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Apple TV+'s Physical tries to be so many things that it falls short on nearly everything

  • "Physical may have the run time of a small, relatively contained series (ten half-hour episodes), but it has aspirations beyond just Sheila," says Kathryn VanArendonk of Rose Byrne's lead character. "As the story develops, Physical sprawls out more like a prestige drama, slowly collecting a passel of other unhappy misfits, each Sheila-esque in the distance between their outer selves and their inner lives. The show doesn’t plunge us into their voice-over mental monologues the way it does with Sheila’s, but by the end of the season, Physical is aiming at a big, burly Meaningfulness. Everyone is disaffected. The system is broken. It’s a problem with Sheila, but it’s also a problem with capitalism, man. (Some of the side characters are California surfer bums, and Physical’s sneering delight in their surfy linguistics provides some of the only pleasant, funny stuff in the show.) Sheila’s oppressive inner voice is deliberate — of course, it is. Physical’s whole aim is to depict exactly how unbearable intrusive, self-harming thoughts can be. But the challenge is not just that the experience of that voice is so awful. It’s that Physical wants to be so much more, to so many more characters, and it struggles to negotiate the transition between Sheila’s barbed internal world and the lives of everyone else. No one else is as real; no one else has as much agency or space to grow. And because Sheila looks at them all with such disdain, including her husband but also her friend Greta (Dierdre Friel) and her aerobics partner Bunny (Della Saba), the show can’t get away from that sense of disdain either. Sheila hates them but is stuck with them, and the show is stuck with Sheila so we’re all stuck with them too. There are gestures at all kinds of bigger things throughout Physical. It’s a show that would love to be about Reaganism, the rise of the American mall, sexual kinkery, bipartisan political bloviating, a Californian obsession with luxury and authenticity and the self. Most tellingly, Physical also seems like a show that would love to be about aerobics at least some of the time, the way a group aerobics class can feel like a church, the way it feeds Sheila’s disease even as it soothes her need for control. But it falls short here, just as it falls short in essentially every element of its thematic interests beyond the intense, pathological depiction of Sheila’s bulimia. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that Physical succeeds so well on a superficial level — spandex, such beautiful spandex — but then struggles with all the material straining underneath."


    • Physical is a dramedy with no comedy and precious little drama: "Everyone in the cast does good work with their thinly written characters, who have few redeeming features among them," says Lucy Mangan. "Not least Byrne, whose commitment makes Sheila credible even in her most vicious or unlikely moments (stealing video equipment from a potential political ally foremost among them). But Physical feels like a wasted opportunity generally – it could have been a superb rags-to-riches tale that took in just about every zeitgeisty issue from sexism to classism, then and now – and of Byrne specifically, who has long since proved she can handle comedy as effortlessly as she does drama. Let’s hope she finds some soon."
    • Physical is a strong debut for a show that is full of potential: "The show, which was also executive-produced by Byrne, looks amazing from top to bottom," says Kaitlin Thomas. "Between the perfectly permed hair and expert costuming and production design, Physical captures the look and feel of the ‘80s in a way that instantly transports viewers back in time—though in no way makes them nostalgic for the days of tights and leotards. It also does a decent job of building out its little part of San Diego. From Bunny, who lives in a van but whose aerobics operation becomes the backbone of Sheila’s transformation into a fitness guru, to Greta (Dierdre Friel), a woman whom Sheila ignores until she learns she can help her, the show features characters with distinct personalities and points of view. You want to know more about them and their personal struggles, and while I do think the story would have benefited from spending even more time with Bunny, it does a decent job of pulling back the curtain and offering a glimpse into individual characters’ insecurities as well."
    • Physical feels overdue in its explorations of the mental and bodily discipline that millions of girls and women feel compelled to impose on themselves: "Striving for a sense of control in a changing world has long been a staple in prestige TV, so it’s in some respects surprising that the genre has taken this long to tackle the taboo issue," says Inkoo Kang. She adds: "Physical flirts with messiness at times (and has to occasionally rely on coincidences to make things fit together), but it’s built on an intriguing and idiosyncratic overlap of fiefdoms and credos. The show’s smartest decision, other than Byrne’s casting, may be its tendency to evoke rather than spoon-feed. The reasons for Sheila’s love for aerobics, for instance, are never spelled out, and it may well be that she herself doesn’t understand the fullness of its power over her. The dance studio seems to be the one place where she doesn’t hate her body, where she can eschew her ‘70s-hangover clothes for an ‘80s girly glamour, where she feels like she’s going somewhere instead of treading water."
    • Physical is determined to tell too many additional stories at the expense of what ought to be its primary focus: The show has "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," says Daniel Fienberg. "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."
    • Despite its billing as a comedy, Physical stands as one of the most scathing and devastating reflections on disordered eating and inner toxicity brought to screen: "It won’t just make you sympathetic to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, Sheila included," says Kayla Cobb. "Annie Weisman’s new show will force you to take a hard look at what exactly your own inner voice is saying. That’s because Sheila, on the deepest level imaginable, defines herself through self-hatred. At any given moment in the series two stories are unfolding simultaneously. There’s the story you see, one about a secretive housewife who has been stealing money and her deluded husband running for office. And then there’s Sheila’s inner monologue. It’s through Byrne’s cutting insults and screams buried under her pained smile that Physical truly finds its voice. Sheila perfectly fits the mold for a forgettable prestige TV housewife. She’s pretty, slim, and unfailingly supports her husband, at least externally. If this were a different show it would be easy to imagine Sheila’s irresponsible spending emerging as a poorly-established midseason twist. Yet instead of being forced onto the sidelines, Sheila and her near-constant self-flagellation become Physical’s driving force. It’s a positioning that’s pointedly brilliant. If Shelia started this series from a place of agency in her own home she would risk turning into just another TV antihero. Instead the message Physical preaches time and time again is that all of us, even the most ignored, are all hiding our own secrets. Even the most well-adjusted looking, happiest, brightest person you can imagine has their inner demons."
    • Physical is the latest recent series to start middle and then jump back to the beginning, but there’s something particularly off-putting about the way it does this: "Needing five years of narrative time to get from Sheila in front of one mirror to her in front of another just feels like too much, not only because of how slowly the story moves once we land in 1981, but because of how unpleasant this phase of things is," says Alan Sepinwall. "An in medias res opening is meant to entice the viewer into waiting around through some of the dull introductory material so they can get to the fun stuff promised by the teaser. But here, it feels more like a bait-and-switch, one likely to leave many viewers pining for the show promised by that first scene — and much of Apple’s marketing — rather than the one Physical actually delivers. Apple bills the show as 'a half-hour dark comedy.' Mostly, though, it’s just dark: an unrelenting character study of a woman battling many demons, where scenes occasionally have the shape of something meant to be funny, but not the substance. Even the half-hour length, while technically accurate, feels like a cheat, because the amount of time we spend inside Sheila’s head makes the experience feel so much longer."
    • 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," says Kristen Lopez. "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."
    • Physical misuses Rose Byrne in what is a missed opportunity: Her character's "palpable disdain is unpleasant, even on a visual level: Assuming her point of view, Physical makes its characters look pallid and sweaty, food look greasy and clammy, and sex look revolting," says Daniel D'Addario. "At times, it resembles body horror: A pregnant woman rambles to Sheila about how she feels 'flush with desire' as we zoom in on her teeth ravaging a tortilla chip. She goes on to describe her love life as 'meat coming together,' an unbelievably trite line that conveniently justifies Sheila’s repulsion at the physical world. We have elsewhere learned of traumatic elements of her history that make her leery of the idea of touch; finding within her fear a weird and underbaked gag about a randy pregnant woman is missing the point. Physical’s pilot was directed by Craig Gillespie, and it shares something with his film I, Tonya, which never stopped sneering at its own characters. (Dierdre) Friel’s Greta, for instance, is a dowdy housewife whom Sheila ignores and then uses; it comes as no surprise when she indulges her husband’s degrading sexual fetish. Bringing Greta low is how Sheila finds a conditional sort of joy. It says little good about the show that it seems to feel the same way. All of which adds up to a misuse of Byrne, a performer who has never shied away from exploring complication."
    • It’s not a problem that Rose Byrne's Sheila is generally closed off and unlikable: "But it is a problem that through 10 episodes we aren’t made to feel why — we’re shown the reasons for her unhappiness, but they don’t climb past the level of cliché," says Mike Hale. "The character quickly becomes wearying, and while Byrne ... hits her limited notes of sarcasm and freak-out like a pro, she doesn’t find anything extra."
    • Physical offers no reason for its protagonist to walk around in a perpetual state of disgust: Creator Annie Weisman "seems perfectly content with leaving it that way throughout all 10 episodes of the first season. It is the audience, though, who suffers the consequences for that," says Candice Frederick. "Physical commits the cardinal sin of storytelling by leaving it entirely up to its audience to project our personal catalysts for anger onto its character since the story doesn’t do that for us. The show is set in the 1980s, the same era Jane Fonda revitalized her own image by becoming a workout guru. That holds appeal for women like Sheila (Byrne), a stay-at-home wife and mom whose somewhat monotonous lifestyle has given her oodles of idle time to hyper-analyze her figure and that of every woman around her."
    • Physical costume designer Kameron Lennox's inspirations for Sheila's outfits went beyond Jane Fonda
    • Creator Annie Weisman found writing Physical to be very personal: "I came to a point in my life where I realized I hadn’t really written about my own shameful secrets," she says. "The most shameful one was this decades-long eating disorder. I hadn’t really seen it expressed in the way that I experienced it — as a secretive, dangerous, difficult illness. I went away for the weekend and sat under a tree and cried. And then I started writing the script." Meanwhile Rose Byrne says her role as Gloria Steinem in Mrs. America helped her transition to Physical: "Mrs. America finished in 1980. Physical picks up in 1981," says Byrne. "For me as an actor, it was really informative, having been through that decade and really learning about the movement. Sheila is a child of the movement but ultimately is disillusioned. She has ideas. She has ambitions. She has these desires that she can’t put into practice."

    TOPICS: Physical, Apple TV+, Annie Weisman, Rose Byrne