Rose Byrne’s new dark comedy won’t be for everyone, but it’s a fascinating look at toxic ambition & female body image.
If you graduated high school before, say, the new millennium, you’ll likely recall such phrases from television as “pinch an inch,” or “a shake for breakfast, a shake for lunch, and then a sensible dinner.” You may remember a “diet candy” unfortunately named Ayds. You might even recall, with a grimace, the popular OTC supplement Dexatrim, which was basically speed. All of this was in service of encouraging already thin women to either stay thin, or get even thinner, before it was replaced by the slightly less destructive, but no less obsessive exercise craze spearheaded by celebrities like Cher and Jane Fonda. Annie Weisman’s dark comedy Physical takes place during the early 80s cusp of the transition from fad dieting to fitness, and is a scathing look at ambition and the lengths we go to in order to maintain a very specific image.
Rose Byrne is Sheila Rubin, a deeply unhappy San Diego housewife and mother. Though Sheila presents the image of a glamorous woman always on the go, her world is actually very small, focused largely on preschooler daughter Maya, and Danny (Rory Scovel), her odious college professor husband. We’re introduced to Danny when he tries to goad Sheila into a three-way with one of his students, and as far as first impressions go it’s only downhill from there. Though they once had a loving, mutually respectful relationship, now Danny doesn’t listen to her, has no knowledge or appreciation of what she does to keep the household afloat, and minimizes her intelligence. It only gets worse when he’s turned down for tenure and decides to run for assemblyman instead, becoming an empty suit who’s even less willing to credit Sheila for his successes than he was before.
On top of that, Sheila struggles with an eating disorder that she supports by gradually emptying out the household savings account. At first blush Sheila may seem to be a sympathetic character, but spend a few minutes with her and you’ll learn that she’s pretty awful too, just awful in a different way than Danny. Instead of the therapy she desperately needs, Sheila expresses her thoughts and feelings mostly through an internal monologue that sometimes sounds like a high school mean girl, and others like an emotionally abusive parent. She doesn’t have a kind thought to spare for anyone, least of all herself, particularly when it comes to diet and weight. Sheila’s relentless cruelty is almost triggering at times, and her repeated use of the phrase “fat fucking bitch,” even just in her mind, will be all too familiar to viewers who actually have struggled with their weight.
Feeling adrift after Danny announces his political campaign (and insecure when the college student Danny wants them to hook up with in episode one just keeps hanging around), Sheila takes an aerobics class led by the feisty Bunny (Della Saba). In what will become a repeated theme in Physical, Sheila admires Bunny because she believes her to have a fun, carefree life, only to discover later that she lives in a van and can barely afford to keep her aerobics studio open.
Aerobics class acts as a drug for Sheila, quieting the vicious voice in her head, allowing her to forget her problems for a little while, and sending her into near-ecstatic reveries. She treats it like a drug addiction as well, hiding it from Danny, sneaking out of bed in the middle of the night to practice, and figuring out ways she can get more of it. She all but demands that Bunny give her the opportunity to teach a class, and though they bristle with dislike of each other initially, Bunny grudgingly agrees. Sheila quickly discovers that this is what she actually wants in life, to be a leader, a go-getter, an inspiration, and not Danny’s smiling, blank-eyed arm candy.
Physical’s framing device suggests that Sheila does eventually become a leader in the fitness industry, but by the end of the season it’s not entirely clear how she gets there. Does Physical need to be a multi-season series? Well, that depends on how far you’re willing to go on a journey with such a deeply troubled, unpleasant character as Sheila Rubin. It’s not entirely fair to call her an antihero, but “complicated” doesn’t quite cut it either.
Does Physical need to be a multi-season series? Well, that depends on how far you’re willing to go on a journey with such a deeply troubled, unpleasant character as Sheila Rubin.
We do eventually get some insight on why she’s so unreasonably critical of both herself and everyone around her, but for the first few episodes it’s occasionally a challenge to stay on board and see where things go. Credit for sticking with it goes entirely to Rose Byrne, who manages to express Sheila’s hidden pain with moments as fleeting and subtle as a quick furrow of her brow. You start to understand that Sheila hates the things that she thinks, but has no more control of them than she does over anything else in her life.
Though Physical at first plays around with the tiresome trope that women all secretly hate each other and communicate mostly in passive-aggressive jabs, it spends quite a deal of time developing the other female characters and making them unlikely parallels to Sheila. Particularly interesting is Greta (Dierdre Friel), whose daughter attends preschool with Sheila’s daughter, and whom Sheila initially treats with the same distaste as a bug on her windshield. Greta really is fat and dowdy, as compared to the lithe, perfectly coiffed Sheila, but seems to have a much fuller life, with a bigger home and actual friends, which Sheila glaringly lacks. Of course, things aren’t entirely what they seem in her world either, as exhibited when Greta tries to take one of Sheila’s aerobics classes and flees in tears. It’s a moving moment in a series that up that point is mostly dipped in acid, and one more indicator that in holding ourselves to impossible standards, we mostly end up pushing other people away.
If Physical falters anywhere, it’s in that it focuses too much on Danny’s budding political career, something that is hard to care about because Danny himself is hard to care about. With the exception of likable surfer dude Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci), the male characters are less richly drawn, with John Breem (Paul Sparks), Danny’s campaign adversary, a personality-free dud who is immediately besotted with Sheila, and yet another person trying to maintain an image that everyone else can see right through. He and Danny exist mostly as roadblocks or opportunities for Sheila getting to where she wants, so devoting too much plot real estate to them isn’t all that warranted.
Episodes of Physical zip by in less than a half hour each, which is good, because an hour of Sheila’s cutting commentary might be too much to handle. Nevertheless, it’s a worthwhile watch because it addresses one of the most insidious issues women face in a stark and unblinking way. We’ve yet to fully address the damage the diet and fitness industry, let alone fatphobia has inflicted, and continues to inflict on women, and how much of that is based in both being our own worst enemies, and the shared delusion that our lives are a reality show that is constantly being judged by others. Much like influencer culture today, all of the characters on Physical spend a great deal of time cultivating a very sunny, idealized depiction of how they live and either have no idea that they’re not fooling anyone, or are all too aware of it.
Physical premieres on Apple TV+ June 18th.