wild is similar to how Sweeney describes her path to working on the series. McEnany and her co-creator Tim Mason met the Saturday Night Live alum at Second City after her own one-woman show. “I remember it just exactly,” Sweeney recalled from the stage. “I was charmed by Abby immediately.”
Sweeney continued that she was charmed, in a way, by the idea that the pair pitched. They wanted her to play herself as she is confronted by Abby in a restaurant about how Pat, Sweeney’s androgynous SNL character, negatively impacted Abby’s life. It might’ve seemed like a tough sell, but Sweeney said she was instantly sold.
“I loved the idea of it, and it was right up the alley of what I had been thinking about in terms of the Pat character and androgyny in general,” she continued. “It really was like a dream come true because it was just like, ‘wow, this is just perfect,’ and then, of course, I just loved Abby. It was so special.”
Her thoughts about Pat are not as easily distilled into a quick soundbite. “I can’t say everything I want to say about it because it’s so complex and I’m still actually thinking it through myself,” Sweeney said. “I feel both apologetic and defensive about Pat, and I feel like both are actually worthy of being felt by me. It’s not like I just think, ‘oh, that was terrible.’ I actually thought, in my mind, I was advancing the cause of androgyny. I mean, it wasn’t just about making fun of this character. It was about bringing up some issues… We felt like we were putting forth something provocative, and from a lot of the responses I got from people, including a huge positive response in the gay community, I felt I was doing that.”
Joining Work in Progress allowed Sweeney to more fully process the character and reckon with the impact it may have had, while also poking fun at herself. “It was really fun to play a heightened version of myself being a bumbling idiot about having played Pat. I love the idea of taking something that’s partly real and exaggerating it, just like the whole show does. But particularly with me, my feelings of ambivalence about the character itself, was fun to play with because that’s partly real, even though it was completely absurd, this character that I play; Julia Sweeney is an idiot.”
Another key figure in telling the story of Work in Progress is Lilly Wachowski. Though the acclaimed filmmaker and transgender activist was not in attendance, that didn’t stop the panelists from professing their love and praising the work that she’s done for the series. “She came out of retirement to do this,” McEnany said of her friend whom she met in Chicago. “She’s just changed my life. To have somebody who, first of all, gives zero fucks about what people think of her — how do you do that? — and then to trust me and give me a voice? She’s amazing and she defends me.”
Wachowski also changed the makeup of the show. McEnany credited her with enforcing the mission statement that they would have 70 percent of crew jobs filled by women, people of color and LGBTQ professionals. “She’s awesome.”
Sweeney agreed. “She’s my favorite person I’ve had direct me. She’s so relaxed but she’s ahead of schedule. It’s really unbelievable. … I’ve never been with a showrunner like that, who’s also directing, has so much on their plate, but seems relaxed, gives you the right note, gets what they need to get, and is like two pages ahead. She’s really amazing.”
McEnany had the last word on the subject: “When people meet her, they’re like, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God.’ Rightly so. She’s changed cinema and she’s amazing. But she works very hard to make everybody feel like they have a voice, and she works very hard at [putting] people at ease when they’re with her.”
This panel was sponsored by Showtime.