Physical review – Rose Byrne’s fitness guru fails to get the pulse racing

It’s all pain, no gain as a hippy housewife turns to VHS-era aerobics in this Spandex-clad dramedy from Apple TV+

There are two main problems with Apple TV+’s latest offering, a 1980s-set “dramedy” series in 10 half-hour parts called Physical. The first is that it has no comedy and the second is that it has precious little drama.

Physical is the tale of thirtysomething Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne), a one-time Californian hippy idealist and dance teacher who is now an inwardly seething, stay-at-home mother of one. She is married to Danny (Rory Scovel), her sweetheart from the hippy days, who has transformed into a college professor husband, keener on persuading her into a threesome with a student than on meeting any of his adult responsibilities.

The series starts promisingly. We first see Sheila in 1986, sitting in her dressing room, fully Spandexed and gathering herself before heading into a TV studio to deliver a Jane Fonda-esque aerobics session to the nation. We then flash back five years to her bleak, boring and bulimia-ravaged life as the oblivious Danny’s unfulfilled spouse. How did she get from there to here?

Slowly, seems to be the answer. Sheila’s transformation into a successful businesswoman and keep-fit star feels like it happens almost in real time. By the end of the first episode she has walked into her first aerobics class, run by the mysterious Bunny (Della Saba), and – slightly unconvincingly – been vouchsafed the kind of epiphanic ecstasy usually associated with sex or religion. But then, I’m someone who wishes Mars bars came ready unwrapped, so I suppose I am not one to comment on the accuracy or otherwise of what exercise fans may feel.

By the midpoint of the series, she has made little progress. Bunny has reluctantly accepted her as a proto-business partner and Sheila is turning her attention to a new industry called “home video”, but everything proceeds at a decidedly unaerobic pace. And you are not in danger of feeling the burn with any of the other plotlines, either. Danny decides to run for California state assembly, which is exactly as boring as you might fear. It becomes more irritating though no less tiresome when his equally boorish old friend Jerry (Geoffrey Arend) joins the campaign and they are able to be unreconstructed 80s males towards Sheila together.

Another squandered aspect is Sheila’s rage. At first, her inner monologue – spitting venom as she smiles sweetly – is a welcome addition. But what could be a source of perceptive criticism and juxtaposition soon becomes simply a relentless voice of self-loathing, as Sheila forever berates herself for being fat, useless, unlovable and so very much on. Used sparingly, it could have retained some of its kick. Instead, it drains the energy from every scene in which it is heard – which is, alas, most of them.

Everyone in the cast does good work with their thinly written characters, who have few redeeming features among them. Not least Byrne, whose commitment makes Sheila credible even in her most vicious or unlikely moments (stealing video equipment from a potential political ally foremost among them). But Physical feels like a wasted opportunity generally – it could have been a superb rags-to-riches tale that took in just about every zeitgeisty issue from sexism to classism, then and now – and of Byrne specifically, who has long since proved she can handle comedy as effortlessly as she does drama. Let’s hope she finds some soon.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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