Why the Excellent Physical, and Rose Byrne’s Antihero, Are Destined to Be MisunderstoodPhoto Courtesy of Apple TV+ TV Features Physical
It’s easy, on first glance, to see Apple TV+’s new show Physical as an uplifting story: A talented, beautiful woman is kept in metaphorical chains in 1980s America through a combination of societal norms and her own fear, spending her days trying to massage the ego of her buffoon husband while raising a daughter essentially on her own—until she discovers aerobics through an unlikely pair of beach bums, and through her newfound strength she forges a new path for herself full of empowerment and redemption and the kind of success that comes to her inevitably once she lets her powerful inner light shine. Along the way, she escapes the demons of an eating disorder and low self-esteem while lifting up those around her, including her husband, whose doofishness gives way to real appreciation for his wife, and then to the kind of love that, finally, contains real depth.
That’s on first glance. And it’s still easy to see the show that way on second glance, and third glance, and fourth glance. In fact, it’s been so ingrained in us to expect this kind of narrative journey that it’s very difficult to shake it at all. To be fair, these elements are very real in Physical; Sheila Rubin, played by Rose Byrne in a performance that is so strong I’m almost afraid to attempt to describe it, is a woman of extraordinary charisma and talent who has seen her life squandered in a man’s world. She is going to break out of these bonds, and that emancipation provides the rhythm of the show. It’s a big part of the reason why somebody—I’m not saying me, but somebody—might start this show at around 10 p.m. one night, burn through the first three episodes on Apple TV+, pray to god the screener site for critics has all 10, and then burn through those, finishing the tenth and final episode at 4 a.m. cursing himself for sabotaging his next morning. These are all real elements of the story.
Where Physical veers, though, is in the slow realization of an uneasy truth: Sheila Rubin is not a good person. Sheila Rubin is, actually, a monster. She’s an antihero, and the incredible act of courage by creator Annie Weisman and her writers—the indispensable quality that makes this show brilliant—is that they hold back this revelation, this monstrousness, until you’re fully spun up in the web, and then they hit you with a sledgehammer, mercilessly and repeatedly, long after the point when you have the wherewithal to fight back or look away.
If that sounds confrontational or unpleasant, it’s not. Or, not too confrontational, too unpleasant. And it’s not personal. Sheila, who is revealed as a cutthroat businesswoman and visionary as much as she is a talented dancer, is herself a victim. She’s the victim of loathsome parents who loaded her with body image issues and much worse, and friends who recognized her plight but instead of helping cursed her with the knowledge of how to binge and purge.
It’s the kind of background that would have broken a lesser person, and the cruel irony for Sheila is that when she finally summons the courage to blossom, she instinctively seeks out the systems that have trapped her in the first place. Fame, money, adoration; for these, she does not uplift her new friends, does not see the sincerity in her husband’s love. She fails to return deep acts of friendship at the critical hour, and dismisses her husband as an incurable loser. And in the climactic scene, which I’ll take pains not to spoil, there is not even the possibility of redemptive intimacy—she can only engage from a distance with another damaged soul, worshiping together at the altar of something that warps humanity and precludes the warmth of contact.
To the extent that you can understand Sheila Rubin, you understand that she is a born winner whose light was temporarily snuffed out, and when it ignited again, her ultimate victory was funneled into something grotesque because that’s all capitalism, in its early days of all-consuming post-modern viciousness and greed, would allow.
I’m not sure I’ve seen anything quite like this. The traditional arc of an antihero is innocence transformed by desperate circumstance followed by a spiral into evil: the Walter White trajectory. Sheila Rubin is damaged from the start, heartbreakingly so, but also cold in her heart, and mean, and only play-acting at niceness when it’s called for. When she snaps the chains, none of these essential character traits change, and the only transformation we see is that now she can identify helpful people with uncanny precision, and unleashes a heretofore unseen capacity for manipulation.
It’s hard to describe how thrilling this is to watch, how bold the choices, how cynical the outlook, how perfect the execution. When I finished, I immediately began wondering if a show like this could even be appreciated. Apple TV+ has shown with Ted Lasso that it can break through the splintered streaming ecosystem with a bona fide hit, but while there are superficial similarities between the two, most notably the compulsive watchability, Physical is a more challenging show by far. It’s one that is bound to be misinterpreted and misunderstood by those with a subconscious agenda looking for a specific fits-their-priors feminist-adjacent tale. Others may fall out early when confronted with difficult subject matter—no punches are spared when it comes to her eating disorder—or a character who isn’t easily slotted into a ready archetype.
Which would be sad, and I hope I’m wrong. It is not easy to create something new in TV, and the far easier path is to duplicate old formulas successfully, but Physical has found a crackling originality. Sheila Rubin is one of the great characters of recent TV history, and though she might make us uncomfortable and present a reflection of ourselves that isn’t always pleasant to behold, still she deserves to be seen, and seen, and seen.
Physical is now streaming on Apple TV+, with new episodes dropping weekly on Fridays
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