Apple TV+ just fired up another season of Physical, its antisocial character study about a would-be aerobics instructor/grifter/star. Let’s see if the show learned anything from season one’s imbalances and split-personality disorder.
Sheila Rubin, the wannabe workout queen played by Rose Byrne, is still talking to herself about the filth that is humanity, and everyone’s outfits are still ugly. Let’s do this thing!
Physical recap: ‘Don’t You Want Me’
Season 2, episode 1: In this week’s season premiere, titled “Don’t You Want Me,” Sheila is still a self-loathing phony trying to schmooze her way to the top. She’s got her own company now, Body By Sheila, and she’s looking for investor money, advertising and growth.
Her husband, Danny (played by Rory Scovel), who lost his big election last season, is still a delusional schmuck and self-absorbed asshole.
Sheila can’t stand him. After a party one night, which he makes it very clear he doesn’t want to attend, she goes to stay with her friend Greta (Dierdre Friel), who she also doesn’t really like. She doesn’t like anybody.
Sensing that he’s fighting an uphill battle, Danny makes a big show the following morning of his intention to change and be a better husband and father to their daughter Maya (Grace Kelly Quigley). Sheila doesn’t believe him, but she doesn’t feel like standing up for herself, either. She has exercise tapes to sell.
A deal gone wrong
Last season, she levied a partnership with aerobics instructor Bunny (Della Saba) into a contract to produce a videotape. She now must sell them, which she’s doing at a furniture shop run by a local businessman named Auggie Cartwright (Wallace Langham).
Bunny and her boyfriend, Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci), have branched out to other areas to compete with Sheila and also start over. Bunny’s doing roller aerobics now. Or she would, except her disgusting roommates taped over their reel.
It takes Danny about eight seconds of parenting before he’s hitting on a mom (Tawny Newsome) at Maya’s school and planning a new business venture. To prove he’s serious about parenting for once, he agrees to join Greta’s committee to help out at the school. Then he goes to his friend Jerry (Geoffrey Arend), with whom he’s started a think tank (which is all nonsense because these two are fraudulent blowhards), to say he’s not going to play as active a role in their business going forward. Jerry hates it and throws a tantrum.
Oh, and Sheila is having an affair with a recalcitrant married land developer and staunch Mormon (Paul Sparks) with two kids.
Let’s not get physical
Physical is still the headache it was last season. The writers keep finding ways to put Sheila in situations with the very worst people on earth so she can badmouth them on the voiceover track. It is neither funny nor particularly dramatic, or frankly interesting at all, to watch someone filled with rage move through the world as she refuses to do much to assert herself, even though the writers’ version of Sheila (the one in her head), knows everything about everything.
As a result, every episode is just a flood of misanthropy surrounded by hideous pastels and New Wave music.
I find this show uniquely frustrating. It’s meant to be a star showcase for Byrne. But ironically, the show doesn’t allow her to do anything physically with her performance. She’s got to be a blank stare and a pleasant smile while the voiceover does all the heavy lifting for her character.
And the voiceover is one-note, too. It’s always, “Be patient enough with these assholes and soon you’ll be in another room away from them and life will be nicer,” or “Don’t eat that, you fat cow.”
It feels very unsatisfying to see a character who’s meant to be this kind of antihero figure of identification and empowerment — through a kind of negative display of both things — refused to be allowed to be anything.
The version of Sheila we watched last season simply made no progress as an individual. Fine, that’s realistic, but where this falls apart is the idea that the show is going somewhere.
‘Do you actually care about any of this?’
Take Breaking Bad, a show popular with a number of different kinds of fan, but notably with people who didn’t “get” that they weren’t meant to identify with its sociopathic lead character. Comedian Chelsea Peretti once described the most stereotypical fans of the show like this: “Yeah, I think if I got cancer I could rule the ghetto.”
That show starts with mild-mannered, long-suffering meek guy Walter White, who eventually becomes a dead-eyed, ice-veined assassin taking out drug cartels, killing innocent women and going to war with nazis. White became so much the caricature of macho posturing that it’s still something of a meme for fans of the show to blame everything on his wife, because she didn’t support him when he became inhuman.
The Breaking Bad writers did all this as carefully as they knew how to, but you can’t plan for everything. The show still presented something of a fantasy for a group of viewers looking for one, as too many of us do.
It was shocking to see Walter White become the most extreme version of himself — legendary drug dealer Heisenberg. It wasn’t necessarily unexpected in hindsight that he became such a bad guy, but that’s still a kind of growth. Not enough for me, personally, to ever want to watch that show again, but it did go somewhere concrete.
Breaking Bad went somewhere, but Physical bounces in place
Sheila, however, already is Heisenberg and Walter White at the same time. Which means that she’s going to be hitting this same register until one of them wins. Which also won’t be satisfying because neither version of Sheila is fun to be around as a viewer. The self-loathing inside voice and the meek outside voice hit the same notes in every single episode of Physical.
Every line of dialogue seems designed to repeat the same sentiments. Right from the jump, Sheila says about Danny when he insists on leaving her investor party: “He can give you 20 minutes, you gave him the last 20 years.”
Sure, this is probably meant to catch the audience up in case they’ve forgotten anything (not encouraging). But it’s also the same thing she’s been saying since episode one of last season. Everything here is underlined twice, while plot developments crawl into our field of vision.
Nine episodes remain of Physical’s second season to prove me wrong, but I am not having any fun.
Watch Physical on Apple TV+
Season two of Physical premieres June 3 on Apple TV+. New episodes will arrive on following Fridays.
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 author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.