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Physical centers on an unhappy housewife in early 1980s San Diego finds a new passion in a growing trend—aerobics.
Rose Byrne (Mrs America, Bridesmaids), Rory Scovel (Superstore), Dierdre Friel (New Amsterdam), Paul Sparks (House of Cards), Della Saba (Steven Universe).
I don’t know if I’ve actually seen anything like this before. I saw the ads for Physical and thought, “Okay, the 80s and aerobics.” And it stars Rose Byrne, who I absolutely loved in Mrs. America. But I didn’t get curious about it until I read a couple of reviews. Byrne’s character Sheila has an inner voice that’s just viciously self-loathing and self-sabotaging, and we hear every word. That voice is almost as brutal to everyone else (and I mean, everyone) around her, including her newly unemployed husband Danny and mopey fellow mom Greta, played respectively by Rory Scovel and Dierdre Friel.
The two reviews I read (not naming names) looked at the show very differently. The first reviewer was horrified, like, how could the producers promote or sanction this behavior? The second reviewer approached it with a shrug—I mean, we’re all like this, right? Who among us hasn’t called ourselves a fat, lazy idiot, or bemoaned our ability to do anything right? Raise your hand if this was in the last five minutes (I see you). Who among us hasn’t given the side eye to someone’s outfit in Starbucks? Sheila is extreme, but honestly, this is who we are. Frankly, I felt a little too seen.
Sheila’s miserable, angry about being stuck in her boring, mundane life, and barely hiding it. This doesn’t make her a particularly nice person on the outside, either. Snarky and stand-offish, with the occasional cutting remark or look, Sheila has no friends, and no real life outside of her home. She looks like a beautiful wife and the mother of a delightful toddler. She’s also a woman who checks into a motel, gets undressed and binges on three orders of burgers and fries, vomiting it up after. I wonder what Dr Juli would say about this?
When we meet Sheila in 1981, she’s mad at herself for getting up late and missing ballet class, once again. Danny has lost his teaching job at a local college, and over the course of the premiere decides to … run for the state assembly, with her encouragement? As one does? They can use their savings, Danny says, not knowing that that’s been long drained by Sheila’s motel binge-and-purge habit. She also discovers that her ballet studio is closed, bought out by a clearly evil developer played by Paul Sparks. On her way to work out her anxiety at the drive-in, she finds an aerobics class in the mall, led by Bunny, played by Della Saba. Is it the repetition? Is it the exercise’s aggressive, natural high? Whatever it is, Sheila is hooked. A new addiction is born.
We get a glimpse of where this is going to take her—a flash forward to 1986 as she’s stepping onstage to lead a televised aerobics class. But in the meantime, she’s got a campaign to raise money for (Danny is useless), savings to recoup, and an aerobics instructor/porn director to extort. Yes, Bunny and her husband are filming in the back of the studio!
Physical is a dramedy in the purest sense of the word, equal parts jaw dropping and hysterically funny. Sheila’s antics are outrageous, but also wickedly aspirational. She grabs the cake at Danny’s fundraiser and wolfs it down in the bathroom. She steals her ballet instructor’s address book to fill her own aerobics class. She snaps, “Beat it, sluts,” to a group of young women giggling around her husband. Despite feeling sympathetic towards Greta after she finds her crying in the car after her first aerobics class, Sheila still steals her stereo equipment when Greta ditches their one-on-one session. Byrne is perfect in this role. You feel guilty rooting for Sheila, and cringy for relating to her, but I dare you to look away.
Physical is an in-depth character piece that can be uncomfortable at times, but thanks to Rose Byrne’s performance and the totally awesome period setting it’s a fascinating watch.
A mirror nearby, so you can look into and agree to ease up on yourself some. Geez.
The soundtrack is an ’80s flashback dream. I’m four episodes in and they haven’t actually played the Olivia Newton John song that inspired the title, but I’m sure it’s coming.