Whether you’re a dyke or a faggot or both you’ve probably been called too much. It’s a two-word shortcut that means you’re queer and you’re doing a bad job at hiding it.
Why do you have to wear that? Why do you have to insist on some new name or pronoun? Why do you have to bring up politics? Why do you have to exist?
Most of my too-much-ness was removed by the time I left middle school. My long hair had been shorn. My clothing had been simplified. My energy had been muted.
I was never the most flamboyant child, but I was myself and then I was not. I learned not to show emotion. I learned not to cry. I learned not to acknowledge my depression or suicidal thoughts or self-harm. All of that was too much and I needed to be normal. I needed to not stand out – to be an average, happy boy. All that remained was a simmering rage and a desperate need to fix the world. If I couldn’t ask for what I needed, I could at least try to predict and satisfy the needs of everyone around me. I wouldn’t admit that I was queer and I wouldn’t admit that I was suicidal but I would, for example, scream about the epidemic of queer suicides sweeping the country.
During those moments my mom wouldn’t say I was too much. The word she used instead was intense. The subtext – occasionally clarified as text – was that being intense meant being unlikeable. So much effort went into ignoring my desires and quieting my personality, but even this small allowance was seemingly too much.
Abby McEnany’s semi-autobiographical show Work in Progress is about a fat queer dyke named Abby who falls for a young trans man right after deciding to kill herself – if her life doesn’t improve by the time she makes her way through a bag of 180 almonds.
My mom would call Abby intense.
It’s not just that Abby is visibly queer in a way we so rarely see on TV. It’s not just that she’s loud and has no filter. And it’s not just that her depression, anxiety, and OCD is often all-consuming. It’s that alongside these identities, this personality, her mental illness, Abby can be selfish, cruel, and, despite being 45-years-old, deeply immature. Abby’s socially frowned upon character traits are not compensated with respectability – they’re paired with actual flaws, a depth of humanity.
Abby is an anti-hero. We don’t root for her because she is good. We root for her because she’s our protagonist. We root for her because she is human. And because she is trying. And because we are human. And because we are trying.
Last November there was an eruption of Twitter discourse about boundaries. Feminist wellness educator Melissa A. Fabello tweeted a thread where she praised a text from a very close friend checking on her “emotional/mental capacity” before confiding in her.
Her proposed template for when you don’t want to provide support even turned into a meme. Hey! I’m so glad you reached out. I’m actually at capacity etc. etc.
A week later user @YanaBirt tweeted a screenshot of a message that read, “Are you in the right headspace to receive information that could possibly hurt you?” and the discourse began all over again.
Some people praised these messages as thoughtful, while many others wondered if the misuse of the term “emotional labor” was turning every relationship into a series of transactions.
While I understood the desire to set boundaries as someone who has often struggled to do so, I agreed that these messages went too far. Relationships are more complicated than a template. Sometimes we’re at capacity, but a situation is serious enough that it calls for going beyond capacity. We want easy answers on how to behave, how to receive those we love, and how to treat those who love us. We want clear rules to decide when someone is worth keeping in our lives and when they’re asking too much – when they are too much, when we are too much. But there are no answers. There are no rules.
Throughout its eight episodes Work in Progress revealed this truth. It showed the value in being there for people even when it’s hard – and the importance of knowing when to walk away. It showed that the answers to these questions change for every person, and, more importantly, for every relationship.
When Abby and Chris (Theo Germaine) first start dating he only sets one boundary: never ask his deadname. Despite being 23 years younger than Abby, Chris consistently seems more mature. He’s patient with her and meets every revelation about her with love. Why is this hot twenty-two year old interested in Abby? Well, because he likes her. And, because, as his friend King says: “Chris loves a project.”
Abby doesn’t realize Chris is trans when they meet. She calls him a baby dyke and even misgenders him when he first asks her out. But once they start dating, she’s quick to clarify her identity as not-lesbian and go about educating the clueless cis people in her life – even as she herself is learning. As a gender-nonconforming woman, she relates to many of Chris’ experiences, but there are still limits to her understanding. And this culminates when in a moment of drunken weakness, she reads Chris’ pill bottle and learns his deadname.
There was never a moment in my last relationship when my transness felt like too much for my partner. She didn’t even misgender me in the first months after I came out. My transition was a given, an obvious next step for the person she loved. Once I came out to her, I made more sense than ever before – and so did she.
People often praised her for staying with me and she was quick to reject this suggestion. She was indignant that she wasn’t doing any favors simply by being with the person she loved – transness wasn’t a defect she was tolerating. In fact, my transition helped her get back in touch with her own queerness. There were external reasons my transition was difficult, but, more importantly, it allowed both of us to become more authentic and with that authenticity form a deeper relationship.
But as the years passed, I changed. The narrative that people are the same before and after transition is false – or, at least, it was false for me. Transitioning changed more than my gender and more than my body. It changed how I acted. It changed my personality.
Gradually I became too much for my ex not because I was trans, but because once I allowed myself to let go of the secrets of my gender I also allowed myself to let go of the other walls I’d put up around my personality. I became louder, more extroverted, more demanding of attention, more willing to assert the depth of my wants. Once I became the entirety of myself I was just too much – we were too much for each other.
After learning Chris’ deadname, Abby begins ignoring him. She’s filled with shame and a deep fear of what will happen when he finds out. She understands the severity of her action, even if she doesn’t understand the reason for that severity – if she did she wouldn’t have looked in the first place.
Days pass and tempted to cancel yet again, she seeks help in her best friend Campbell (Celeste Pechous). Not only does she not send a “do you have the emotional capacity” text – she doesn’t send a text at all. She just shows up smoking outside Campbell’s workout class. But Campbell is totally unfazed. Sweaty and in gym clothes she insists Abby get a drink with her.
At the bar, Campbell gives Abby some “tough love” explaining that the not-telling has become the real problem. She cracks jokes about being unshowered and speaks freely as she tells Abby a “normal” person wouldn’t be reacting this way. She doesn’t say all the right things, but she’s there. And she continues to be there as she offers to accompany Abby to her plans with Chris and his friends. Once they arrive, Campbell leaves, needing to return to her own life – and probably to take a shower. She’s pushed Abby to do what she needs to do. She can’t force her, but she’s helped her. She’s done what she can.
Chris, understandably, does not react well when Abby tells him what she did.
Abby spirals. She goes from ignoring Chris, to ignoring everyone else in anticipation for Chris to call. She locks herself in her apartment and speaks only to a projection of her dead therapist. Campbell texts, “How are you?” but she ignores it. And then her sister Alison (Karin Anglin) rings her doorbell and she ignores that too.
But Alison comes upstairs anyway and opens the door. She’s brought scones. “You said that you wanted to talk and you never do and then you never called,” Alison says. “And then you won’t return my calls so I’m here to tell you that whatever it is it can’t be that bad.”
Abby tells her sister to fucking leave, but Alison says no.
Alison cleans Abby’s apartment, she gets her some real food, they watch Young Frankenstein together, and then she tucks her into bed.
Abby is not an easy best friend or an easy sister. Her anxiety, OCD, and depression often leave her appearing beyond help. But Campbell and Alison help her anyway. They care about her and she cares about them and while they both sometimes can’t be there as much as Abby needs, they try their best. They show up when they can, and, most importantly, Abby shows up for them when she can too. It’s not always equal, but, again, relationships are not transactions.
My ex and I broke up right after I moved to LA. As I began meeting people in my new city, a voice in my head told me not to be too much. But no matter how hard I tried I could not get my personality to fit back into the boxes that had been built for me. Everybody I met kept meeting me, not just me, the trans woman, but me, in my entirety.
The only part of myself I continued to hide were my emotions. It’s one thing to be what my mom, my ex, and lots of society might describe as annoying – it’s another to pair that with the vulnerability of needing help.
Since I was in high school I’ve been very vocal about my experiences with depression, anxiety, OCD, and suicidal thoughts. But talking about these experiences is its own kind of defense mechanism. It gives an impression that I’m comfortable with these parts of myself – that I know how to get the support I need. But it’s not true. I can talk about these things in the past tense, but when I’m feeling bad I disappear. Or, if I have to be around people, I pretend. I still feel like if I ask for help – on top of being loud, opinionated, trans – people will leave me. They’ll finally realize I’m too intense.
I spent most of last year being more myself than ever before – all the while feeling lonely due to this lack of vulnerability. It wasn’t simply that my ex had been supportive of my transness, she’d also been supportive as I gradually revealed my emotions, shared the extent of my mental illness, and even learned to cry in front of her. I started to wonder if in her absence I wasn’t being truer to myself, but simply trading which part of my too-much-ness I was hiding.
While panicking about Chris needing space, Abby decides to get a drink with her ex Melanie. She hasn’t seen her in eight years.
We’ve watched their relationship in flashbacks. We’ve watched Melanie’s negative reaction to Abby’s herpes. We’ve watched Melanie’s horror at Abby’s obsessive journaling. We’ve watched how hurt Abby was by their breakup. We’ve watched all of this in contrast with Chris’ casual acceptance.
After some friendly banter, Abby tells Melanie that she wanted to see her, because she’s trying to be a better person. Abby says that she thinks she’s ruined yet another relationship and she’s trying to figure out why this keeps happening to her.
Melanie says she can’t fix Abby. She says that Abby refused to open herself up and yet everything was always about her – everything is still clearly always about her. A new narrative of their relationship starts to form. It’s less that Melanie wasn’t accepting of Abby and more that Abby was so concerned with the possibility of not being accepted that she created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or maybe it was a combination of both. Relationships are complicated.
Melanie says she’d hoped they could move forward, but now she’s giving up. She says they shouldn’t try this again in eight years. It’s easy to understand why.
Instead of taking some lessons away from her brief drink with Melanie, Abby goes directly to Chris’ work. She frantically asks for some reassurance that they’re okay. She asks for him to listen to her – she thinks she’s communicating but all she’s doing is speaking. He reiterates that he needs space and that he’s just asking for time.
Chris sends Abby away, but he gives her what he can. He kisses her on the cheek to remind her that she’s loved. It’s the only promise he can make.
The next night he meets her outside Julia Sweeney’s misguided “woke Pat” show – Abby has chosen not to attend in her own example of setting boundaries. It’s started to snow and Abby sees Chris through the crowd. She realizes he’s about to break up with her and she pleads with him not to. She says she’s out of almonds and he can’t do this right now.
Chris tells Abby he adores her, but he can’t be the thing that keeps her going. He can’t be the reason that she doesn’t kill herself after running out of these arbitrary almonds. He needs to figure out his needs and Abby is too – she interrupts and guesses old, fat, loud, needy, and insecure. Chris interrupts her back – no, too much. She’s just too much.
He hands her an envelope which we’ll later learn contains a stolen almond, another day to live, without him, beyond him. As he’s walking away Abby does the unforgivable – she shouts his deadname.
Chris stops, tears forming in his eyes. His face is filled not simply with betrayal, but with the painful confirmation that ending this relationship was the right decision. It’s one thing to know when it’s time to walk away. It’s another to feel that you were right. The latter is so much harder.
When Chris calls Abby too much my stomach dropped. When Abby deadnames Chris the rest of my body went with it. The difficult part of a show that presents characters so willing to be there for one another is that when the limitations are reached it feels all the more painful. Ultimately Chris and Abby couldn’t meet each other’s needs. It’s not just Chris who can’t be everything Abby needs – Abby can’t be everything Chris needs. In fact, it’s her failure to be there for him that leads to the realization that he can’t be there for her. It’s powerful to see Chris recognize that for himself, but it’s devastating to witness – for both of them.
I wish alcohol didn’t free me from my walls, but it does, and in September it did. My yearly end of summer depressive episode and a mix of other things, forced an emotional breakthrough at, you guessed it – a season finale watch party of a reality TV show. I’d had an immense amount of tequila on an empty stomach and I was feeling the expected mix of good, bad, and unhinged.
My friend Gaby and I were sharing a Lyft back to our respective homes when I started sobbing. I immediately began apologizing and trying to make light of it. But Gaby insisted there was no reason to apologize. She asked me to talk and, reluctantly, I did.
The next morning filled with a vulnerability hangover and a hangover hangover, I apologized again. And again Gaby insisted there was nothing to apologize for. Instead she checked in with me. And sober, I started letting myself talk to her more.
A couple months later, Gaby called me crying on Thanksgiving. I talked her through something, and she apologized to me. Now it was my turn to insist that there was no reason to apologize. After all, Thanksgiving seems like much a less embarrassing time to be upset than after a reality TV watch party. And neither was embarrassing at all. We’d both been conditioned to fear this kind of vulnerability, but with the right person there’s no reason to be afraid.
When Chris and Abby have their final talk in the snow, he doesn’t actually tell her she’s too much. His exact words are: “You’re too much. For me. This is too much.” Just because she’s too much for him doesn’t mean she’s too much for everyone. Just because we’re too much for one partner or one friend or one family member doesn’t mean we aren’t deserving of love and compassion and even appreciation.
Sometimes people need to walk away. But there will be other people out there whose too-much-ness fits your too-much-ness. Chris will find a partner who understands his transness. Abby will find a partner who is better equipped to help her in the ways she needs. And until then they have friends who love every part of them. I do too. More and more, the people in my life are like Gaby – people who I can trust, and lean on, and not feel embarrassed to be myself around. And while I’m certainly not writing this essay from the other side of self-acceptance, every year I’m doing a little bit better. After all, I’m just a work in progress.
Thank you Drew!! I watched the last three episodes of this show last night before going to bed and it was so tough, it absolutely wrecked me. In the morning I was desperate for someone to talk about this show with, and here you are, answering the questions bouncing around my head. This morning I was thinking – did that make sense?? was it too abrupt?? what the hell really happened?? — as though I had just gone through a breakup myself! As usual, you lay out so clearly the brilliance of how that story was crafted.
I can’t believe we get a Season 2 of Work in Progress. I can’t believe this is the world we’re living in now.
As a side note, I’ve never seen a show do what they did with Chris’ deadname – bleeping it out, and making it so that while we know Abby knows it, we never do. It was really well done and I appreciated it so much.
I don’t want to be too hyperbolic, but it really is one of my favorite ever breakup scenes. There’s still just so much love there. It felt really real.
I’m also so excited for season two!! I have no idea where it’s going to go, but I’m so grateful we’re getting it.
And I agree. I loved the beeping/blurring of his deadname. Especially when so much media still fetishizes transness by unnecessarily sharing characters’ deadnames.
Love this show, love this piece. Thanks.
Great review Drew! This actually helped clarify something that’s been subconsciously bothering me for a while: the idea that there is a correct formula for relating to each other. Whilst I understand the desire for that – wanting to feel that there is an easy answer to how to be good, how to be worthy, lovable and loving, we are more complex than that.
This has made me interested in seeing the show, and just generally eager for more stories where there aren’t easy answers, but an eagerness to explore ways we communicate and affect each other as individuals, not as cutout representations.
it’s hard to put into words the way this show touched me and the ways it broke me. there was a fat queer older dyke on tv!!! there was a masculine woman living her life and talking about her struggle. that was really nice. favourite show in a long time for sure.
Excellent review. I read some criticisms of how certain scenes were handled, but I think they lacked some of the nuance here – certainly I cringed through the bathroom episode along with everyone else, but I read it as a rather caustic depiction of a flawed and messy character struggling to express her frustrations but knowing she’s digging herself a deeper hole every time she opens her mouth. It was SUPPOSED to make us cringe, and it succeeded. The whole series was astonishing in its ability to shine a harsh spotlight into dark corners of the psyche, while still somehow remaining a mostly lighthearted comedy.
Beautiful, Drew, just beautiful. Thank you for your vulnerability and honesty. That was a pleasure to read. ❤️
A beautiful review! When I’ve recommended this show to friends I’ve described it as unlike any show I’ve ever seen and you nailed why: Abby is an anti hero. I’m so hoping this is a flood gate for more anti heroes who are not Walter white or Don Draper and more characters like her and Chris. There’s so much more story when you actually have more voices. The bleeping out was not just great story telling wise, it made the final scene so raw. Also Theo Germaine deserves to be a huge star after this and the politician
So beautifully articulated, Drew. I had very similar thoughts when watching the finale episode, particularly in the last (v v painful) moments of the break-up. Thank you for this!
I love everything you wrote about this show, and about how relationships aren’t transactions, and also i related to this a lot: “talking about these experiences is its own kind of defense mechanism. It gives an impression that I’m comfortable with these parts of myself – that I know how to get the support I need. But it’s not true.”
Really wonderful piece, Drew. This part hit especially hard:
“It gives an impression that I’m comfortable with these parts of myself – that I know how to get the support I need. But it’s not true. I can talk about these things in the past tense, but when I’m feeling bad I disappear.”
I’ve dealt with panic disorder and depression for over a decade, and everyone close to me is well aware of it. I’m fine talking about past struggles, but any time it flares up again I either try to power through it, or if that’s not possible, completely retreat. It’s still far easier to lie and tell people I have headache rather than admit I’m too anxious to leave the house.
Thanks for this B E A U T I F U L piece, Drew! I loved reading every part of it, especially the sentence “relationships aren’t transactions” resonated with me. Thank you <3
I love this.
This is a beautiful piece of writing about a beautiful show!
I agree with you about all the reasons that work in progress feels so much more real, so much more relatable and, in the finale, so much more painful than anything else I can remember watching. I know it’s the right decision for Chris to leave, but I’m so desperate for him to stay on my screen, it’s heartbreaking! I will be counting down the days to season 2 like my own set of almonds
This piece is exquisite Drew. I am consistently blown away by your work and especially how you can fuse pop culture with the personal. A true gift.
Yes – THIS
This was lovely to read. Thank you, Drew.
I saw a lot of my struggles reflected back on the screen which doesn’t happen often.
The notion of hiding parts of yourself because of the fear that it might be too much for everyone.
It made this show hard to watch at times.
Thanks for this thoughtful overview. I am so excited this show is coming back. I think of it often and can’t wait to see what happens next.
Any Autostraddle content related to WIP coming our way?