Put-upon suburban housewife and mom finds a calling that leads to a big business idea, translating into fame and fortune " it's a story that's been told before. In Physical, the new Apple TV+ series starring Rose Byrne, it gets the dark comedy/dramedy treatment. The pre-release material on the show " Byrne's character goes on to launch a fitness/aerobics empire in '80s California, and spends a considerable amount of screen time in a leotard " led me to presume it might be another Glow; it isn't.
Physical is set in 1980s San Diego, and centres on the Rubins: Sheila (Byrne) and her professor husband Danny (Rory Scovel), whose '60s, hippy/bohemian, anti-war, pro-conservation and socialist beliefs make them seem like anachronisms or very cool, depending on the perspective. At the start of the series, Sheila learns, via a student called Simone (Ashley Liao) that Danny wants her to set up a mÃ©nage Ã trois with, that her husband could soon be fired from his faculty position.
Sheila convinces Danny that this is an opportunity for him to pursue his dream of making political history instead of merely teaching it: he should run for the state assembly on a conservation platform for the oceanfront, against the Republican candidate who is propping up corporate interests. That's easier said than done in the time of a Ronald Reagan-led America, where the Rubins' community is divided along sharp progressive versus conservative lines, where the mall in their town is a symbol of a homogenous consumerist culture that has meant the closure of several smaller establishments, where the ocean and beaches are seen as resources to be protected by some and as untapped potential for development projects by others.
Even as she is occasionally babying, cajoling, encouraging, supporting, pushing Danny on this path, Sheila is " as the synopsis of the show has briefly informed us " "battling extreme personal demons of her own". The synopsis also references her "vicious inner life", which at least to me felt like not enough of a trigger warning for the very disturbing depictions of Sheila's mental health Physical is full of. Perhaps the version of the episodes that will be released to the audience (members of the press had access to early screeners) will include these, but in case they don't: t/w for eating disorders, sexual violence, mental illness, suicidal ideation.
Sheila has a deeply conflicted relationship with her body and with food, a manifestation of her need for control. In company, she rarely eats. In private, she binges compulsively " either in a sensual haze or an anxious frenzy " then makes herself throw it all up. Each binge-and-purge cycle " indeed most of her waking life " is accompanied by the most virulent self-talk (calling herself worthless or a "fat b*tch") and the false promise to herself that she'll turn over a new leaf going forward. Unbeknownst to Danny, she's also been dipping into their slender savings to fuel her behaviour, meaning that their financial reserves are severely depleted when he loses his job and needs funds for his campaign.
Sheila's inner critic judges others as harshly as she does herself: physical appearances are subjected to scathing comments, personalities and tics are ruthlessly examined. Every interaction with another human being is a process of fighting not to articulate her inner monologue and going for the polite " sane " option instead. Sheila has few genuine relationships or confidantes; how could she, given what's going on in her mind nearly all the time?
(If that sounds exhausting, it is " both for Sheila and the viewer. Physical is being released weekly, with 10 half-hour episodes in this season, but this review required a binge-watch, and I do not recommend the experience, especially to anyone with a similar history of mental health issues.)
The story's inflexion point comes when Sheila discovers aerobics: she's noticed a free-spirited young blonde driving around town, they once make eye contact, and her intrigue piqued, Sheila follows the woman to " where else but " the mall, where the latter has a fitness studio. The lives of the woman, Bunny (Della Saba), and her stoner-surfer-filmmaker boyfriend Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci), become inextricably entangled with Sheila's. Others who also come into her ambit include Greta (Deirdre Friel), an unlikely friend; and John Breem (Paul Sparks), the developer of the mall, backer of Danny's political rival, and Sheila's unlikely ally.
The twists and turns of Physical's plot or Sheila's (predictable) transformation into aerobics guru are not as important as its people, all of whom can be aggravating and unlikable but also display moments of sparkling humanity when you least expect it.
A case in point is Danny, who comes off as an obtuse, bumbling douche on most occasions, but shows " in one of Sheila's most vulnerable moments " a glimpse of why he's the man she chose to marry. His zeal for conservation, his idealism, is real. Bunny and Tyler share a deep tenderness that belies their laidback exteriors. Greta has a wellspring of compassion and courage. A quiet act of subversiveness by a usually submissive wife has its intended impact.
In the often arid lives of the characters, governed by dictates from all kinds of social quarters and their own conditioning, these moments stand out even more in contrast. These characterisations give Physical its layers, as much as the examination of the hypocrisy that underpins the behaviour of people on both sides of the liberal-conservative ideology divide. Rose Byrne's performance as Sheila makes you cringe at, sympathise with, and root for the character. Rory Scovel plays Danny as a character who surprises you with some facet at just the point that you're ready to dismiss him. Lou Taylor Pucci's Tyler is the nicest of this bunch.
Despite its aforementioned comedy/dramedy label, laughter can be a bit hard to find in Physical. Of the drama and the darkness though, there's plenty.
A new episode of Physical is released every Friday on Apple TV+.