Physical
Apple TV

Rose Byrne Proves Getting ‘Physical’ Hurts, But Not How You’d Expect

In this buzzed-about Apple TV series, the eighties are back and just beginning, but the main character's personal demons are ever-present. Getting into this slow burn might require you to check your expectations at the door and stick with it for a while. Because whether you love it or hate it, 'Physical' is anything but lukewarm.
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Content warning: This article contains discussion of disordered eating.

There’s much more to Physical than meets the eye. Oodles and oodles, in fact.

The Apple TV series paints a 1980s world full of neon spandex shimmering along the sunny San Diego coastline. The dramedy’s trailer promises one woman’s quest to bounce back as her truest self whilst building an aerobics empire. It also alludes to at least one or two gut-busting laughs.

But don’t be fooled.

In reality, this dark comedy is grimly funny. While there’s no shortage of 80s razzle-dazzle and stunning cinematography, the plot plunges much deeper.

So It’s Not About Aerobics, Per Se.

Physical
Apple TV/Physical

Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne) is living in a material world and far from your average material girl. But she keeps that mostly to herself.

She’s positioned as a forward-thinking woman, but one unable to practice what she preaches without a fair amount of deception. Early on in the series, aerobics becomes her new go-to workout after her local dance studio goes under. It is in her mall aerobics class that she taps into her power and soon recognizes her billion-dollar idea. But the journey we’re on is not just a Jane Fonda-esque aerobics pioneer come-up.

The show opens with (and sticks to) a harsh look in the mirror through the eyes of its troubled but headstrong lead. Right away, the irony surrounding what’s on the outside not matching what’s really happening on the inside is palpable.

Personal Prisons Are a Key Theme

Sheila is deeply unhappy and incredibly jaded by the way her life has turned out. The personal prison she’s gridlocked inside is our way into her psyche and Physical’s layered narrative.

A former Berkley radical trapped in suburbia, Sheila’s not the only character experiencing daily inner turmoil, but she’s the only one we come to “know.”

We explore the series through her unforgiving voiceovers, often criticizing the successes and perceived failures of everyone around her, but all criticisms deceptively reflect inward.

In Physical, Byrnes brilliantly flexes her comedic muscles, which is always an underrated pleasure. But if you’re looking for a buffet of out-loud laughs and cheap thrills, you’re looking at this series all wrong. The show’s driving force is the lead character’s sometimes comical, often astute, and endlessly oppressive inner monologue.

And it’s definitely the most important part to pay attention to if you really want to get Physical.

An Unlikely Feminist Take From an “Unlikable” Lead

Rose Byrne
Apple TV/Physical

Keeping her sometimes too real (and always unflattering) thoughts muffled is a self-torture device and survival tool. Sheila begrudgingly moves through her daily duties as a mother and wife with a smile plastered uncomfortably on her face. The general consensus? We’re not supposed to like the main character any more than she seems to like herself.

With that said, I DO like her. Don’t get me wrong, she’s not objectively “likable,” but that is a big part of what makes her feel real. And she’s definitely a woman with vision.

From the start, we are perpetually stuck in this cruel and unusual loop with our leading lady. She’s bound to vicious cycles fueled by feeling out of control and at a loss. Right away, we’re invited to endure her inescapable self-loathing and general disdain for those around her. And then we get to the aerobics stuff.

aerobics
Apple TV/Physical

Sheila’s ongoing struggle with control ultimately leads her to something she can call her own and a blossoming business. But unlike some shows seemingly pumped through a women’s empowerment vein, the angle of this satirical series is brutally honest rather than immediately inspiring.

You’ll find no campy quips about sticking it to the man here. But there’s plenty of sticking it to everyone quietly going on, especially on her worst days.

Her perception and treatment of herself and others only become more genuine and less calculated as she starts to more openly live her truth, stand firm in her strengths, and make efforts to sincerely connect rather than con or blackmail people. But will she fully take back her personhood with a “punch, jab, kick” in the end? Stay tuned.

Aerobics Becomes a “Healthy Addiction.” Or does It?

Apple TV/Physical

Sheila is a keen observer, but that doesn’t make her the most reliable narrator. Luckily, we don’t have to buy the lies she sells others because we can hear everything she’s thinking–except while she’s aerobicizing. This is the one place that Sheila’s head is clear and she feels fully in control. The problem is that she can’t stay there all the time.

Sheila promotes the budding workout craze as a “healthy addiction,” but her newfound passion can’t save her from herself. Less about the rise of aerobics and more about human nature, her endlessly skewed self-perception depicts an honest, albeit unnerving, reality that often rings true for many women.

While Byrne’s character’s mind is the only one we’re inside, we’re gradually given insightful glimpses into the lives of other characters searching for autonomy in one way or another. With the supporting characters, their struggles are often depicted in more nuanced, but equally unsettling, ways. But no spoilers here.

Sheila’s story is the main story, but finding her “calling” doesn’t magically transform her into her best self overnight. Her troubles temporarily fade away when she’s in that leotard, but the outside world remains. So do the tangled webs she weaves that only become more intricate over time. Nevertheless, Sheila Rubin is a woman on a mission to reclaim her life by any means necessary.

But give that plot point time.

If you haven’t heard, Physical comes with a potential trigger warning worth being prepared for.

Brace Yourself For an Unflinching Look at Eating Disorders

Try as she may, the main character is unable to sweat out every ounce of self-doubt, but that only makes her character development more believable. Physical touches on the complicated relationship that women historically have with their bodies, and at times, the show takes those complexities to some very dark places.

Sheila Rubin is constantly picking apart everything wrong with the world and namely, herself. She’s thin and beautiful but reminds us at every turn she thinks herself overweight, weak, and worthless, to name a few resounding self-directed jabs. This false self-perception and self-bullying are centric to the show’s momentum. And it’s through her unsavory internal monologue that we’re first given insight into her most troubling dilemma.

After we watch Sheila shovel jarred honey into her mouth while speeding to a fast-food restaurant, it becomes clearer where she might be going. Burdened by shame and repression, we learn of our lead’s ongoing battle with bulimia. One minute she’s fulfilling her obligations as a dutiful wife and mother, the next minute she’s draining the family savings account, hiding in a hotel, binge eating in the nude, and purging once again.

Her quest for peace and quiet is also a quest for control. But it’s inner peace she struggles with most. Each time, it is always “the last time” and “tomorrow will be a nice day.” But Sheila cannot escape herself.

Physical sheds light on the recurrent and intrusive nature of self-harming thoughts. But as noted by the New York Times, the depiction of her eating disorder is much more the show’s “recurring dark-comic motif” than the entire point of it.

An Imperfect Heroine, But a Relatable Character

Rose Byrne kitchen
Shutterstock

For Sheila, everyone serves as an unforgiving mirror that perpetuates her self-punishment. Her greatest struggles and successes both magnify how growing into our fullest selves can change our lives for the better, but that doesn’t mean we fundamentally change. And so, we watch her continuously grapple with what self-betterment really means.

Throughout the series, her not-so-honest means to every end and personal struggles don’t necessarily make Sheila a squeaky clean hero. All faults aside, she’s a woman with perspective, strength, and brimming power, even if she lets others, like her aerobics business partner and her husband, often believe they’re calling the shots. The less Sheila muffles her real motives, the more she stands firm in her truth without hiding it.

But the narrative opens up much more than it wraps up.

To Binge or Not to Binge? That Really Is the Question.

Physical is not just about capitalism, sexism, secrets, misfits, aerobics, or eating disorders. Although, it is a story tied to all of those things. At the heart of it, it’s about inner battles. The series examines how our fundamental qualities can be used for good or evil, depending on our greater aims. And, namely, how our relationship with ourselves is always our main relationship.

Or as the lead character puts it, “only you have the power to change you,” no matter how easier said than done.

Undoubtedly, there’s a lot going on in Physical. But the general sense of overwhelm seems to be on purpose. Some critics argue the most poignant aspects are unwittingly undercut without enough pointed focus. But I don’t agree. With so many layers of narratives unfolding simultaneously, it’s the kind of show that takes longer to unpack. In turn, binging it can be draining, especially if you need concrete resolution.

New episodes were dropped once a week on Apple TV for a reason.

What’s most important to note is this: The primary focus in Physical is on the intimate journey much more than the grandiose destination. Whether or not you’re feeling this sick burn, Physical is undeniably a painfully human story about self-preservation at all costs.

As for whether it’s worth the long and turbulent ride, that’s something only you can decide.