The Spool / Reviews
Physical concludes with more questions than answers

Up to the very end the Apple TV+ dramedy remains funny, empathetic, cynical & frustrating all at once.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.

So the idea of “having it all” was a big lie, right? It is nearly impossible to balance and give equal time to a fulfilling career, a stable relationship, and full-time parenting, with room for leisure time, hobbies, and staying fit. Something will fall to the wayside somewhere, sacrifices will have to be made that will either affect us now or affect us later. But women, we’ve been hearing this nonsense for decades, right, about how with the perfect day planner or the number one meal delivery service or the best ten-minute workout we can do it, we just have to want it bad enough. But not too bad, because ambition is an ugly thing in women. But, on the other hand, so is laziness. Add “find the right balance between too ambitious and not ambitious enough” to the list of things we have to do.

Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne), the protagonist of Physical, is a cautionary tale of what happens when you get caught in that endless ping-pong game of trying to be happy with the hand life has dealt you, and wanting more. She’s not an easy person to love. She’s often not an easy person to like, though that’s gotten a little better since the first season, now that we understand her more, and we see that the chips are stacked against her from the very start. Empathizing with Sheila means having to face some hard truths about one’s self, and our own uncharitable internal monologues, and the inexplicable need to sabotage our own progress.

Did I mention that this is a comedy? It is, mostly, but the laughs come with a grimace, like someone tickling you immediately after stomping on your foot.

In season 1 of Physical, Sheila, a housewife stuck in an unhappy marriage to Danny (Rory Scovel) and struggling with unaddressed trauma from a childhood sexual assault, is in the throes of a serious eating disorder, complicated with a nasty inner voice that skewers both herself and everyone she encounters. She discovers aerobic exercise, which is both a blessing and a curse because, while she sees it as a way out of her unhappy existence, she also transfers her addictive tendencies into it, sneaking away from her family and not really missing them too much.

Physical (Apple+)

In season 2, Sheila begins the journey towards both recovery from her eating disorder, and becoming a star in the growing fitness industry. It’s a bumpy road for both, as Sheila lacks the money to really make an impact in the industry, and her marriage to Danny finally collapses. But nobody gets in Sheila’s way as much as she does, as she still can’t quite bring that bullying inner voice fully under control, and makes terrible mistakes, such as getting involved in an affair with local businessman John Breem (Paul Sparks), who has his own problems to deal with. Finally accepting both help for her emotional issues, not to mention a business partnership with friend Greta (Dierdre Friel), however, she’s at least one step closer to her dream by the end of the season.  

As season 3 begins, Sheila is finally making some headway, gaining a weekly spot on a nationwide news show and some minor recognition, though she hates having to glad-hand and sell her image for other people’s profit. She’s making progress in her recovery too, though her selfish and controlling tendencies come out in demanding that group therapy meetings happen in her home, so no one will find out about them. The tone of her inner voice has changed, though it’s shifted to that of her rival Kelly Kilmartin (an unrecognizable Zooey Deschanel in a blonde wig and speaking with an absurd Southern belle drawl), whom she too often imagines taunting her like a middle school bully. Sheila’s life is constantly one step forward, two often very large steps back.

Physical has teased from the very beginning that Sheila will eventually achieve her goal of being a fitness celebrity. It will come at a cost, not only because success always does, but because Sheila seems incapable of accomplishing anything without having to jeopardize a friendship or destroy an opportunity in the process. She even treats her young daughter as an inconvenience to be foisted upon Danny, her hapless ex, who isn’t any more eager to take on primary parenting duties than Sheila is. If this was the first season that would make Sheila look like a monster. But now that we know a little bit more about her, that she grew up in a household without safety or love, we understand that she doesn’t know how to be a mother in anything other than the most superficial ways. Passing the parenting buck to Danny, who can at least openly express love and be there when their daughter needs him, it’s less selfish than it seems. But it’s still a casualty on the road to success.

Did I mention that this is a comedy? It is, mostly, but the laughs come with a grimace, like someone tickling you immediately after stomping on your foot.

The biggest question is “Was it worth it?” which is impossible to answer, because only Sheila herself can say for sure. Does she win in the end? Well, what does winning mean in this case? Physical doesn’t offer a satisfying response, because there isn’t one. Even if Sheila isn’t a particularly nice person, the show has always gone out of its way not to judge or punish her for her actions. Her personality and actions are borne of trauma, mental illness, and living in an era where help for such things was limited at best, and considered an embarrassment and a personal failing.

The show wouldn’t be half as compelling as it is without Rose Byrne. Much of her best acting in this is in her eyes and body language, which betray the harsh things that Sheila both thinks and says. Cruel thoughts almost seem like a compulsion for her, and one that she’s desperate to control. Moments of pleasure, such as when she tastes a freshly grown vegetable instead of the processed diet garbage she’s talked into endorsing, seem almost painful, as if her brain is trying desperately to reject them. She makes it impossible to villainize Sheila, which is a remarkable accomplishment.

If Physical falters anywhere in its final season, it’s in how some storylines are too hastily wrapped up, often in ways that don’t feel satisfying. I don’t know that the season benefited from the introduction of Danny’s wayward sister (Kate Lambert), another selfish, irresponsible adult in a sea of many. The most prevalent issue is even after three seasons I’m not entirely sure the writers knew what to do with the enigmatic John Breem, who comes off like a creep in season one, then oddly sympathetic in season two, and then a creep again in season three. The tense scenes between John and his deeply troubled wife (Erin Pineda) interrupt the plot flow too many times, and don’t seem to do much other than illustrate that virtually every character on the show is preoccupied with keeping up appearances at the expense of their own happiness.

But again, this is Rose Byrne’s show, and she and show creator Annie Weisman have succeeded in what seems like an impossible task: making a broken, angry, often pathologically self-centered woman win the audience’s warmth and empathy. 

The final season of Physical premieres today on Apple TV+.

Physical Season 3 Trailer: