THere are two main problems with the latest offering from Apple TV +, a “Dramedy” series from the 1980s in 10 half-hour chunks called Physical. The first is that he has no comedy and the second is that he has very little drama.
Physical is the story of 30-year-old Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne), a former Californian hippie idealist and dance teacher who is now a seething, home mother of one child. She is married to Danny (Rory Scovel), her hippie-era sweetheart who has turned into a college professor husband who would rather talk her into a threesome with a student than fulfill his adult duties.
The series starts out promising. We first see Sheila in 1986 sitting in her locker room, fully elasticized and gathered before going to a television studio to deliver a Jane Fonda-esque aerobics session to the nation. We then look back five years into her bleak, boring and bulimic life as the unfulfilled spouse of the forgotten Danny. How did she get from there to here?
Slowly seems to be the answer. Sheila’s transformation into a successful business woman and fitness star feels almost real-time. At the end of the first episode, she took her first aerobics class, led by the mysterious Bunny (Della Saba), and gave – unconvincingly – the kind of epiphany ecstasy normally associated with sex or religion. But I’m someone who wishes Mars bars were ready unwrapped so I guess I’m not commenting on the accuracy or what sports fans feel.
She made little progress by the middle of the series. Bunny has reluctantly accepted her as a proto-business partner, and Sheila turns her attention to a new industry called “home video,” but everything is happening at a decidedly inaerobic pace. And you won’t run the risk of feeling the burn with any of the other storylines, either. Danny decides to run for the California Parliament, which is just as boring as you might fear. It gets more irritating, if no less tiring, when his equally stuffy old friend Jerry (Geoffrey Arend) joins the campaign and together they can be 80s men reconstructed towards Sheila.
Another wasted aspect is Sheila’s anger. To begin with, her inner monologue – spitting poison while smiling sweetly – is a welcome addition. But what could be a source of astute criticism and confrontation soon turns into an implacable voice of self-hatred as Sheila forever blames herself for being bold, useless, unlovable and so on. Used sparingly, he could have kept some of his kick. Instead, it drains the energy of every scene it is heard in – and sadly, most of them do.
Everyone in the cast does a good job with their thinly written characters who have few redeeming qualities. Last but not least, Byrne, whose engagement makes Sheila credible even in her most malicious or unlikely moments (stealing video equipment from a potential political ally among them). But Physical generally feels like a wasted opportunity – it could have been a great rags-to-riches story, covering almost every contemporary topic from sexism to classicism then and now – and specifically from Byrne, who has long proven that she can handle comedies as easily as she can handle drama. Let’s hope she finds some soon.