What can you say about the Apple TV+ series, “Physical”? Created by Annie Weisman, it centers on a bulimic housewife, Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne), who is married to a university professor-cum-aspiring liberal politician, Danny (Rory Scovel), and has a daughter. But she doesn’t seem all that into either her marriage or being a mother. In fact, Sheila seems unfulfilled and inhabits an identity more than has one, if that makes sense. Sheila is searching for who she is; and what makes her happy. The best way to describe her is as a shadow figure or ghost; she exists but has no substance. It’s like she stepped into a housewife, mother, wife suit, but doesn’t belong in it.
Set during the 1980s, “Physical” is a 10-episode dark comedy/drama about how one woman — with a nebulous personality — finds fulfillment and some semblance of empowerment through aerobics and entrepreneurship. That sounds strange, but I am struggling to encapsulate what this show is about. The characters are largely unlikable; they make you kind of uncomfortable, but the show itself is interesting, especially if you lived during the 1980s, and particularly if you witnessed the aerobics phenomenon. Women bought and wore skin-tight, neon-colored spandex; a headband, and then either worked out with other similarly attired women, or, they bought Richard Simmons or Jane Fonda VHS tapes, and sweated it out in the privacy of their living rooms. Looking back on it, it seems surreal. Watching this series sometimes makes me wonder why the 1980s existed at all. And how we survived all the greed, commerce and superficiality.
Sheila, as I said, isn’t a character with whom you want to hang out. A WASP, she is self-loathing — she engages in toxic self-talk, telling herself she’s weak and ugly — neurotic and compulsive. As a way of coping with her life, after she drops her daughter off at childcare, she drives to the local fast-food joint and buys three cheeseburgers, three fries, and a chocolate shake. She takes them to a hotel, takes off her clothes, eats everything, and then throws up and takes a shower. Every time, she vows it will be the last; every time, she tells herself she will eat healthily. Her husband, who is oblivious to his wife’s secret life, is a pot smoking, philandering Jewish hippie, whose liberal ideals don’t align with Sheila’s wealthy conservative parents — Wendie Malick and Ray Wise — or with their San Diego community. (It is suggested she married him to “get back” at her parents.) When he loses his job, he embarks on a political career, with the help of his long-time friend Jerry Goldman (Geoffrey Arend), a hanger-on pothead, and girlfriend/student Simone (Ashley Liao). I only mention that her husband is Jewish, because the show sets him and his friend up as “outsiders,” and I think the creator is highlighting the undercurrent of antisemitism in that time and place.
Aside from binge eating and throwing up, Sheila seems to get some relief from ballet lessons. But then the studio closes, leaving her without an outlet. That’s where Bunny (Della Saba), a hotheaded blonde aerobics instructor, and her surfer, porn filmmaker boyfriend, Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci), come in. First, Sheila takes classes with Bunny in the mall. After getting an exercise high, she decides to become an instructor herself. Then the entrepreneurial spirit takes over, and she partners with Tyler to make some videos. Soon, Sheila is on the path for empowerment.
“Physical” is a strange series, and I’ve struggled trying to encapsulate it. After the pilot, I found myself on the fence as to whether or not I would keep watching. But I decided to finish the season for a few reasons: yes, Sheila is a hot mess, but Byrne fearlessly dives right in. She delivers an honest portrait of a woman crippled by her demons: Addiction, self-loathing, and self-doubt. It’s a standout performance. I also really like Pucci’s van living, surfer, “hey man” character. He reminds me of a lost dog. Saba is also great. In one episode, they indicate that she’s Middle Eastern but hiding behind a façade of bleached hair and Spandex. I hope they flesh out this couple more in season two. They are probably the only characters I enjoyed seeing.
So, in August, it was announced that another of season has been greenlit. Apparently, enough people stumbled upon the show, and found it entertaining. It seems many people are nostalgic for the 1980s, so it has that going for it. You get to see the malls, the curly perms and neon clothing, and hear the music, including the quintessential hits: Patrick Cowley and Sylvester’s “Do You Wanna Funk,” Laura Branigan’s “Gloria,” Pablo Cruise’s “Love Will Find a Way,” A Flock of Seagulls’ “Space Age Love Song,” Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero,” among others. The series is named, no doubt, after Olivia Newton-John’s hit “Physical” (1981). In that video — and if you haven’t seen it, you must seek it out — the waif-like Australian singer wears a white headband, dangly earrings and aerobics gear while encouraging/training overweight men to work out. All to “comedic” effect, I guess they said back in the day.
I’m curious as to what happens with Sheila next. Will she become uber-rich? Leave her husband? Become just like her parents? Or will she experience success, and then crash and burn? As long as it doesn’t take too long for new episodes to appear, I will stay tuned. I recommend it with reservations. If you have enjoyed shows like “Weeds” (2005) or “Orange is the New Black” (2013), this might be your new fix.