How do you solve a problem like Sheila Rubin?
We love a “complicated” guy in pop culture, don’t we? Whether he’s just a prickly jerk, like Dr. Gregory House, or a faithless cad like Don Draper, or an outright murderer like Walter White, we find ourselves rooting for these characters, and hoping they succeed despite exhibiting behavior that few people get away with in real life. That is, of course, the draw – they appeal to our id, that side of us that wishes we could get away with indiscriminately cheating on our spouses, or getting involved in a life of crime. Nevertheless, we don’t perceive female characters the same way, so it’s a bold move on creator Annie Weisman to put such a difficult character as Sheila Rubin front and center in her Apple TV series Physical. She’s back for a second season, moving closer to her goal of finding happiness and fulfillment as a professional exercise instructor, but not any happier or fulfilled anywhere else in her life.
If, like most people, you didn’t watch season 1 of Physical, allow me a brief recap: Sheila (Rose Byrne) is a southern California housewife, unhappily married to sad sack former activist turned failed college professor turned failed local politician Danny (Rory Scovel). Though to outsiders Sheila is thin, beautiful, poised, and rather a bit snobby, she’s actually a wreck, struggling with an eating disorder (at a time when society knew nothing of such terms as “bulimia” or “anorexia”) and burdened with a monstrous inner monologue that has not a single kind word for anyone, least of all Sheila herself.
As a distraction from her addiction to binging and purging, Sheila becomes obsessed with aerobics, and decides that she wants to make a career out of it, teaming up with instructor Bunny (Della Saba) to create an exercise tape to market and sell. She eventually cuts Bunny out of the profits, however, preferring to go it alone, and seems like she may have a real shot at making something out of herself. But it comes at the cost of a rapidly failing marriage, juggling a variety of secrets and lies, and refusing to address her considerable emotional issues.
To clarify, this is a comedy.
Physical, in both of its seasons so far, is a show that is not so much enjoyed as appreciated. It’s audacious in presenting Sheila as a character who has shockingly few redeeming qualities. She’s no Walter White, but she’s self-centered, single-minded, mean-spirited, and given to just walking out of a situation and stranding her husband and daughter, as she does at her father’s funeral. She seems incapable of either giving or receiving love, sometimes looking confused, other times just disgusted and annoyed. She has little interest in trying to find a balance between her personal life and pursuing her career, whittling the time she spends with her preschool age child down to almost nothing, and not really regretting it much.
You’re either on board with Sheila as the protagonist of Physical, or you’re not. Whether or not you want her to succeed is besides the point – given the wrap-around flash-forwards in the first season, she does, so it doesn’t matter how the audience feels about that. What the show is about is how she gets there, and what she learns along the way, and whether she ever stops making such breathtakingly bad decisions, like having an affair with business developer/creepy Mormon John Breem (Paul Sparks). Those decisions are balanced with some savvy acumen, like finding inspiration in the Richard Simmons-like Vinnie Green (The White Lotus‘s Murray Bartlett) and deciding to make herself into an entire brand, before a time when the concept of “influencers” existed. Sheila’s life is a series of two modest steps forward, and one giant, appalling step back, and that’s what makes Physical a fascinating watch.
Set in the same time period of the early 80s, Physical is reminiscent of the recent Hulu docudrama Candy, in that all of the deeply unhappy people involved in it would find some relief if they had simply gone into therapy. Nearly everybody is miserable, largely in situations of their own making, and muddling through it out of some misplaced sense of obligation, while simmering with resentment at the same time. The answer to Sheila and John Breem’s problems lie with a divorce lawyer, not having an affair with each other, but as far as Sheila’s concerned it’s a healthier outlet than binging and purging, forcing her body to become smaller and smaller until it disappears. It’s just destructive in an entirely different way.
Physical, in both of its seasons so far, is a show that is not so much enjoyed as appreciated.
What we see in season 2 isn’t so much plot set-up as patterns: Sheila has experienced a long history of being minimized, dismissed and ignored entirely, starting with her awful mother (Wendie Malick), who, mere seconds after meeting Sheila’s daughter for the first time, is plying her with candy against Sheila’s wishes, and insisting that she change into a different pair of shoes. The men she encounters in her rise to success are smarmy and condescending, viewing her ambition as either amusing or distasteful. She is constantly underestimated, but the joke’s on them – no one is as convinced that Sheila Rubin is going to fail as Sheila herself is.
And maybe that is why we want to see her succeed. A little bit, at least.
Rose Byrne is as great as ever, expressing Sheila’s vulnerability not in her acidic dialogue, but in her body language, shrinking away when anyone, even non-threatening people like Greta (Dierdre Friel), her only friend, get too close, and reacting to someone telling her they love her with blinking incomprehension. Sheila really hates herself, and while it doesn’t necessarily excuse the cruel things she says about other people, it gives it some context. The second MVP this season is Rory Scovel as Danny, who last season came off as a one-note lout, but now comes thisclose to being sympathetic. He seems sincere in his desire to help Sheila face her problems, but, like most men in that era (and, honestly, now), has not a clue as to how to go about it, and resents that she can’t tell him.
His solution is that they should try to have another baby, which would be one of many supremely bad decisions the characters in Physical make. This is a show about deeply damaged people–perhaps in some cases beyond repair–but they’re human beings. Sheila, while definitely not nice, and maybe not even “good” in the most basic sense of the word, isn’t evil either.. If we can give Don Draper or Walter White a chance, we should be able to give her a chance too.
Season 2 of Physical premieres today on Apple TV+.