Let's take permission from the title of the new Apple TV+ series Physical and note the physical appearance of its star, Rose Byrne. This is hard not to do if you watch the 10 half-hour episodes, because the show's go-to shot is a close-up of Byrne: sculpted features, big Pre-Raphaelite eyes, enormous halo of permed curls. It's as if the camera were asking us, what problems could a woman this attractive possibly have?
Which counts as the first among the many fish-in-a-barrel ironies of Physical because Byrne's character, Sheila Rubin, sees herself as fat and ugly, a false perception she shares with us repeatedly in a running interior monologue. A decade or more past her days as a University of California, Berkeley, radical, Sheila is living in conservative San Diego during the first Reagan administration, married to a chauvinistic loser and raising a screechy young daughter. She's profoundly unhappy, and one consequence of that is an expensive eating disorder that provides the show with a recurring dark-comic motif: Sheila picking up three fast-food burgers and checking into a motel room where she can take off her clothes and binge and purge in peace.
Annie Weisman, the show's creator, has worked on stylised, archly self-conscious sitcoms and dramedies like Suburgatory and Desperate Housewives, which mix light and dark comedy in a distinctly 21st-century blend you could call sarcastic realism. Physical is in that mode, but it's a distinctly flat and unfocused example. Abusing its status as satire, it doesn't work hard enough either to generate real laughs or to coherently dramatise the serious issues " fulfillment, control, body image, the slow fade of idealism " around which it jury-rigs its story.
Sheila's husband, Danny (Rory Scovel), is cut loose from his college teaching job as the show begins, which threatens to expose her gradual emptying of their savings account to pay for her motel visits. (Viewers who were adults as long ago as the early 1980s will chuckle, as expected, when she cashes a check at a bank drive-through each time she needs to rent a room.) Danny's unemployment sets in motion the two-pronged plot: He decides to mount a quixotic outsider campaign for the state Assembly, which requires cash; Sheila, desperate to replenish their savings while hiding her eating disorder, stumbles into a job as a teacher in a burgeoning fad, aerobics.
That thumbnail description backs us into the show's main themes. Despite the usual farcical setbacks, both aerobics and politics give Sheila the opportunity to exert some control in her life. She's an idea woman, a natural capitalist despite her radical leanings, and she quickly comes up with a moneymaking concept: home videos of aerobics routines. (In addition to the obvious Jane Fonda reference, this also allows for a series of Betamax jokes.) Meanwhile, she is contributing valuable advice to her husband's campaign, even though her suggestions are scoffed at by his Marxist college buddy and campaign manager (Geoffrey Arend).
Most of the show's storylines, including those about a wealthy woman Sheila befriends (Dierdre Friel) and about the struggling aerobics instructor (Della Saba) whose business Sheila horns in on, are to some degree about men's mistreatment and neglect of the women in their lives. Those stories don't have much force, though, because the characters are drawn in shallow and caricatured (and eventually sentimental) ways. In Weisman's vision of 1980s Southern California, the only relatively happy people are frauds, buffoons or blissed-out beach bums.
At least that's the way Sheila sees it, and her point of view dominates the show in a way that's suffocating, which might be the point but isn't a very rewarding choice. (One brief and ill-advised exception: a scene at a restaurant table shot from the POV of a fondue pot on a turntable.) Sheila's interior monologue, the show's most prominent stylistic device, is a constant slam not only of herself but also of the shallowness, stupidity and ugliness of nearly everyone around her. It's the embodiment of the anger and exasperation she feels, but in dramatic terms, it's a disaster " it's so one-note and unfunny that we're tired of it before the first episode is over.
It's not a problem that 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 clichÃ©.
The character quickly becomes wearying, and while Byrne (of Mrs. America and Damages hits her limited notes of sarcasm and freak-out like a pro, she doesn't find anything extra. Some of the supporting players, like Friel, Scovell and Lou Taylor Pucci as a surfer with video skills, manage to relax and put a comic spin on their similarly two-dimensional characters.
The 1980s references and soundtrack do a lot of work, and you can float through the show on a cushion of apple bongs and shoulder pads, Depeche Mode and Pat Benatar. The Southern California setting, and the critical approach to that setting's associations of romance and freedom, recall shows like Dead to Me and Lodge 49, whose compassion for their quirky, engaging characters are exactly what Physical is missing.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Mike Hale c.2021 The New York Times Company