In the first season of Showtime’s Work in Progress, improv duo Abby McEnany and Tim Mason’s zany, gallows-humor, semi-autobiographical character study of a 45-year-old fat, OCD-diagnosed butch at the end of her rope, McEnany (playing herself) makes the case for the futility of rehabilitating a broken fictional structure. Through a series of mundane coincidences, her brand new, swoon-worthy trans boyfriend Chris (Theo Germaine) convinces Abby to confront Saturday Night Live alum Julia Sweeney (playing a fictionalized version of herself), whose obtuse, obese, and gender-confused sketch character Pat has made Abby’s life a living hell. Julia and Abby strike up an uneven friendship, which Julia ultimately destroys in her attempt to right all of the sins of her past by bringing “Woke Pat” to a taping of This American Life. As Julia bulldozes Abby’s horror, Abby attempts to set her straight a final time: she would have preferred that Pat’s legacy be “buried.”
When it was first announced that Showtime’s revival The L Word: Generation Q (for “queer”) was in the works, murmurs of delight were matched by groans of frustration. Shouldn’t that be buried, too? The original series was an inarguable phenomenon that still serves as a touchstone for heated discussion, adoration, and overwhelming scorn—often simultaneously. In addition to the bonkers, self-destructive choices one can expect in a dishy serial, the series stuck to a select group of skinny, cisgender, rich white femmes as their most developed characters, often at the expense of all others. As creator and showrunner Ilene Chaiken routinely defended, the show was not meant to represent more than her own circle of affluent Los Angeles lesbians, and when it did introduce characters or storylines that touched on a less insular reality, it often bungled them into such an overblown tragedy that one might wish the show hadn’t even tried.
Among the tentative excitement and apprehension for its reboot, one of the most salient questions was why, a mere 15 years after its Showtime debut, the series would be taking a chunk of the meager space and budget allotted to queer shows. Why not build something new, rather than try to salvage already bowed beams? Chaiken, who is executive producing but has abdicated showrunning responsibility to independent filmmaker Marja-Lewis Ryan, had the same question and a stated reluctance to revive the series, but revealed that she didn’t see anyone picking up the mantle left in the wake of The L Word’s 2009 finale, and that the show had a duty to reemerge.
Even if it remains the only ensemble lesbian drama on air, the overall dearth of lesbians on TV is somewhat contested by both TV of the 2010s (Vida, P-Valley, Lost Girl, Orange Is the New Black), and quite pointedly by the simultaneous premiere of another Showtime series rife with dyke drama: Work in Progress. Considering its refreshing reluctance to explain itself or its zaniness, it’s something of a miracle that a second delightful, supremely uncomfortable season has arrived—just a few weeks after the premiere of the second season of Generation Q. The two series take such polar opposite approaches to representing queer life that they exist as funhouse mirrors, as well as an unexpectedly provocative double feature that asks us what we really want out of our burdened queer media.
In their respective sophomore seasons, Gen Q and Work in Progress are working toward similarly thematic goals: they want to get to the truth of the matter. But the quest for truth, whether it is knowing oneself, crusading for someone else’s justice, or knowing what exactly you might be apologizing for, takes on totally different definitions between a reboot and an original.
For Gen Q, truth and honesty are most heavily weighted in representational storytelling, which amounts mostly to grandstanding. Intergenerational conflict, trans dating, polyamory, and racist institutional and political structures were all introduced last season in a heavy-handed, mission-driven script—because The L Word is now ostensibly for everyone, as encompassed by its late-added Q, and it doesn’t want anyone to forget that. This zeal to correct the political clumsiness of its past weighed its first season down, with new characters who paled in comparison to their original, fully backstoried counterparts, and dialogue that rang painfully symbolic and hollow. (Triumphantly yelling “Time’s Up” in total sincerity, anyone?)
Much of reigning queen of the ill-adjusted mommies Bette Porter’s (Jennifer Beals) campaign for Mayor of Los Angeles felt like a campaign for the show itself, and how much tangible good it could do if it were forgiven. In another example, almost all of therapist-in-training Micah’s (Leo Sheng) storyline was about the microagressions and tokenization he experienced as a trans man, while also being the least distinctive character on the show. Neither of them would feel out of place at Julia Sweeney’s This American Life taping.
While Season 2 is certainly still missing some of the original series’ easiest-going charm and unselfconscious pleasures of soapy, improbable plot, it has in some ways stepped up its game to be on par with the original by falling back into its old patterns. Sure, somewhat-reformed bad boy Shane (Katherine Moenning) applauds Finley (Jacqueline Toboni) for “speaking her truth,” but that truth is that her coworker Sophie (Rosanny Zayas) cheated on her fiance with Finley, and Finley’s truth compelled her to break up the wedding. This is a “truth” that Gen Q is much better equipped to tell. Micah is still relegated to screentime primarily focused on his struggle against tokenization, but he at least has a promising bonding arc with immigration lawyer Maribel (Jillian Mercado), whose seamless delivery and comedic timing is finally getting a spotlight.
Released from the bonds of closeted politicians’ wives and dropped back into the elitist art world from whence she came, Bette is also finally displaying the kind of singular, laser-point desire that makes her both notoriously insufferable as a bulldozing partner, and infamously sought after as The Only Femme Top of Los Angeles. Her patterns of running over (and cheating on) her business and romantic partners alike aren’t new, but Gen Q has found variations in Bette’s sparring matches that both scratches an old itch and delights in challenges to her nature, unseen since her tempestuous relationship with the iron-willed Jodi (Marlee Matlin). One such new partner is Gigi (Sepideh Moafi), whose personality is finally given room to grow and delight when directly daring Bette in the bedroom and on her total miscalculation of others’ autonomy. When Gen Q stops pretending authentic representation is its immovable object, and instead focuses on interpersonal conflict and sensuality, then hints of what made it such a sensation in the first place shine through.
For Work in Progress, truth through representation still carries water, but it more fully delivers on what it promises by being entirely personal, and diving deep into the discomfort of change. After Abby and Chris’ revelatory relationship and dramatic break up in the first season finale, Abby is examining the pieces of her life, and others lives, that she exploded. It’s not as bombastic or linear as the last season, and a few of its driving devices, including the almonds that Abby was using as her countdown to possible suicide, are replaced by messier and vaguer interweavings of self-discovery. But its second season is mimicking that nebulous stage in which the biggest problems have been revealed—unfortunately, just acknowledging them won’t solve them, even if it feels like such a giant accomplishment just to get the words out of your mouth.
Work in Progress’ deconstruction of family, intergenerational relationships, mental illness, and exploration of gender non-conformity and the porousness of dyke and trans communities continues in a way unseen on Generation Q. Abby is going forward and backward at the same time, literally scouring the pages of her obsessively kept diaries to find out what exactly makes her tick, and continuing to face consequences whenever she gives lip service. Unlike the archetypes of Gen Q and The L Word before it, Abby is growing, and her fuck-ups feel real, rather than being completely avoidable and unnecessarily demonstrative of what not to do to a marginalized person.
In the end, it’s obvious that while individuals, like Abby, may be able to change if they try hard enough, systemic or symbolic (or even series) change is empty when it’s based on the words and the appearance of inclusion alone—something Bette runs up against in each of her high-powered institutional aspirations. A reboot can’t escape its roots. The strength of Work in Progress is in its ability to build a world from the ground up, with an aggressive, sometimes depressive political humor that works so well because it comes from lived experience. It can’t offer the delicious escapist fare of lesbians fucking amok in sun-drenched California lofts, but it provides honesty and unexpected hope in a dark world.
In a final, emblematic demonstration of their differences, COVID-19 is absent from Gen Q, but Work in Progress is going for it full-throttle, in an especially notable episode that looks at the importance (and loss) of physical queer spaces. One could almost imagine that yelling about Gen Q is embedded in Work in Progress’ world as a way to connect during periods of isolation—but Work in Progress will always be a little too real to ever be referenced in Gen Q’s troubled paradise.
The second seasons of both The L Word: Generation Q and Work in Progress are currently airing Sundays on Showtime.
Shayna Maci Warner (@bernieteeters) is a Brooklyn-based film programmer, preservationist and GLAAD-awarded critical queer. Their words on queer feelings and films appear in Autostraddle, The Film Stage and Film Cred, among others, and they write a horny newsletter about the girls and gays that make movies worth watching. You can summon her by yodeling “Desert Hearts was robbed!” into the sunset.
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