The 1980s are a decade that’s been mythologized and romanticized to death, usually by men. That alone sets Annie Weisman’s “Physical” apart, and it is more than enough to recommend watching it. But what Weisman’s story does isn’t just examine the way women were spending a decade usually boiled down to big hair and cocaine — although that’s well-represented in the series. It also looks at how the oft-perceived frivolous things women were doing in the era often led to more power than anyone could realize.
Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne) is an ’80s woman trying to have it all: perfect home, perfect husband, and perfect body. Unfortunately, all three are in various states of falling apart, or at least they are by Sheila’s standards. Her husband, Danny (Rory Scovel) has just lost his job as a professor and has aspirations to join local government. But that takes money, which Sheila has been siphoning, thus leaving them broke. And that perfect body comes as the result of a devastating eating disorder that Sheila can’t keep at bay.
“Physical” almost exists in the same universe as Showtime’s “On Becoming a God in Central Florida.” Both are set in similar eras focusing on a struggling housewife who, through the empowerment of aerobics, helps them deal with the pickle their idiot husband has put them in. Suffice it to say, if you liked that series you’ll enjoy “Physical,” and their commonalties are fascinating if only to emphasize how male-dominated our look back at these eras tend to be.
In this case, it’s that the happy-go-lucky world of the 1980s with its burgeoning mall culture and aerobics were actually ways women were able to stay sane. And, really, Sheila tends to be the mistress of her own hell. Byrne is just spellbinding as a woman fraught with complexity and inner torment. With a wide smile plastered on her face, we see Sheila attempt to make life for Danny and their daughter pleasant. But when the stress gets to be too much she buys three burgers, three fries, and a chocolate shack, buys a room at a scummy motel and eats them, only to barf everything up again.
In a way, “Physical” could be triggering, particularly for those who have or struggle with disordered eating. But what Weisman’s scripts do so well is not necessarily focus on Sheila’s bulimia but her mental health and how society has contributed to her issues. Sheila’s thoughts are constantly spoken out to the audience, reminding us of how she thinks she’s dumb, fat, and hates everyone. These are Sheila’s thoughts, but they’re more the constant sense of self-loathing and doubt that everyone experiences and we’re told to just cast aside.
Sheila’s mad rush for perfection has caused her to self-isolate, and through Danny’s campaign she is forced to interact with people that (in her mind) she sees are beneath her. The main one being Greta (Dierdre Friel), one of the moms at Sheila’s daughter’s school. To Sheila, Greta is nothing but a nuisance, but as the series progresses there’s a beautiful symmetry in how both women are dissatisfied with their lives. Friel is just as compelling to watch as Byrne. In a series where everyone is giving out some type of artifice, Friel has none.
As Sheila attempts to find her own sense of autonomy she’s drawn to an aerobics class talk by Israeli expat, Bunny (Della Saba) who, along with her surfer boyfriend Tyler (Lou Tyler Pucci) live in the mall itself. Like Sheila, Bunny is hoping to craft her own American dream, complete with bleached blonde hair. There are hints to what’s going on in her life, but there are so many competing stories that, ironically, she’s bumped down to the bottom.
But without Bunny we wouldn’t get amazing moments of Byrne doing aerobic routines and if “Physical” does its greatest work anywhere, it’s in how aerobics became a phenomenon. As Sheila says, there’s a sense of empowerment and strength to be found in the workouts. Where Sheila judges herself, aerobics is about working within your own limits. The series opens with Sheila at the top, so we know where the end result is, but watching how she gets there is great.
Sheila’s such a force that not a lot gets left in its wake. Byrne and Scovel are a dream team with their relationship ebbing and flowing at every turn. Danny is certainly a man who’s been told he’s brilliant so often that it’s gone to his head. He underestimates and overtaxes Sheila at every turn, but halfway through the series there’s a discussion of how they ended up together that explains everything. Danny isn’t perfect, but where Sheila’s past is concerned he is someone who genuinely cares for her.
The series’ biggest flaw is the amount of storylines that are packed into its 10 episodes. Sheila and Danny are the heart, as well as Greta. Even Bunny and Danny make sense. The addition of powerful developer John Breem (Paul Sparks), late in the season, overloads things a bit. It’s evident he’ll be a bigger role in Season 2 but it leaves his character unbalanced.
In the end, “Physical” is a showcase for Byrne that will have you jumping even if things feel a bit unbalanced.
“Physical” is available to stream on Apple TV+.