Physical

people exercising in Physical

Credits

Cast

Network

Reviewer

Paul Asay

TV Series Review

The Bible tells us that the truth will set us free. But others have sought different paths.

Sheila and Danny Rubin have explored most of those paths. They met in the 1960s and forged their relationship through college campus protests and rabble-rousing rallies. Idealism will set us free, they declared. And if idealism doesn’t work, maybe the drugs and sex will.

But as the ’60s tumbled into the hedonistic 1970s and then, panting and wheezing, crawled to 1981, Sheila came to have her doubts. Danny’s idealism led to an all-too-short career in academia and, now, and all-too-quixotic campaign for public office. The drugs don’t free the mind as much as they numb it. And the sex? Well, Sheila feels that her physical wiles are fading. She’s not getting any younger, she laments. And while she’s still thin as a rail, she owes that to a rabid case of bulimia rather than any rigorous lifestyle choices.

No, neither sex nor drugs nor rock ‘n’ roll led Sheila to freedom. She’s stuck with a husband she doesn’t love, a needy kid and a horrifically vile internal monologue. She now knows there’s just one possible avenue left to her—one trail to personal salvation.

That’s right: aerobics.

Olivia Newton … Pawn?

Perhaps Sheila’s catalyst into the world of leotards and leg warmers was inevitable—a product of time and circumstance. Self-loathing is a dead-end road, and there are only so many cheeseburger binges you can vomit before something comes to a head. Perhaps it was Bunny’s doing—Bunny being the bottle-blond woman whom Sheila eventually tracked to an aerobics center in the new mall.

But the moment Sheila walked into that aerobics palace and watched Bunny so self-assuredly dance and pump and thrust on the stage, she knew she’d found something special—something that might be a catalyst to a better, brighter life. Here—where the lights flashed and the music blared and the women worked up a good, healthy sweat—she found meaning beyond that of being a wife and mother, solace that no cheeseburger could touch.

“You are the bass line,” Danny once told her—trying to pay her a compliment. Not flashy, not assertive, sometimes not even really heard. But without the baseline, Danny insists, the melody doesn’t work.

Well, in the world of aerobics, Sheila aims to be more than the bass line. Here, in the world of aerobics, she’s the melody. Here, she has power, prestige, authority, love. And woe to anyone who would dare stop the music.

Here’s the Beef

Physical is about more than just one woman’s relationship with aerobics. It’s about a cultural changing of the guard, from the free-spirited 1960s and ’70s to the materialistic ’80s. And if those blanket characterizations of whole decades feel a little shallow … well, that stereotyping fits the show, too.

Sheila is a mess. That’s not unusual in prestige shows such as this: Centerpiece characters are often deeply flawed and hurt at the beginning, to slowly improve and redeem themselves over the arc of the season. What sets Sheila apart is that she’s pretty terrible throughout: She just transforms into a different sort of terrible. Sheila hates everyone, it seems—especially herself—and we hear her internal monologue all the way through. It’s a little like listening to the nihilistic thoughts of a particularly couth and decorous superhero villain.

Only two things make her likeable at all: One, the character’s actor, Rose Byrne; and two, the truly horrific nature of the other folks around her.

The AVClub gets to the rub in its own subhead: “The … dramedy raises the question of who would actually want to hang out with such loathsome characters.”

But that question is only a viable one for those who have the stomach for Physical’s unremitting sexual and verbal sludge. The show’s opening 10 minutes takes us into the workings of a hoped-for threesome (one that, thankfully, doesn’t materialize) and oozes on from there. Sex and nudity share the spotlight in this show, and foul language (including the s- and f-word) serves as a scene-stealing supporter.

Apple TV+ would classify Physical as a “black comedy,” which is another way of saying, “You sometimes laugh but feel terrible about it.” Except in this one, you rarely have opportunity to utter a chuckle, even a guilty one. You’re just cringing too much.

Episode Reviews

Jun. 18, 2021: “Let’s Do This Thing”

Sheila is deeply unhappy—with her husband, her body, her life, her future. When her husband, Danny, loses his job as a collegiate professor, she tries to give the unexpected career cratering an optimistic twist, encouraging him to run for office like he always wanted to. But when Danny says he’ll do just that—using money from the family savings to make his start in politics—Sheila blanches because she’s already been tapping into that savings, $50 at a time.

What does she do with that money—which she extracts from the bank seemingly several times a week? She uses it to buy fast food (three cheeseburgers, three large fries and a chocolate shake) and a hotel room. She strips naked in the room (we see her bare back and a bit of her rear as she sits on the bed in a lotus position), eats the food and promptly vomits it up, promising never to go through that same ritual again. (We don’t see her throw up, but we do hear it.)

Danny encourages Sheila to participate in a threesome with a 19-year-old college student. He insists it’s ethical because most of her classes were in “an entirely different department two quads over.”) The student seems willing, and Sheila visits with her in a very revealing dress to “close the deal.” (The student calls her a fox, but she also compares her to her mother; and when she lets slip that Danny’s about to be fired, Sheila tells her she’d better go.) As the student leaves, the camera shows Danny’s naked backside.

The side of Danny’s flank is revealed as Sheila recalls how much she hates looking at his testicles. We also see him engaged in sexual movements as Sheila reminds herself that she detests how much he sweats during intercourse. Sheila’s thoughts target plenty of other people’s physical features, as well—including her own. Surfers loiter outside the preschool of Sheila’s daughter (and are ogled by another woman). Sheila may have a sexual attraction to a woman, Bunny, who leads an aerobics class. (We see Bunny leading the class, performing a variety of vaguely suggestive moves, as she and Sheila lock eyes.) The episode opens with a flash forward, in which we see Sheila in a revealing aerobics outfit. (She pulls part of it down to cover more of her rear.) We hear a reference to oral sex.

Sheila collapses in her aerobics class, and onlookers speculate as to whether she’s dead or not. Sheila saves someone from choking, flicking whatever was lodged in the woman’s throat into a nearby ashtray. A college student smokes a marijuana joint, and characters drink (or are offered drinks). Characters use the f-word more than 30 times, and the s-word is used about eight. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard” and “h—,” Along with five misuses of God’s name (once with the word “d–n”) and one abuse of Jesus’ name.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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