In the annals of nostalgia for the 1980s, which are now copious, there has never been anything like Physical (streams AppleTV+). Is it even nostalgia? It’s not nice at all; it’s so cynical and hard to like that you can just admire it for its sheer hate-me energy.
The series is in one way typical of what streaming services indulge now – an intriguing concept, highly visual and supported in the main by outstanding acting, but this one is so jaundiced it beggars belief that it was made and delivered to entertain you. Entertainment? There is hardly a scene that doesn’t drip with utter contempt for what you expect it to be. Relatable? You don’t want to relate to a single character unless you have delusions about how comfortable hell might be, if you gave it a chance. As such, its corrosive brilliance is outstanding.
Physical is angry art. And not even entirely workable as TV drama-comedy. It does what television rarely does – it takes you into the mind, the inner monologue of a very distressed character and asks you to connect with her, in all her self-loathing, conniving and acrid attitude. Outside the context of anything-goes streaming TV, the show would be labelled unwatchable. That’s what makes it appallingly compelling.
The main character is Sheila (Rose Byrne), late-20s in age and a housewife married to a self-important academic. The setting is San Diego in the early 1980s and it opens with a twisted scene that you think will play out as ironic and maybe deliver some scathing laughs. Husband Danny (Rory Scovel) is suggesting a threesome with his student. His pitch is all about freedom and hey-man hippy cant. Sheila just stares at him but you, the viewer, can feel her hate.
Part of that hate is toxic self-hate. Sheila is highly aware of her age and her body. She fixates with a determination that borders on ghoulish, on her on body and food. She’s obsessed with food, binge-eats alone in motel rooms, and you hear her ceaselessly bilious comments on how other women look and what they eat. You are not asked to sympathize with her. You are not asked to conclude that societal pressure has made her this way. You are simply asked to gaze upon this toxic, two-faced woman and take, from her life and attitude, what meaning you will.
Sheila feels she’s ugly, but she thinks most people are ugly in every way. In a contrivance that is breathtakingly cynical, she becomes part of the commercialization of the physical-fitness movement – one that sells women sweating in workout clothes to other women as an ideal, and sells to men these sexualized figures who are as remote from body-image reality as anything in pornography.
In fact, the series makes direct links between the porn industry and the aerobics-workout fad that flourished when sales of VHS tapes skyrocketed and, on TV, was captured in the 20 Minute Workout craze. And this series doesn’t stop there, it delves into politics, with Danny running for office and his biggest backer being a cunning real estate mogul who really just wants control over politicians.
There isn’t a character in the orbit surrounding Sheila who isn’t awful in some way.
There’s the ironically named Bunny (Della Saba), a ruthless bleached-blond pioneer in the aerobics racket, and Bunny’s vaguely sinister surfer-dude boyfriend Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci) who spouts only lies.
Creator Annie Weisman (Desperate Housewives, Suburgatory) sets the show in a very, very specific milieu. It’s the period that gave birth to Reagan-era politics, with all its accompanying themes about greed and materialism. Physical is presented to you as a dark comedy about a self-loathing woman who builds an aerobics empire. But it is so dark you can hardly locate the comedy at all. It’s disorienting to see the period presented with accuracy – the leotards, the headbands, the pop-music hits of the time – and not feel any warmth at all.
Byrne is truly outstanding in what is often a one-woman show. And that show seeks to upend nostalgia for the slice of the 1980s it presents. Like the new series Kevin Can F**k Himself on AMC, Physical isn’t likeable, it’s just so near-nihilistic that its existence is praiseworthy in itself.
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