[This review originally published June 7th, 2021]
More than a year and a half after its launch, Apple TV+ remains somewhat of an enigma. The streaming service, without any licensed content, has one bona fide hit under its belt—the feel-good sports comedy Ted Lasso—and a couple of good, often great shows that have yet to break through to the masses (For All Mankind, Dickinson). Next, it will add to its small but growing catalog the ‘80s-set dark comedy Physical, which has the potential to reach similar creative heights, but may also be hamstrung by its existence on a streaming service that remains second tier to larger platforms like Netflix and HBO Max.
Created and executive produced by Annie Weisman, Physical is set in the early 1980s against a sun-drenched San Diego backdrop. It stars Rose Byrne as Sheila Rubin, an unhappy housewife quietly struggling with her self-image and her inability to assert herself in nearly every aspect of her life. This includes her marriage to Danny (Rory Scovel), whose liberal ideals seem to stop at the front door. For all his talk of being a progressive (which includes a campaign for state assembly that is essentially run by Sheila), he still expects her to play the role of dutiful wife and mother, which she does because she lacks agency—even though it’s glaringly obvious from the jump that she is the smarter and more talented of the two. The show even briefly references her unfinished graduate work in women’s studies, a pointed remark that drives home the two sides of Sheila—the woman she wants to be and could be if given the opportunity, and the woman she has become as a result of more traditional gender roles.
Sheila single-handedly runs the Rubin household while raising a 4-year-old daughter (who mostly exists to scream a lot) and also managing Danny’s campaign. It’s meant to be frustrating to watch, and it succeeds. But Sheila’s story becomes even more complicated once you learn of her deep self-hatred and how that has shaped her self-image for decades. She’s been living with bulimia since she was young and is seen binge-eating and purging throughout the 10-episode first season whenever she feels out of control. Her illness has destroyed her sense of self-worth, an idea that is effectively communicated in the show via voiceover. The character’s inner monologue seems specifically designed to showcase not just the dark and painful thoughts she experiences and turns inward every day, but what it must also be like to live in her shoes. It’s a reminder that no matter how polished or beautiful someone’s life looks from the outside, it’s impossible to know what they’re going through behind closed doors.
Everything begins to change, though, once Sheila finds a renewed sense of purpose in aerobics, the latest exercise fad sweeping the country. After teaming up with Bunny (Della Saba), a young instructor with her own studio, and Bunny’s boyfriend Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci), a laid back surfer with an interest in filmmaking, Sheila creates the first at-home workout video which puts her on the long-awaited path toward empowerment and financial independence. Through fleeting glimpses of the future sprinkled throughout the season, we learn Sheila eventually becomes incredibly successful, which frames these 10 episodes as the origin story of the female lifestyle guru.
But while Sheila finds strength and confidence through aerobics, and purpose via her burgeoning business venture in the present day, it hasn’t changed much else—yet. It hasn’t healed her fractured relationship with her parents. It hasn’t cured her of her insecurities or her distorted body image. And it hasn’t shored up the weak spots in her marriage. Although it appears her inner demons are quieted when she’s working out, they inevitably return. And to add to that, she now also exhibits behaviors that could be interpreted as exercise addiction. She lives for the feeling it gives her, and it makes her feel good about herself. But until she addresses the root cause of her problems, they’ll likely persist. Admittedly, these are ideas that could be explored in hypothetical future seasons of the show, but Physical’s first season would have been that much stronger had it spent more time exploring the idea of Sheila trading one problem for another, rather than focusing so much on Danny’s political campaign when it’s obvious she’s the one with the talent and he’s desperate for relevance.
Regardless of what the first season does and doesn’t tackle, it is a strong debut for a show that is full of potential. The show, which was also executive-produced by Byrne, looks amazing from top to bottom. Between the perfectly permed hair and expert costuming and production design, Physical captures the look and feel of the ‘80s in a way that instantly transports viewers back in time—though in no way makes them nostalgic for the days of tights and leotards. It also does a decent job of building out its little part of San Diego. From Bunny, who lives in a van but whose aerobics operation becomes the backbone of Sheila’s transformation into a fitness guru, to Greta (Dierdre Friel), a woman whom Sheila ignores until she learns she can help her, the show features characters with distinct personalities and points of view. You want to know more about them and their personal struggles, and while I do think the story would have benefited from spending even more time with Bunny, it does a decent job of pulling back the curtain and offering a glimpse into individual characters’ insecurities as well.
But as is the case with many of Apple TV+’s shows, one has to wonder whether Physical will find an audience. It’s darkly funny at times but also deals with serious themes in a way that could turn off some viewers. It lacks the universally appealing, feel-good nature of a show like Ted Lasso. And there are even times when Sheila and her selfishness risk toppling the carefully-constructed narrative about women’s empowerment that the show is building. But it’s also well made, frequently compelling, and features episodes that come in at under 30 minutes. It may even fill some of the void left by the cancellation of Netflix’s GLOW last year.
As long as people are willing to subscribe to Apple TV+, of course.
Physical premieres Friday, June 18th on Apple TV+
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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