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Physical on Apple TV+: An Exercise in Exhaustion

Physical needs to drop some dead weight.

Watching Physical made me think of Tyra Banks, and not in a good way. I didn’t feel like a stunning workout Barbie, I just felt like this:

Physical had so many things going for it. First of all, I’ll watch anything with Rose Byrne in it. From Bridesmaids to Juliet, Naked–-Byrne rarely does any wrong in my book.

As far as shows set in the 1980s go, I’ll admit the trope is pretty tired at this point. But the entire plot of Physical actually requires it to be set in the 1980s, so it doesn’t feel as cheap as other TV shows milking that nostalgia cow for all it’s worth. So we’ve got Rose Byrne, the 1980s, and the Lycra-filled world of women’s exercise aerobics. That is some ripe ground for plot-picking, but unfortunately, Physical picks all the wrong ones and runs with them for far too long.

Physical is set in sunny 1980s San Diego and follows Sheila Rubin (Byrne) through her rise from a milquetoast housewife to a women’s aerobics mogul. In the pilot, we’re introduced to B.A. (Before Aerobics) Sheila. Her husband, Danny Rubin (Rory Scovel), gets fired from his job as a college professor and decides to embark on a campaign to join the local government in an effort to “save the wave”–-i.e. save San Diego from a greedy land developer, John Breem (Paul Sparks).

Other than being forced to help Danny with his political campaign, Sheila doesn’t have a lot going on in her life besides dropping her daughter off at daycare and taking ballet classes. When the ballet studio she attends is shut down by the evil John Breem, who buys the studio to develop the property (hmm, this plot feels familiar…), Sheila finds solace in an aerobics class that she stumbles upon at the mall (a mall that’s also owned by John Breem!): Body by Bunny.

Bunny (Della Saba) developed the aerobics class and runs it while supporting her loser surfer boyfriend, Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci), who films pornos in the back room. Via an unnecessarily convoluted extortion plot (Sheila struggles with bulimia and binge-ate her way into debt, but more on that later), Sheila convinces Bunny to allow her to teach an aerobics class at the studio.

There’s a lot of plot going on in this show. And I haven’t even mentioned the bizarre, failed threesome subplot with Danny’s former student turned campaign volunteer, Simone (Ashley Liao). Physical spends way too much time on unnecessary subplots and Danny’s political priorities so that in the end, there’s too little Lycra and too much of everything else. Why do I care about Sheila’s douchey husband’s failing political campaign? This show is supposed to be about Sheila, not her husband. But that brings us to another problem with Physical: I don’t know if I actually want more Sheila.

Physical relies heavily on Sheila’s constant, nagging, bitter inner monologue. Narrating with a character’s inner monologue is a bold creative choice. There are some shows or movies that nail it-–Clueless comes to mind. But the difference between Cher and Sheila is that I like Cher. She’s funny, smarter than she lets on, and wants to do good. Sheila is none of those things. She’s overly critical of herself and others, miserable, and not particularly special in any way. While we don’t need to like a character in order to root for them, there needs to be at least something that sets them apart from everyone else. Narcos had us rooting for fucking Pablo Escobar, but it was because underneath the murdering, drug-peddling psychopath, Pablo was a smart and charismatic family man who fiercely loved his wife (even though he cheated on her) and children. Those things made him interesting, so you couldn’t help but root for him even if he was a villain.

It’s difficult for me to feel sympathetic for Sheila, even though it’s clear that’s what the writers want. She’s got issues. She suffers from bulimia, she’s undervalued by her husband, and she’s unhappy with her directionless life. When she’s overwhelmed, Sheila buys fistfuls of hamburgers, rents a hotel room, and nakedly binge-eats them before purging and slipping into a pit of self-loathing. On the surface, you should feel sympathy for anyone in that situation–and I do. But while connecting with a character doesn’t require “likability,” it does require “rootability” and it’s difficult to root for a character who doesn’t, on some level, deserve it. Sheila hates herself, but she hates everyone else too.

The person I found myself rooting for the most was a character I haven’t even had time to mention yet: Greta.

Greta’s an overweight fellow housewife whose children attend the same daycare co-op as Sheila’s daughter. While Sheila simply drops her daughter off at daycare every day and leaves, Greta’s actually involved. She’s constantly trying to get Sheila to stay and volunteer or at least walk around the mall with her and chat, but Sheila barely gives her the time of day. It’s clear that Greta just wants a friend–someone to connect with. But it’s only when Sheila realizes that Greta’s rich with a husband who’s influential in San Diego politics that she starts to make an effort. Even when Sheila’s faking it through her actions–like reluctantly agreeing to split a cinnamon bun with Greta at the mall–her nasty inner monologue is constantly calling Greta a cow or a fat, worthless whale. To be fair, Sheila’s inner critic is harder on herself than anyone else. And while that’s extremely relatable, it’s also cruel and tiresome when that character has nothing else appealing to offer.

If I had to choose one word to describe Physical, it would be exhausting. I’m exhausted by the seemingly endless amount of plotlines that I don’t particularly care about, and I’m exhausted by Sheila, whom I also don’t particularly care about. In the end, Physical isn’t the ’80s we wanted, but might be the ’80s we deserved.

More on Plex:

Juliet, Naked

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Written By

Ella is a writer originally from Gettysburg, PA and yes, her parents are Civil War reenactors (no really, they are!). She's worked on a few TV shows (Gotham, Hightown, Debris) and when she's not procrastinating writing the next great American novel, enjoys riding horses, attempting to go hiking instead of just talking about going hiking, and playing with her adorable dog, Finnegan.

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