WARNING: Sensitive content.
“That was the last time.”
Sheila’s not convincing anyone with her mantra, least of all, her.
It’s never the last time. There will be another time. One more time when she will go to the drive-through, order three burgers, three packs of fries and a chocolate shake, check in to a seedy motel room, pull back the sheets, perfectly space the food out, take her clothes off and gorge.
And then Sheila is going to throw it all up and tell herself, “That was the last time.”
The binge eating ritual is just one facet of Physical, a punchy, dark dramedy starring Rose Byrne as a spiralling housewife in 1981 San Diego.
Created by Annie Weisman (Desperate Housewives, The Path), as a one-liner, Physical is a captivating series about how one woman found self-worth through aerobics.
But it’s actually much more than that, a snappily written series that looks at the pull between hippie idealism and Reagan-era capitalism, toxic marriage dynamics, depression and feminism.
Sheila’s husband Danny (Rory Scovel) is a clueless, petulant manchild. Sometimes well-meaning, the former activist decides to run for local office at his wife’s urging after he’s sacked from his academic job.
Danny doesn’t see Sheila’s worth and his hubris means he definitely doesn’t realise that he’s the supporting character in someone else’s story.
Their young daughter is a tantrum and sand thrower, and Sheila has no friends, but her most ferocious opponent is herself – a vicious troll of an inner voice, telling her she’s fat, worthless, dumb, embarrassing herself and any other insult that could be hurled.
When Sheila chances upon an aerobics class, it becomes an outlet for her swirling energies, and she sees an opportunity in sharing that same elation with other women – and take advantage of the burgeoning VCR home market to make dosh.
But Danny’s political campaign takes over and the path to fulfilment is bumpy.
The eating disorder is her unhealthy way of exerting control over a life she feels she has no say over, and that inner voice is an ugly manifestation of the repressed rage Sheila clearly has.
It’s wild to think that someone who looks like Rose Byrne could ever believe she’s hideous but that’s kind of how insecurities work – everyone, regardless of their lot in life, has their own brand of it.
That inner voice is venomous, and it’s not only directed at herself but at everyone Sheila encounters as she nitpicks the worst in everyone. As a filmmaking technique, it’s variously successful.
The voiceovers give audiences an immediate intimacy into Sheila’s emotional state, and the concurrent commentary is often used to comedic effect. But it’s also often relentless; a rapid-fire of bile that quickly exhausts.
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If Byrne’s performance hadn’t been so firey and strong, and if the supporting characters hadn’t been so vividly imagined, that pounding would be a turn-off. Sometimes Physical is so sharp, it’ll cut you.
Physical is a little scrappy in turning that aerobics-as-empowerment message into a cohesive idea, but the kernels are there – even if it feels like she’s traded one addiction for another. But that’s what a potential second season could parse.
The series is a little slow to start – it takes about four episodes to really find its footing – but once it gets going, it soars, especially when other characters are given more screen time.
As much as Physical is a Rose Byrne series, the support crew are on point, including Scovel, Geoffrey Arend as a**ehole campaign manager and university friend Jerry, Della Saba as aerobics instructor Bunny, Lou Taylor Pucci as surfer Tyler, Paul Sparks as developer John Breem and Dierdre Friel as fellow daycare mum Greta.
For characters who don’t have the benefit of a voiceover into their thoughts, there’s a surprising amount of interiority established in a relatively short time. By the final episodes of the season, they feel every bit as lucid as Sheila.
Visually, Physical looks a lot like GLOW, Netflix’s cancelled-too-soon series about female wrestlers in the 1980s, thanks to its era-fashions and those high-cut leotards, while the soundtrack featuring Quarterflash, Pat Benatar and Stevie Nicks gives you an idea of the series’ vibe, which is actually not the peppiness of Olivia Newton-John’s song.
The intricately plotted series gets better with each episode and by the end, you’ll find yourself praying it will be renewed for season two.
Physical is on Apple TV+ on Friday, June 18
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Originally published as Punchy, ’venomous’ new TV show