The Hollywood shorthand we remember as “high concept,” a “pitch” you could squeeze into a single sentence, reached its zenith in the 1980s. As SOME of us never gave it up, let’s trot it out to describe Apple’s new ’80s exercise/politics/body-issues series “Physical.”
It’s Jennifer Lawrence’s “Joy” meets “Nurse Jackie,” a tale of a woman with big personal problems and secrets and a really “big idea” that comes to her, gradually but forming up early in the series’ first season.
Rose Byrne’s a droll, had-enough housewife feminist at the center of it, and she makes it an easy series to fall into. And series creator Annie Weisman’s plot — she produced TV’s “About a Boy” — takes a lot of turns before taking you where you figure it’s going.
Byrne (“Bridesmaids,””Neighbors”) plays Sheila Rubin, a San Diego suburbanite who married the activist/idealist who lit her romantic fire at UC-Berkeley at the end of the ’60s. But in 1986, she’s a self-loathing housewife with the big poufy poodle-curls and wafer thin build that whispers “eating disorder.” And politics professor Danny (Rory Scovel of “Robbie” and “I Feel Pretty”) hasn’t grown up. He still has an eye for cute coeds, a taste for weed and activist/schmactivist, he’s got very “traditional/conventional” man’s ability to under-estimate his wife.
Rose’s self-judgment hits her hard with every mirror she stares into — “wrinkles and zits” and spandex leotards, a “disco sex kitten look at YOUR age?”
Her endless cricitisms rain on her psyche in voice-over criticism that includes the words “pig” and “monster” and “idiot,” and they’re not limited to her. She judges her lump of a husband, the other mothers dropping off kids at their “co-op” private preschool, pretty much everybody she meets. But she almost always finds a way to top their critiques with those aimed at herself.
Because when she’s at her most fragile, and most obsessed with her looks, she snaps. That’s when she raids their savings account. That’s when she loads up at the drive-through window of her favorite burger joint. And that’s when she checks into a cheap (ish) motel to strip, binge and then purge. Oh yes, she’s that messed up.
But as Danny’s career goes off the rails and he delusionally decides to run for office on a rein-in-development platform, Sheila finds herself a new outlet for her body image mania. She ducks into Body by Bunny, an aerobics class run by a grumpier-than-perky Lebanese-American pixie (Della Saba).
The series is about Sheila’s juggling act, the secrets she keeps from those around her, especially her husband, their increasingly perilous finances and Danny’s swelling ego, fed partly by his even-more-sexist Berkeley classmate and now campaign manager (Geoffrey Arend). Anti-social Sheila has to help get signatures on petitions, raise money from their “betters” and scheme to get a career out of this new craze, aerobics.
The characters are a fairly unpleasant lot, giving this the tinge of “cringeworthy TV.” Byrne makes Sheila irritatingly vain — “You’re still skinnier and prettier” than a dinner guest, she thinks. But she’s haunted by her perceived physical failings.
Getting pushed around by an increasingly dead-weight husband make us root for her. Getting mixed up with “Bunny” of “Body by Bunny” and Bunny’s surfer/videographer boyfriend, contemptuous yet pitying her plump, rich and depressed neighbor (Dierdre Friel), fretting over this “Mormon moralist” developer (Paul Sparks) who is devouring their suburban town and plowing under the environment as he does, but who also seems tempted by Sheila’s Olivia Newton-John physique.
The show’s got the ’80s soundtrack, and a whiff of ’80s fashions and sort of leftover ’70s morality. Scovel’s Danny wears early ’70s sideburns (guys tend to stick with the last look they had when they were single). And the “limited series” drip drip drip storytelling style hints that the drama may peak right at the end of the ten episode run, as the early episodes are more soapy than seriously dramatic.
But Byrne makes it worth a watch, and once you’re in, it isn’t just nostalgia that keeps you coming back for more.
MPA Rating: TV-MA, drug use, sexual situations, profanity
Cast: Rose Byrne, Rory Scovel, Dierdre Friel, Della Saba, Paul Sparks and Geoffrey Arend
Credits: Created by Annie Weisman, An Apple TV+ release.
Running time: 10 episodes @ :25-:35 minutes each