Physical’s endless cliches won’t get your blood pumping [Apple TV+ review]

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Rose Byrne gets Physical
Even the talented Rose Byrne can't save this mishmash of cliches and misfires.
Photo: Apple TV+

Apple TV+ went fishing for its own Glow but instead landed the transparent, overcooked and overdetermined Physical, which debuts today.

Star Rose Byrne tries as hard as she can to enliven this mishmash of cliches. However, its grotesque, fetishistic anti-nostalgia goes nowhere fast.

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Physical Season 1 review

Sheila Rubin (played by Byrne) has nothing. She’s got a daughter she doesn’t want to spend time with, and a husband (Rory Scovel) who belittles her and is losing his job. She also suffers from a binge-and-purge eating disorder and a raging inferiority complex that prevents her from getting through the day without frequently melting down. She feels deeply unfulfilled in her life as a housewife and mother, obsessed with every morsel of food that crosses her path and the bevy of women who make her feel worse about herself.

There’s Greta (Dierdre Friel), who babysits Sheila’s daughter and makes her feel like she’s not in control of her life, the grad student (Ashley Liao) with whom her husband suggests three-ways when she isn’t inviting herself over for breakfast, and the blonde lady (Della Saba) she’s obsessed with whom she follows (sometimes accidentally) all over town. She, it turns out, is the leader of the town’s first aerobics class and the key to Sheila’s salvation.

After her husband loses his job and decides to run for office, Sheila’s family needs money. And she sees in Bunny (the aforementioned blonde lady crush) and her stoner boyfriend (Lou Taylor Pucci) a way to both vent her dangerously pent-up rage and to remake herself as a success who’s no longer in her husband’s shadow.

It’s got a certain Glow about it

It’s fairly transparent that either this show was green-lit because of the titanic success of Netflix’s Glow, about the real phenomenon of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, or it was written specifically as competition. Glow wasn’t a perfect show. It tried to cram in as many extremes of personality as possible, whether they belonged or not. It was, however, most winning — and its creators effortlessly spun three seasons out of the sight of women bonding and not bonding.

The milieus of Glow and Physical are identical (a neon and dusk-lit California in the throes of fad diets and bad TV). The costumes consist of the same mix of spandex, ugly pastels and earth tones. And the aesthetic has way too much overlap.

Physical attempts to separate itself from its model by sort of confusedly mixing the look of the ’70s and the culture of the ’80s. The house in which Sheila lives and her usual attire is right out of the 1970s of Boogie Nights. The show is thus pitched as a kind of ’70s hangover — hence a subplot about water right out of a much dumber version of Chinatown.

But in general, Physical is Glow meets the Jane Fonda workout tapes. And unlike the former show’s directors, the talent here never found a way to make aerobics cinematic or even watchable. It’s too monotonously staged, and the rhythm and movements are about necessity, not specific self-expression. Or, as Bunny helpfully tells Sheila, “You’re using my space and you’re using my moves.”

Whoops.

Physical: A series of squandered opportunities

The writing also has an inflated sense of its own chutzpah. A number of moments, clearly meant to be mic drops of girl-boss showiness, don’t land like they ought to. Sheila repeatedly finds herself talking to the surfer cameraman pal she enlists to work on her husband’s campaign. He sets her up for lines that should sound like supercool punctuation to scenes, but they feel like they were taken from other shows and rewritten hastily.

Case in point: Sheila watches footage of surfing and imagines herself on-screen instead.

Pucci’s surfer says, “Do you like it?”

Byrne’s reply: “I don’t like it…. I see it.”

Later, he asks, “Are you ready to make that campaign video?”

“Fuck the campaign video,” she says. “I’m ready to make a fortune!”

It just takes way too long and takes too much visible effort, so the effect gets diluted. The whole show is like that. It should hit like the snap of a drum after a comedy club punchline but it drags badly.

Take my breath away

Film critic Andrew Sarris came up with a classification system to describe directors in his seminal book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968. At the top you had Pantheon Directors like John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renoir. At the bottom, he grouped helmers in categories including Less Than Meets the Eye, Lightly Likable and Strained Seriousness.

Physical producer/director Craig Gillespie (lately the man behind Cruella) falls into all three of those bottom categories. He can be lightly likable in movies like his Disney-financed The Finest Hours; there’s more than a little strained seriousness in his career-making Lars and the Real Girl. Recently, though, he’s been doing one of the more obvious Scorsese impressions. Between I, Tonya and Physical, Gillespie basically crowned himself king of Less Than Meets the Eye directors.

I, Tonya was entirely too glib to be a movie about abuse. And yet it tried time and again to have its cake and eat it, too. Scenes of Margot Robbie’s heavily made-up-to-look-ugly Tonya Harding being sexually assaulted by her husband gave way to slapstick and fourth-wall-breaking dramatic irony, never navigating the tonal problems inherent in telling this story as a broad comedy.

Physical offers more of the same. Goodfellas camera movements abound, as does that film’s running commentary, antique setting and use of era-appropriate pop music. (Well, kinda era-appropriate. There’s a lot of music in Physical written after each episode is set. It’s extremely annoying, I’m not gonna lie.) That Physical premiered just weeks after it was revealed that Gillespie had Dalmatians push Cruella DeVil’s mother off a cliff makes this as good a time as any to ask just why we need this man.

It was, in other words, a deeply bad sign that Apple TV+ trusted Gillespie as Physical’s public creative face. He strands Byrne, one of our most fun and fearless actresses, in a performance caught between naïveté and shrill self-awareness, with no bridge to reconcile the two. He sets up an aesthetic that’s half ’80s kitsch and half low-lit ’70s drabness — and all tired. And he can’t make aerobics interesting.

Tomorrow … I will have a nice day

There’s also something about setting shows in the past to revisit older misogynistic tropes and hit them harder that feels disingenuous. By now, even the pillorying of cliches has become its own cliche. It’s less exciting to see the 30th version of this story, where a woman has to overcome cartoonish sexism to become the best version of herself.

Part of this is because it’s no longer believable that these stories still unfold today, and part of it is because you can formulate a quick and cheap story of the triumph of femininity by running it through old-school male domination. Yes, this happened. But to just do it again the same as happened on Glow, The Glorias, Battle of the Sexes, Natural Selection, Hello I Must Be Going, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio or any number of better movies and TV shows shows a pretty stultifying lack of imagination.

There is also a fundamental disconnect between the voiceover version of Sheila (which was clearly recorded in a closet during quarantine — the sound mixing on this show is dreadful) and the one who does the acting. It just never makes much sense that this woman, married to an environmental activist college professor who wants to have threesomes, has to put up the facade of the perfect housewife.

Physical doesn’t even get nostalgia right

Why Physical in the very free-spirited California of the ’80s (long after divorce and second-wave feminism rocked the landscape) if the point of the show is its heroine is so timid she can’t ever ask for what she wants or take it? Gloria Steinem (whom Byrne actually played on Mrs. America) was almost 50 when this show would be taking place.

It’s never more than a cute gimmick that while Sheila is kowtowing to everybody on the outside, on the inside she’s a foul-mouthed lunatic. The show’s creative team never builds a compelling portrait of who Sheila was that she wound up perfectly meek in person and Selina Meyer in her head.

What’s the point if it’s not even helping her survive? Why is she still with this guy she hates? If she’s some Lady Macbeth-style schemer, which she sometimes appears to be, what’s the endgame? She’s with a true loser, not some secret genius she can ride to fame and fortune and she knows it!

Furthermore, I’ve met people who hide cores of unbridled bitterness and heedless ambition. They don’t hide it this well. Physical always feels like the crew shot the show and then wrote the voiceover.

Again, none of these questions would be so glaringly asked if Physical was entertaining. It’s a lot of things: enervating, familiar, all in all a prickly series of conveniently set up punch lines designed to make its lead seem more clever. But it’s never even fleetingly entertaining.

Physical season 1 on Apple TV+

Physical debuts on Apple TV+ on June 18. New episodes arrive on Fridays.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.