There’s been a fair amount of column inches (or pixels nowadays?) used up in recent years to the ‘strong female character’. Historically female characters have been the romantic interest, the eye candy, mother figure, basically anything that supports the male character’s story arc. Increasingly, and especially over the last two or three decades, female characters have become more prominent and more regularly drive the story. Unfortunately, along with that has come the ‘strong female character’; a woman who is tough as nails, flawless, gets the job done and doesn’t crumble under pressure. Many have argued that, while this is better than before, it doesn’t help the cause of female representation in film and TV.
Often they are so flawless that they aren’t realistic. It’s as if writers forget that women, like men, are flawed. They can be nice; they can be arseholes. They can be strong; they can be weak. They can be wise; they can get things wrong. They can be all these things, just some of them or even more.
This brings us to ‘Physical’, the new half-hour drama/comedy on Apple TV+. Set in 1981, it centres on Sheila (Rose Byrne), pretty much the archetype of the old kind of female character. She’s been existing for too long to serve her lazy husband Danny’s needs; to keep him happy, look after their child, run the household. All the while dealing with his new ideas (that are often hers) and his repeated gaslighting. A vicious inner monologue also fuels a hatred for herself, others and the situation she finds herself in.
As if that wasn’t enough, she also has a secret. A daily $50, triple burger and shake habit that she devours in a motel room before making herself throw up. “That’s the last time. You’re done.” she tells herself. We know it’s not the first time she’s said that.
When Danny (Rory Scovel) decides to run for local office and needs money to start the campaign, Sheila realises their drained savings from her daily habit will be revealed. Panicking that her life might fall apart around her and ground down by her inner voice, she ends up discovering ‘Body by Bunny’ in the local mall and eponymous Bunny (Della Saba). The aerobics classes Bunny runs seem to allow her to focus her anger and rage into becoming a source of power while making her feel more in touch with her body.
There’s no denying that Physical has a very dark current running through it, but it’s also wickedly funny. The opening scene states that intent by culminating in a butt-naked Danny standing in their living room and continues throughout with razor-sharp repartee. The sort to leave splinters in your ears.
The pilot episode is honestly one of the best I’ve watched in a while, doing an incredible job of setting up the story, shaping the characters and creating the world around them. The script is sharp, lean and knows precisely what it’s doing without just going through the usual place setting format of most pilots.
After a brief jump forward to a flashy, successful-looking Sheila in 1986, it moves along at a fast clip, showing Sheila’s life through her eyes. When we finally get to the end of the episode and cut to black, everything is set up perfectly for the next episode and the rest of the season. We know the players, we know the stakes, we know the world, and, right at the end, we see where this story will take Sheila. Spoiler: it’s aerobics!
While your mileage on spending time with these people for extended periods may vary, it’s a tribute to the writing that it’s always engaging, fast-moving and has compelling characters.
Unsurprisingly, Rose Byrne is outstanding as Sheila, all angry, internal self-hate, but with just a glimmer of self-belief and sympathy trying to shine through. It’s one of her best performances yet, and I’d be surprised if it didn’t lead to some awards nominations.
Also great is Rory Scovel, an very funny stand up with probably his most prominent acting role yet. He dives in headfirst, imbuing Danny with a sweaty sleaze and male entitlement only slightly offset by a tragic, pathetic quality.
Their life together is the initial core of the show, and cinematographer Paula Huidobro brilliantly contrasts the bright San Diego outdoors with shadowy, brown and dull interior shots of their home. The lighting in the studio seems to offer an appealing contrast for Sheila, but the bright, almost migraine-inducing levels hint that she may not be completely satisfied.
Costume designer Kameron Lennox and production designer Kate Bunch give the show a fantastic, authentic look, without shouting “this is the 80s!” at you. At the same time, the 80s backdrop provides one of the best soundtracks on TV. Put it this way; you won’t be hitting the menu button when the credits start to roll!
Finally, Deirdre Friel, as fellow pre-school Mom Greta, is another highlight. She is also suffering with confidence around her body image but in a smart counter balance to Sheila is more verbal and openly emotional about it. Friel plays her very sweetly but isn’t afraid to inject some exuberance into her now and then which plays well and ensures we don’t pity her.
There are, of course, issues with the show. The most significant being that this is designed for multiple seasons. That five-year gap we see at the beginning is a long time, and progress made during this first season can be a little slow at times. Getting those air punch moments where Sheila finally breaks out of her prison of routine are great, but they sometimes feel too far apart.
Paul Sparks as John Breem, a man who Sheila starts flirting with at the mall, seems almost bored by his role and is a bit wooden. Surprising for a good actor who’s made a living out of scene-stealing roles in shows such as Boardwalk Empire.
I also feel sorry for the young actor playing their daughter Maya (Grace Kelly Quigley), who spends almost all of the show being dragged around by her arm, picked up, or just standing, screaming. She’s there to show they have a family, but she doesn’t fit into much of the actual plot or character arcs.
However, there are a lot of things to admire about this show.
Its tackling of eating disorders is a rare, great example on TV, unflinching but without being explicit. It focuses on the inner turmoil (and inner voices) that can contribute to them and the feeling of being regarded as a ‘damaged’ woman for having them. The conviction with which Weisman creates a central character that’s not overly likeable, but yet one we want to root for is also to be lauded. After all, for every Ted Lasso, you need a Sheila Rubin!
And that is the best thing about Physical. Sheila is not a ‘strong female character’. She is so much more. Intelligent and powerful but also angry and filled with self-doubt. You know, human. We can only wish for more like her.
This review originally appeared on Screen Times.