(content warning: references to disordered eating)
I’m not going to beat around the bush: Physical is a shockingly miserable show. What appears to be a glossy period drama revolving around the home fitness explosion of the 1980s has less to say about excess and ambition than it does about self-loathing, something that it excels at so well that it manages to be contagious. Many viewers will head into this expecting a sardonic version of Glow, that wonderful women-led comedic drama that was yet another victim of Netflix’s garbage cancellation practices, but will instead be confronted with a grim depiction of domesticity and disordered eating.
Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne) is a former grad student-now housewife who keeps herself busy with motherhood, obsessing about her weight, and going on venomous mental rants. She’s unhappily married to Danny (Rory Scovel), a skeevy college professor with fantasies of political stardom. When the particulars of her eating disorder (more on that later) manages to wreck their savings, Sheila scrambles to find a solution, which comes in the form of blackmailing and then later going into business with a hard-boiled aerobics instructor named Bunny (Della Saba). Eventually, an empire is built on the foundation of Sheila’s barely concealed animosity-turned-enterprising nature while she continues coping with her demons.
First and foremost, viewers need to be aware of the fact that Physical doesn’t simply hint at disordered eating, it’s actually a major plot point that’s almost entirely muffled in the trailer, understandably so as it’s rather difficult to be quippy about such a dangerous illness. Yet the series’ handling of Sheila’s bulimia is off-putting in a way that has little to do with the disease itself. When a negative event triggers her into an episode of binge eating, her disgust with herself is nearly unbearable to watch. There are content warnings at the beginning of each episode, though I would seriously caution anyone who has ever dealt with an ED to be aware of this facet of the series. Although the bingeing episodes are fairly limited, both in time and graphic depiction, the compensatory behavior (i.e. Sheila’s desperate dieting and exercise) and constant criticism delivered via her private thoughts are ever-present, especially in the first three episodes. For being such a staple of the show, it’s also the worst part of it, as there’s a sense that Sheila’s horrible inner monologue is supposed to somehow come off as funny, rather than symptomatic of her illness. Her constant criticism of other people’s eating habits and body types is seemingly an attempt at biting humor delivered by a deeply flawed protagonist, but the writing is akin to a high schooler’s burn book (“fat ass” is thrown around an obnoxious number of times) and serves only as a deterrent for the empathy that should rightfully be felt for her. Interestingly enough, the series begins to elevate in quality in episode four, when Byrne is given more material to work with that moves beyond her eating disorder and with it, her tiresome, hate-riddled interior diatribes.
Byrne has made a concerted effort to situate herself as something of a character actor, smoothly moving between light-hearted, comedic work (Peter Rabbit, the Neighbors franchise), more acerbic roles (her work in Spy alone is enough to earn her a permanent place in my heart), and lately, more prestige efforts such as her portrayal of Gloria Steinem in Mrs. America. Her work in Physical feels like a continuation of that effort to be recognized by the major awards circuit—no shade intended; most professionals in their fields understandably appreciate recognition for their work—but thus far in the series, there’s not enough material for Bryne to spring off. This isn’t limited to her character, either; everyone in the series is little more than a character sketch. As far as television husbands go, Danny is so utterly repugnant that he makes the last tv husband I bemoaned seem almost tolerable by comparison. His blatant desire for female undergraduates is stomach-churning enough (“She’s so young!” Danny exclaims in delight over a student he’s convinced wishes to engage in a threesome), but by the time we make it to a scene in which he uses a spoon to ring against a coffee cup to hasten Sheila’s effort to make a fresh pot, it’s clear that Danny is forever fated to simply be an asshole with little to offer his wife or the viewers who’re gasping for the tiniest bubble of likable oxygen in this show. Even the most likable character, Greta (Dierdre Friel), the fellow nursery school mother who receives the brunt of Sheila’s mental fat jabs, is restricted by the show’s insistence on misery, with the exception of the rare moments that Friel’s talent imbues her with charm and self-awareness.
Physical isn’t a terrible show, but it’s not a good show, either. It spends too much time reveling in its horrible themes and not enough time actually being interesting to watch. There isn’t enough original material here that doesn’t feel like it ticks off some imaginary ‘Prestige TV’ box, and any meaningful character perspective is limited primarily to horrific close-ups of food being eaten. That isn’t drama; it’s just gross. There’s not a single character that feels fully formed, but even if there were, the show’s disdain for each of them would still cast a pall over them. I am, admittedly, curious about Sheila’s rise to fame, but I will likely only check in if I have a show gap. Otherwise, there’s too little energy and far too much awfulness to expend effort on working through this exercise in self-loathing and shame.
The first four episodes of Physical are streaming on Apple TV+ now, with new episodes released on Fridays.
Kaleena Rivera is the TV Editor for Pajiba. When she isn’t curious about the history of the 1980’s home workout phenomenon (fun fact: Jane Fonda only started aerobics because she broke her ankle while filming The China Syndrome and used the income from her videos to fund her activism), she can be found on Twitter here.
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