It's easy to forget that it's only been fifteen years since movie stars been appearing as regulars in TV series. That invisible line of demarcation that once separated "movie stars" from "TV stars" is lone gone, but until the mid-aughts it stood. Two of the earliest shows to bridge that divide were Showtime's Weeds, starring Mary-Louise Parker as a suburban housewife who turns to drug dealing after her husband dies, and the FX legal drama Damages, which starred Glenn Close as an ethically dubious but deeply effective New York attorney.
Both shows told the stories of women who turned to extreme measures to navigate the prisons that either society or circumstance had landed them in, each one with their own hook, and others would follow — United States of Tara was Weeds with multiple personalities; The Big C was Weeds with terminal cancer. You can track this trend all the way to the present-day success of Hacks, which uses the twin milieus of Vegas and stand-up comedy to tell the story of a woman dealing with society's determination to put her out to pasture.
These shows have helped establish TV as a haven for actresses who've been underserved by the roles available for women in feature films. Back on Damages, the role of Close's initially naive apprentice who was steadily corrupted over the course of the series was played by Australian actress Rose Byrne, who at that point had starred in large-ensemble action and sci-fi films like Troy and Sunshine but hadn't gotten a chance at a juicy lead (or co-lead) role. Byrne knocked her Damages role out of the park, which eventually led to Bridesmaids and a decade's worth of film roles. Last year Byrne returned to TV as Gloria Steinem in the miniseries Mrs. America, but it's Physical, premiering this week on Apple TV+, that finally gives Byrne the Weeds-descended show that spotlights everything she can do as a performer.
Physical, a half-hour dramedy from writer/creator Annie Weisman (Suburgatory; The Path), tells the story of Sheila Rubin, a deeply unhappy wife and mother in 1980s San Diego who ends up finding salvation (and a lot of money) by riding the personal-fitness wave of Reagan's America.
The series opens in 1986, following a leotard-attired fitness queen preparing for a TV appearance. We don't see her face, but she's obviously a big deal and a big star; the mystery surrounding her only enhances how big a star we assume her to be. But before we see her face (it's obviously Rose Byrne's character, but we roll with the mystery), we're sent hurling back to 1981, where Sheila Rubin is decidedly unglamorous and deeply unhappy, married to a schmucky college professor who's about to lose his job and is currently trying to talk her into a threesome with a student. Before the evening ends in disappointment for all involved, the student manages to compliment Sheila by calling her a cool mom. She's only half right.
Sheila and Danny (Rory Scovel), the schmuck, are a post-"movement" Berkeley couple who had a kid, settled down, watched Ronald Reagan get elected President, and now while their formerly activist friends are busy getting theirs ("the real way to make a difference is to make a fortune," a friend tells Sheila), they're starting to turn inward for their fulfillment. For Danny, this means a half-hearted run for local political office, a kind of last gasp at idealism; but for Sheila, things are darker and more complicated.
The more we learn about Sheila, the more we see how deeply she hates herself. One of Physical's more canny knife-twists is the way it weaponizes the now-cliché main-character voiceover narration we've come to know from shows like Sex and the City and Grey's Anatomy. Sheila's inner voice isn't wise or enigmatic, it's a bilious and toxic stream of consciousness that tells Sheila how awful, worthless, fat, and pathetic she is. The more the show goes on, the more this inner monologue becomes a character in and of itself, truly the antagonist of the series.
I'm not sure I've seen a TV show zero in so acutely on the psychology of self-hatred, and the way Sheila's works hand-in-hand with what is soon revealed to be an eating disorder — a binge and purge ritual that Sheila undertakes at a by-the-hour motel so no one will see — is pretty traumatic. Her dark secret has not only ravaged her emotionally, it's also drained the family bank account just in time for Danny's political run, putting Sheila in a bind, which brings us back to the Weeds of it all.
Sheila's sudden financial needs put her in the position of countless female leads in half-hour dramadies before her; women railroaded by the world who turn to something hook-y to fix it. Sheila's already been obsessed with a bottle-blonde little twentysomething who seems to have something deeply enviable. One day Sheila follows the girl, Bunny (Della Saba), to the mall, and her eyes go Spielberg-wide when she sees Bunny teaching an aerobics class.
At first Sheila uses Bunny — along with her boyfriend, porn producing surfer boy Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci) — to scam some quick cash. But soon she sees a chance for a true lifestyle turnaround if she can learn to dominate the personal fitness field. That aggro inner monologue of hers becomes the basis for a fitness-instructor persona that feels very proto-Peloton in some darkly recognizable ways.
That Rose Byrne has the chops to nail such a complicated, dark, nasty-but-sympathetic character will come as no surprise to anyone who's followed her career, but it's still worth marveling at what she's able to do with Sheila. The character's self-hatred is directed both inward and outward, defying easy audience sympathies or enmity. Dierdre Friel gives a great performance as Greta, a fellow daycare mom whose physical appearance sends Sheila's vicious inner voice into paroxysms of vile name-calling. Greta's meek, soft-bodied existence is everything Sheila hates about herself made manifest. But Greta's husband is rich, so Sheila stays in her orbit, and the longer the two characters stay in each other's lives, the more complicated they become, to great effect.
Physical seems to have a lot to say about the era of '80s personal fitness and how the Reagan era saw some of the most idealistic of the Boomer generation turn inward to perfecting their own bodies rather than outward to resist what the country was turning into. This was the decade where Jane Fonda hung up the "Hanoi Jane" persona, married Ted Turner, and became a fitness-video mogul, after all. Sheila isn't meant to be a Fonda analogue by any means, but its hard not to think of her when watching the show.
Another cultural reference point is Netflix's recently cancelled GLOW, and not just because Rose Byrne's wig could be the cousin to Alison Brie's. Both shows are steeped in a very specific '80s moment where women found empowerment through their own physicality but had to dodge innumerable attacks on their body image to get there. Both also feature absolutely killer '80s soundtracks, just in case you needed an extra push to give Physical a shot. It's a lot darker than GLOW, but it's a compelling story with a dynamite lead performance by an actress who's earned this spotlight. Strap on those legwarmers and dive in.
The first three episodes of Physical premiere on Apple TV+ Friday June 18, with subsequent episodes dropping Fridays into July.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.