Created by Annie Weisman, Physical is a dark drama hiding behind the glossy glow of 1980s California. Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne) is a quietly tortured housewife living in the liberal paradise of San Diego. Her life is dedicated to supporting her husband and child. And then she discovers aerobics.
When her arrogant man-child husband Danny (Rory Scovel) loses his teaching job, he decides to run for state assembly. As the politics of small government campaigning take over their lives, Shelia’s dark comic internal monologue has more important things to muse over. Sheila has battled demons most of her life, mostly related to her self-image, but things are out of hand.
She is obsessed with looks and weight. Not just her own, but those of the other mums at school and generally any person she walks past. Bitter thoughts, delivered through a voiceover, belittling them because of their weight, infiltrate her mind, distracting her from conversations and even her own family. But she has her own secret, one that deeply shames her. She is spending the family savings on fast food, which she binges and throws up in motel rooms.
After one of these binges, she sees a gorgeous blonde in a convertible car. Haunted by this perfect woman living the life she wants, she follows her. She is led to a quintessentially 80s mall where she sees the woman teaching aerobics classes. She learns this gorgeous Malibu Barbie is called Bunny (Della Saba), a Muslim immigrant battling her own demons. She lives in her office in the mall with her surfer and ‘filmmaker’ boyfriend Tyler, both struggling to find their place in society. She is selling the American dream with her bleach blonde hair and workout classes.
Soon Sheila is secretly teaching aerobics classes, slowly detaching herself from her husband and family. When she is working out, she is finally doing something for herself. No longer just the woman who does the groceries and the school run, she is powerful.
Physical follows Sheila as she uses her newfound passion and the burgeoning technology of hand-held video cameras to become a female lifestyle guru. The at-home workout VHS stars were disputed early fitness influencers. These women became household names and inspired millions of women, giving them the ability to change their lives from their living rooms.
Physical shares significant DNA with Glow, not just in the era and the leotard-heavy wardrobe. They are both shows about women relieving themselves from the clutches of society and finally doing something they truly love.
Although sold as a dramedy, Physical is light on the comedy, especially considering the half an hour premise. There is little comedy to be found in the dark tale of eating disorders and self-image demons. The hapless Danny Rubin brings some laughs with his venture into politics. He is co-assisted by Jerry (Geoffrey Arend), who hasn’t been lucid for a decade. Whilst Sheila works on self-improvement, the boys are too busy working on getting stoned and throwing parties with wide-eyed politics students.
The relationship between Sheila and fellow frustrated mum, Greta (Diedre Friel) is the highlight of this ten-part series. Greta is also frustrated with how she looks, frustrated with how weak she feels when around food. She lives in a nice home with hired help but is concerned her politician husband is having an affair. Sheila is revolted by how Greta looks and her lack of willpower but deep down understands why she feels that way. This type of layered female relationship is rare to find, there is desperation and judgement, sympathy and understanding, all tied up with the political moves they must play just to survive the social ladder they are both balancing on.
Rose Byrne is darkly uncomfortable as Sheila. Her inner monologue sharp and bitter, her wide-eyed looks and bonkers curly hair a fantastic contradiction. Slim with sharp shoulders and pin-thin legs, she moves like a woman uncomfortable with her own body. You can see her visibly lighten from the weight of her own thoughts when she discovers aerobics.
Physical is notable for being entirely from a female point of view. All male characters are side-lined and are supporting players to the lives of women. The team behind the camera is just as female-dominated as in front of the camera.
Physical will be able to stream exclusively on AppleTV+ from June 18th
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy