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‘Physical’ TV Review: Rose Byrne Gives Women’s Body Issues a Superficial Workout

Apple TV’s new ’80s-set dramedy about a housewife-turned-aerobics instructor is too focused on the surface to succeed

The thing about female rage, a phrase used ubiquitously today when women’s needs and emotions are pushed to the forefront of pop culture and cinematic conversations, is that it kind of always needs a motivation or else you run the risk of it falling entirely flat. That’s the main problem with “Physical,” creator and showrunner Annie Weisman’s strident new Apple TV+ dramedy about a housewife and mom (Rose Byrne) grappling with eating and body dysmorphic disorders who decides to become an aerobics instructor.

On one hand, “Physical” seems to want to fall in line with its distant cousin and similarly flawed series, AMC’s “Kevin Can F**k Himself,” in that it centers a woman seething with displeasure and frequently misdirecting it. But while the latter’s lead character (Annie Murphy) has a specific bone to pick with her patriarchal home life, “Physical” has offered no reason for its protagonist to walk around in a perpetual state of disgust — and Weisman seems perfectly content with leaving it that way throughout all 10 episodes of the first season. It is the audience, though, who suffers the consequences for that.

“Physical” commits the cardinal sin of storytelling by leaving it entirely up to its audience to project our personal catalysts for anger onto its character since the story doesn’t do that for us. The show is set in the 1980s, the same era Jane Fonda revitalized her own image by becoming a workout guru. That holds appeal for women like Sheila (Byrne), a stay-at-home wife and mom whose somewhat monotonous lifestyle has given her oodles of idle time to hyper-analyze her figure and that of every woman around her.

But Fonda is never mentioned throughout the series, and neither is the external pressure for women to look or appear a certain way during this time — well, nothing that isn’t already baked into most periods in history, including today. Sheila continuously scolds herself about her figure through internal monologues revealing her myriad insecurities, though she often takes aim at other women in her head. Like Greta (Dierdre Friel), a fellow mother at her daughter’s school. “You can’t stop looking at the back fat spilling out of her bra strap,” Sheila thinks while flashing Greta a forced smile. “You’re as shallow as a kiddie pool.”

These insults, both self-inflicted and hurled at anyone who crosses her path, are consistent throughout the series, presumably underscoring a feeling indicative of the time period where many women, including Sheila, left promising careers for more domestic roles and later felt sidelined. “Physical” does very little to explore that palpable feeling. Instead, it turns Sheila into a one-dimensional mean girl with daddy issues and a binge-eating problem (she’s known to buy fast food from various restaurants, eat all of it discreetly at a sketchy motel, then purge it all).

As a result, there’s very little depth to her, which is a shame because Sheila could actually be an interesting character study if the writers took the time to build her out a bit more. The fact that she hides her eating disorder, body criticisms and even her fitness hustle from everyone — including her husband Danny (Rory Scovel) — can be interpreted as a woman trying to present a level of perfection and sweetness that she doesn’t actually possess. No, she doesn’t just have a waif-y body type and an agreeable demeanor at all times, even when recently fired Danny blows the little bit of money left in their savings on a foolish campaign for assemblyman. Sheila may actually feel she has no option to be any other way.

Just when “Physical” begins to pursue this idea of shame — of both the physical and psychological kind as Sheila’s childhood sexual trauma bubbles to the surface — it sets its sights on far less interesting characters, like the married businessman (Paul Sparks) who may or may not be attracted to Sheila. Or Danny, who is like a caricature of every hard-headed husband on TV who has a bunch of ideas and zero skill. His misguided professional aspirations are a gigantic portion of each episode as if they are a large motivating factor in Sheila’s journey when her self-hate has that beat by a long shot and is minimally investigated. Or Greta and her husband, whose relationship also takes up too much time within the generally 30-minute episodes.

Nearly every episode of “Physical” seems to beg the questions: What is this actually about? Why is the time period significant to female body image and rage? And why doesn’t Weisman and her team seem to be confident enough in Sheila’s trajectory to just focus on that? Failure to pursue these vital details leaves the series emaciated.