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Rose Byrne in Physical.
Rose Byrne in Physical.
Photo: AppleTV+






2/5 Stars


A quietly tortured woman supports her husband's bid for state assembly while battling personal demons until she finds release through the world of aerobics.


There is a scene in Mrs America when Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinham works through a hallway in slow motion, and everyone is transfixed by her. I felt similarly when watching her in Physical, but even that could not distract from the shallowly written characterisation, unlikeable characters and messy plot.

Physical is the story of Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne), a bored housewife who is dealing with a negative self-image. We first meet Sheila in 1986, backstage as she is about to shoot a workout video, and then the show flashes back to 1981, and she is opening her bathroom door to her college professor husband proposing a threesome with one of his students. It is evident that this the origin story of how the passive and dutiful housewife became a fitness mogul.

Sheila is a difficult character. You want to feel sympathy for her because she is trapped in a marriage where she is servicing an extremely ungrateful and clueless husband. Her eating disorder and body dysmorphia is painful to watch as we see her trapped in a cycle of binge-eating and hiring a motel room to throw up in so that her husband does not see. The appeal of aerobics is easy to understand as it gives her an outlet to release her frustration and makes her feel as if she's doing something to improve her body, and it allows her to have her voice that her life and marriage do not easily give her. Although the character makes increasingly selfish decisions, I can't help but root for her, and I think that is largely due to Rose Byrne's performance. Every emotion from disbelief to disgust to pure ecstasy is played across her face, and she just draws you in with every breath.

We hear Sheila's inner voice throughout the episodes as she berates and belittles herself, her self hatred evident. It is brutal, painful, and, while relatable, it can be extremely uncomfortable to listen to, especially as the voice comments on the looks and behaviours of others. This device is useful because it helps us learn what the character is thinking (especially since Sheila isn't someone who says what she really thinks most of the time). It provides us with exposition, but sometimes it feels like it is used too much, and it becomes annoying to listen to.

In 1982, Jane Fonda released her aerobics home video, Jane Fonda's Workout, which revolutionised the way exercise was done. It is obvious that this is partly the inspiration for Physical. Especially since Jane Fonda used the money, she made from the tapes to fund her activism, and Sheila plans to use hers to fund her husband's political campaign. Also, Jane's activist husband, Tom Hayden, was not fond of her aerobics career, much in the way that Sheila hides her own aerobics journey from her husband. But for a show that claims to be about aerobics, there is very little aerobics in it. There is no mention of Jane Fonda, and the show makes it seem as Sheila is the pioneer of the at-home aerobics workout. But even if that is so, because we don't get to see her engaging with aerobics often, it is difficult to understand why this is something she is willing to risk it all for. Too much time is spent on side characters and side plots that we don't learn the full motivation of the character, other than what is shallowly written.

A lot of time is spent on Sheila's husband, Danny (Paul Scovel), as he goes from being a fired college professor to running for political office. A former hippie activist, Danny struggles to marry his beliefs to the yuppie 80s politics. Many interesting things could have been said in this storyline about the Ronald Reagan era, classism, the rise of chain malls and commercialism, but none of this is really tackled. What we get is once more a shallow portrait of this character, as he whines about his situation but expects his wife to solve his problems. It gets even worse once his old hippie friend moves in with them as the campaign manager, and it seems as if Danny is spending more time partying, spending time with college students and getting high than actually focusing on the campaign. This would have been okay as a side plot, but with all the time that the show spends on this, it becomes frustrating, and I almost long to know more about how far Sheila is getting with her aerobics dream.

The other side plots include Bunny (Della Saba), Sheila's aerobics coach and eventual partner who comes from Lebanon, and the show focuses a bit on the political situation there. Bunny is in a relationship with Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci), a surfer and videographer who provides most of the comedic moments in the series. There is also a character with sexual kinks; which the show does not feel that it has the time or the range to deal with. And then there is Greta (Dierdre Friel), the wife of one of the political funders whose child goes to the same school as Sheila and Danny's daughter and becomes a sort of friend to Shiela. Greta is one of the most complex side characters in the show and arguably the most sympathetic.

Physical looks beautiful, and it is obvious that Apple spared no expense in the production of the series. The lighting and the cinematography is stunning; the bright leotards and the costume design as a whole are extremely well done. However, this window dressing is let down by a flimsy plot and lazy characterisation. If it is renewed for season 2, I hope the show will spend more time on Sheila's growth and less on the side plots.


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