Physical Review 2021 Tv Show Series Season Cast Crew
Creator: Annie Weisman
Stars: Rose Byrne, Rory Scovel, Dierdre Friel
There are people for whom exercising means a long, solitary, contemplative run. Others, however, require a torrent of exhortation, the kind of loudly articulated positive or negative reinforcement that can range from gentle cajoling to abuse.
From the fitness craze of the ’80s to real and virtual spin classes today, there has long been an allure to enlisting the help of coaches to become the motivating voices in your head
But what are the voices in their heads? What are the exercisers exorcising?
That’s the question that drives the most compelling part of Apple TV+’s Physical, a 10-episode, half-hour dramedy with an unrelenting sour streak that’s sure to immediately alienate any viewer who makes the mistake of thinking they’re tuning in for a vaguely campy slice of light-hearted nostalgia. If you accept going in that Physical is a dark and tormented character study propelled by an ultra-intense performance from Rose Byrne, there are things to be engaged by. But I’ve rarely seen a show more committed to following storylines I didn’t care about at the expense of its best assets.
Byrne plays Sheila Rubin, a tightly wound San Diego housewife looking for purpose in the early ’80s. Sheila once found motivation in ballet, and in ’60s protest movements with husband Danny (Rory Scovel), but her dance studio closed and Danny has become a complacent college professor more interested in flirting with coeds than big ideas. Cursed with a self-flagellating inner monologue, Sheila has a ritualized eating disorder that involves meticulously wrapped hamburgers and a tawdry motel.
At a local mall — the type her pompously progressive hubby views as a scourge — Sheila catches sight of an aerobics class led by the energetic Bunny (Della Saba). That class provides her a glimmer of new purpose and, on the eve of the VHS revolution, a glimpse of the future.
Creator Annie Weisman (Almost Family) has a very good sense of what makes Sheila tick, even if the first season handles certain details in her traumatic backstory more perfunctorily than might be ideal. Sheila is hard to like, but nobody knows that better than Sheila, and the role offers Byrne a ripe chance to play the contrast between all-too-perfect exterior — her cheekbones and springy hair could go off and star on a show of their own — and a tragic internalized isolation that leaves her constantly distracted and prone to making the worst decisions possible. She’s a ticking-time-bomb antihero in the half-hour tradition of shows like Weeds, Hung or Nurse Jackie, and Byrne makes her appropriately terrifying in her drive.
Were Physical actually the story of Sheila and her path from misery to empowerment via aerobics — a completely unnecessary in medias res opening shows that by 1986, she’ll be superstar of some sort — it would be recommendable, if not always pleasurable.
Despite an already truncated running time (Physical feels like a punishment inflicted on critics lamenting the bloat of prestige TV dramas — as if to say, “Shorter episodes have their own problems”), the show is determined to tell too many additional stories at the expense of what ought to be its primary focus.
Sheila’s husband decides to run for an inconsistently defined local office; that becomes nearly half the show and I can’t imagine anybody excitedly watching this leering lump of a liberal husk work his way through his political aspirations. Scovel is possibly too good at making Danny into a wishy-washy waste of space.
Then there’s a storyline involving Sheila’s somewhat-friend Greta (Dierdre Friel) and her husband (Ian Gomez), a local kingmaker. Friel at least makes Greta one of the show’s more sympathetic characters.
Then you have Paul Sparks playing John Breem, local mall mogul and a man who, thanks apparently to his Mormon upbringing, may be the only person who understands Sheila’s level of self-loathing.
And finally there’s Bunny and Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci), an aspiring filmmaker whose gifts with a video camera connect several storylines. They may be the closest the show comes to depicting a healthy relationship.
Were this a review of endless words, I could tie each of these threads into Sheila’s plot. I could explain the different portraits of men feeling emasculated in a world where they’re nevertheless still masters of the universe and women champing at the bit as they’re treated as, at most, passive inspirations for their spouses. And I could link it all to the hollowness of Reagan-era prosperity. I get what Weisman is going for, and I can imagine how, perhaps in a novel or maybe an hourlong series, the pieces might come together in an illuminating way. Here, they simply do not.
Danny’s election is a black hole of boredom. John’s capitalism is a black hole of glumness. Because Saba is a firecracker and possibly the show’s breakout, and because Pucci’s amiable burnout offers the show its only real laughs, I can almost justify the time spent on their characters (despite the head-scratching sense that somebody cut every other Bunny/Tyler scene).
A real possibility: Physical was supposed to be an ensemble, but Byrne being as good and as forceful as she is throws the balance off. The show without a potent central performance would be bad, because then you’d invest in nothing. But at least you wouldn’t resent every storyline other than Sheila’s for sapping the overall momentum, which directors starting with Craig Gillespie (Cruella) never find a way to maintain, no matter how many classic ’80s needle-drops the soundtrack contains.
I’m not sure what the tone of that ensemble would be, nor am I sure that Weisman has really found the tone here — though Physical should put an end to those early rumors that Apple was sanding rough edges off its shows in order to make an aspirational brand. Most of the people in Physical are bleakly damaged, and their world matches.