During its first five minutes, “Physical” makes its intentions clear: to show how a woman who has sacrificed her life and dreams for her family manages to rebuild her battered self-esteem to become a fitness goddess. And cue flashback.
Set in the beach paradise that was San Diego in the 1980s, this black comedy from Apple TV+ follows the endeavors of Sheila Rubin, a quietly conforming housewife who when her husband loses his job as a university professor decides to support him in his career to get to state government. Because when Sheila and Danny met as young college activists in the 1960s, neither one could have imagined that life would end up like this. But the couple have both succumbed to adopting the roles imposed upon them by society and, with their adorable daughter, seemingly make up the perfect family.
Friendly and accommodating, Sheila always responds with an affirmative smile or an apology. So her husband wants to have a threesome with a younger woman? Sheila herself organizes the whole thing. Badgered by a group of unruly and rude surfers? Sheila bows her head and apologizes. That is, until aerobics come into her life.
Faced with the abusive use of voice-overs featuring in a host of series to explain or expose issues that should be evidenced on screen, “Physical” gets it right when it comes to sharing Sheila’s thoughts with the audience. She knows her husband’s a loser, that he does not listen to her and that he steals her ideas, she even finds the sight of him repulsive. But if she puts up with it, it’s only because her own mind is her greatest enemy.
Sheila has a completely distorted perception of her own self-worth and her physique, is obsessed with losing weight, and suffers from a serious eating disorder. We constantly hear her insulting, self-hating and undervaluing herself. To her and many of the women around her, they see a reflection of their fears or their alleged inability to achieve their goals. As such, we can easily comprehend that if this woman lives subject to the whims and opinions of others, it’s only because, deep down, she believes that she doesn’t deserve anything better.
Without much spoiling, Sheila gets hooked on aerobics as the exercise she so desperately sought, but her true empowerment begins when she discovers that she can use her passion to earn money thanks to the emerging technology of home video. Along the way, she makes questionable decisions and sparks rejection from the audience: this isn’t your typically inspiring tale of the heroine who through grit and grime, achieves what she wants, but instead is the rocky road taken by an imperfect woman trying to survive conditioned, like everyone else, by the world around her.
In front of the cameras, Rose Byrne (“Mrs. America”, “Damages”) carries the weight of the entire series on her shoulders and emerges victorious from the challenge of playing these two women and their transition: in the public eye, helpful and affectionate, but when alone, scathing and self-destructive. Behind the lens, creator, screenwriter and producer Annie Weisman (“Desperate Housewives”), and directors Craig Gillespie (“I, Tonya” and “Cruella”), Liza Johnson (“Feud: Bette and Joan”), Stephanie Laing (“Veep”) address issues including mental health, social pressure and the dark side of success with both humor and sensitivity. In a nutshell, “Physical” is a series we recommend you take your time to relish. The 10, 30-minute episodes are sheer enjoyment visually as well as for the writing, but they’ll also give you plenty of food for thought.