In the 1980s, when shoulder pads symbolized a woman’s entry into the male-centric workplace, aerobics classes were never simply a gateway to health. As a cultural movement, they represented a woman’s ownership of her body, the Baby Boomers’ need to stay forever young and lean, and the leotard and leg-warmer companies’ plot to take over and make over the world.
In “Physical,” Apple TV+’s compelling new 1980s-set series, aerobics represent all those things, and more. For Rose Byrne’s Sheila Rubin, the growing popularity of the fitness classes, electrified by pumping disco songs, provides a chance for her to find financial and business-world empowerment. At the same time, lest you think “Physical” is a feel-good series in the manner of “GLOW,” the aerobics craze also feeds into her most insidious and problematic issues, including bulimia, extreme self-loathing, and an obsession with being thin.
Sheila is a San Diego mother of 4-year-old daughter Maya and the dutiful wife of ex-hippie and wannabe politician Danny (Rory Scovel), whose liberal views don’t stop him from treating her like “the little woman.” Things look fine on the surface — up from radicalism at Berkeley to Me Generation contentment in San Diego — but she is completely miserable.
How do we know this? First of all, she frequently and maniacally rents a hotel room in order to ritualistically consume bags of junk food and then purge it all. Secondly, we are privy to her almost “Dexter”-like interior monologue, in which she is cruelly judgmental of nearly everyone she interacts with — talking smack to herself about their physical attributes while smiling to their faces. Of course, it’s a reflection of how she judges herself — that kind of contempt often is — and we hear her constantly and brutally putting herself down.
So the point of “Physical,” at least in the first 10-episode season, is not straightforward, as Sheila gains power from something that is corrosive to her. She is a living, breathing manifestation of the male gaze, defining herself by her attractiveness, diminished in comparison to the men around her, objectified and deferential. After decades of inculcation, that kind of self-image doesn’t end in a day, no matter how uphill your path becomes, no matter how much of a hippie you might have been in college. She works her way into teaching at an aerobics studio run by Bunny (Della Saba), and she gets Bunny and her boyfriend, surfer Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci), to help make the home-workout video that will change her life. But still, she is unhealed.
Sheila gets in some trouble with Danny along the way; she keeps her changing fortunes a secret from him, so as not to bruise his ego and to keep him from getting in her way. Some of the best parts of “Physical” involve her marriage, and whether it can withstand her ascension. Byrne is, not surprisingly, excellent throughout, managing to make Sheila hateful, amusingly catty, and yet somehow someone you can sympathize with. A different actress might have been unbearable in the same role. Scovel, too, is just right, a cad who is a reckless little boy.
Some of the season’s other characters don’t get enough attention, notably Bunny and Tyler as well as a Reagan-era businessman played by Paul Sparks; but the subplot involving Sheila’s “friend,” a wealthy mom from Maya’s school who Sheila hopes to use, is a good one. Sheila is disgusted by the full-bodied Greta (Dierdre Friel), but she relates to Greta’s struggles, not just with her appearance but with her successful husband, who has his own little-boy issues.
It’s a rocky first season, as creator Annie Weisman tries to figure out which characters matter, and just how hard to push Sheila’s darkness and unlikability. But “Physical,” whose half-hour episodes are at times crafted with an operatic flair, has plenty of potential. It’s abrasive, but it has a dynamic rhythm and a strong core.
Starring: Rose Byrne, Rory Scovel, Paul Sparks, Della Saba, Dierdre Friel, Geoffrey Arend, Lou Taylor Pucci
On: Apple TV+. Premieres Friday.