A dark comedy of the black hole variety, Apple TV+’s Physical raises the question of who would actually want to enter this bleak 1981 San Diego landscape and hang out with such loathsome characters. Annie Weisman, a veteran of such shows as Desperate Housewives, The Path, and Almost Family, created Physical via her recent production deal with Apple. But despite her impressive résumé, she’s crafted 10 episodes of an exceptionally thorny dramedy, exhausting even at only a half-hour a pop.
Physical stars the flawless Rose Byrne as Sheila, a miserable housewife/mom with a near-incessant internal monologue so vicious, you wonder how she garners the strength to walk around. It’s a bit much around the third or fourth time she refers to herself as a stupid fat fuck; by the 28th time, we’re practically inured to it. What’s even worse is Sheila’s disdainful, judgmental but fortunately unspoken comments regarding the people around her who lack her own rail-thin proportions. Sheila heads to the fast-food drive-thru immediately after pre-school drop-off every morning to do a massive binge/purge in a motel room, depleting her family’s meager savings in the process. Unfortunately, Sheila’s repugnant husband, Danny (Rory Scovel), has just gotten fired from his teaching position, and now wants to go into the expensive career of politics, running for assemblyman.
Sheila desperately needs a ray of light, and one arrives in the form of, yes, aerobics classes at the mall. By trailing enthusiastic teacher Bunny (Della Saba), Sheila begins to find fulfillment while helping her body, not hurting it. For some reason, Sheila keeps this new interest from her husband, but as the show title suggests, aerobics will eventually forge the path to get Sheila out of the mess she’s in.
Sheila and Danny are supposed to be idealistic lost souls who graduated from Berkeley and can’t find their footing in Ronald Reagan’s America. Somewhere along the way, they got tripped up in the journey from utopia to materialism; if you want big donations to fund your campaign, you’re going to have to hang out with some possibly unethical rich people. Even though Sheila appears to have nothing but contempt for her husband and clearly possesses more talents than he ever will, she stays with him. Danny may have good intentions, but he’s still a total dick, hitting on his students, treating his wife like the hired help, and only hanging out with his young daughter when it’s good for a photo op.
Sheila’s not much better, stealing from and lying to nearly everyone unlucky enough to enter her personal orbit, only remembering who her friends are when it’s advantageous for her. A trauma revealed mid-series attempts to explain her heinous behavior, but the revelation elicits more horror than sympathy. Physical spends so much time on Danny’s boring campaign that we’re often not rooting for anyone we see on screen—though Geoffrey Arend as Jerry, Danny’s love-to-hate-him ex-hippie campaign manager, is trying his hardest to have some kind of fun. Sheila is supposedly intrigued by successful local businessman John Breem (Paul Sparks), but he’s far too wooden (in a deadly combo of stilted delivery and characterization) for us to discern any possible attraction. One of the only appealing characters is Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci), Bunny’s porn-shooting surfer boyfriend, who appears to have a good heart at least. Ian Gomez and Dierdre Friel, as well-off neighbors that Sheila and Danny are sort-of friends with, have some nice moments as a couple that is able to connect through a surprising kink.
The only reason we root for Sheila at all is Byrne, who stokes her character’s desperation while gradually finding the building blocks of her strength, in aerobics class and out of it. The scene where Sheila finally takes down Jerry is a series high point. But Sheila’s success appears to be accidental more than inspirational: Yes, she pushes for some milestones, but some of the most momentous events in her career appear to unfold via happenstance. And even though Sheila’s ladder-climbing is fictional, there does appear to be a faint, unspoken connection to Jane Fonda, who started her workout video empire (and eventually created an entire industry) as a way to fund then-husband Tom Hayden’s political aspirations.
As with so many streaming series, Physical leaves a lot of unanswered questions at the end of its 10th episode, ostensibly to set up a second season, as Sheila isn’t quite yet the aerobics mogul/star we spot filming a flashy video at the start of the series. Physical appears to be banking on enough people actually wanting to revisit this show to continue on Sheila’s transformative journey. That’s a prospect that seems unlikely.