Rose Byrne delivers a dazzling performance in the wickedly funny and subversive 80s dramedy Physical. She stars as Sheila Rubin, a self-loathing housewife who finds empowerment and success as an aerobics instructor. Physical is loaded with zany characters that turn out to be much more complex than expected. The show brilliantly addresses sensitive topics such as bulimia, sexism, and class warfare in a highly entertaining way. The ten episode first season will be the breakout television hit of the summer.
In 1981 San Diego, Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne) is an unhappy housewife going through the daily motions. Her husband, Danny (Rory Scovel), an uber-liberal political science professor at a community college, is an arrogant patronizer. She drops her temperamental four-year-old daughter (Grace Kelly Quigley) at day camp while sniggering internally at the other “old” and “fat” wives. Her only source of release and happiness is going to a ballet studio; which is shuttered by a conservative local real estate developer (Paul Sparks).
The premiere episode, “Let’s Do This Thing”, has Sheila learning that Danny is about to be fired. After her secret routine of gorging on fast food and forcing herself to vomit, Sheila sees the blonde and bouncy Bunny (Della Saba), heading to the mall. Sheila’s stunned to learn that Bunny teaches a leotard and leg warmers-clad fitness class. As Sheila sneaks to the back and secretly gets her exercise on, an epiphany breaks through her depression. She needs to keep this feeling at all costs. That means getting Danny a new career and finding a way to keep her family out of poverty.
The Physical rub is that we can hear Sheila thinking. Almost every word out of her mouth is followed by how she really feels as a voice over. This approach surprisingly never gets old and becomes instrumental to Sheila’s character growth. Sheila hates herself. She goes to extreme lengths to hide her bulimia. Sheila’s severe body dysmorphia has made her judgmental and dissociated, particularly to women. The other characters see Sheila as beautiful and confident, but it’s all a facade. Showrunner and head writer Annie Weisman (Desperate Housewives, The Path) handles Sheila’s significant issues with a deft touch. The show sends a serious message about a pervasive health problem. It’s heartbreaking, but darkly humorous at the same time.
Physical milks every Saccharin ounce of sugar-free lemonade out of the 80s retro setting. The characters’ costumes, make-up, and hair had me constantly laughing. They are not quite caricatures, but skirt pretty close. The premiere’s director, Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya, Cruella), establishes an in-your-face and brash style that holds solidly through the series. Several party scenes in later episodes are just priceless. Physical has a distinct look and pacing that adroitly aids the writing.
Rose Byrne is amazing here. She rightly deserves any acting accolades to come. I hope the wealth is also spread to her supporting cast. Everyone is good, but I absolutely loved two characters in particular. Lou Taylor Pucci co-stars as Tyler, Bunny’s kindhearted surfer “dude” boyfriend. He had me in stitches throughout. Then we have Greta (Dierdre Friel), a rich housewife with crippling low self esteem. Who at first is a source of Sheila’s scorn, but proves to be an invaluable ally and friend. I think that Greta is an excellent example of how many women suffer while trying to live up to Western society’s impossible beauty standards. Physical is a production of ITV Studios and Tomorrow Studios. All episodes will be available to stream June 18th exclusively on Apple TV+.
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