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Apple TV+’s Physical Is a Relentlessly Sour Dark Comedy That Squanders Rose Byrne’s Talents

2/5 spandex leotards.

On its surface, Physical has everything going for it: a sparkly dark comedy about female ambition and the spandex-clad aerobics craze of the 1980s, anchored by the always excellent Rose Byrne (Spy, Bridesmaids). But like its prickly protagonist, the show’s polished veneer belies a deep well of self-loathing, raging bitterness, and frustration. Those hoping to fill the hole left by Netflix’s GLOW will have to look elsewhere.

Byrne stars as Sheila Rubin, a rudderless mother and housewife in 1980s San Diego. A politically engaged activist in the 1960s, Sheila struggles to find herself in the rising materialism and superficiality of the Reagan era. She’s married to a boorish college professor Danny (Rory Scovel) who treats her like the help and spends his time flirting with coeds. And while Sheila projects the image of the ideal wife, mother, and hostess, she is plagued with body dysmorphia and a raging eating disorder (content warnings abound). This is fueled by a relentless self-flagellating inner monologue that eviscerates Sheila and everyone she lays eyes on.

Sheila’s only release is her regular binge and purge session in a seedy local motel, a dangerous compulsion that has shredded her self worth and decimated her family’s savings. But when she stumbles onto an aerobics class in the local mall, Sheila discovers salvation and purpose in the workout that quiets the bitter voices in her head. As the in media res opening of the pilot suggests, this is the first step in Sheila’s journey to become a Jane Fonda-style aerobics mogul.

Directed by Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya, Cruella) and created by Annie Weisman (Almost Family, The Path), Physical should be the story of an anti-heroine ruthlessly climbing the ladder of success in the world of home video fitness. But the show struggles with focus and a meandering pace. When Danny gets fired, he decides to run for local office, with Sheila doing the bulk of his campaign work. The series devotes so much time to this uninteresting storyline about local politics that fails to serve Sheila’s own journey.

Perhaps it would be more compelling if Danny were likeable or had interesting ideas. But he’s a selfish, thinly drawn chauvinist whose plot kills the momentum of the series. The rest of the supporting cast are also underserved and underwritten, including Della Saba as Bunny, an aerobics instructor and Lebanese refugee who reluctantly takes Sheila under her wing. Her boyfriend Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci) is a surfer dude who makes extra money filming porn in the studio’s back office. Then there’s fellow preschool mom Greta (Dierdre Friel), whose husband is a political kingmaker that Danny must court for his own campaign success. And then there’s John Breem (Paul Sparks) a devout real estate developer decimating the San Diego coastline who takes an interest in Sheila.

It all adds up to not much of anything at all: this cast of characters is flattened and mocked by Sheila’s relentlessly caustic inner monologue, that eventually punishes the viewer as much as it punishes Sheila. It also serves to isolate Sheila, who struggles to connect with anyone outside her own self hatred. Few characters have any redeeming qualities, and Sheila is only captivating thanks to the electric performance of Rose Byrne. As a character study, Byrne delivers a stunning performance of a woman consumed by self-hatred and unacknowledged trauma. Unfortunately, the series never quite matches her intensity, and what should be a stinging dark comedy is only dark, with very little comedy or nuance to show for it.

Physical is currently streaming on Apple TV+.

(image: Apple TV+)

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Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. She currently lives in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband, son, and one poorly behaved rescue dog. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.