Apple TV+’s Physical, about a would-be fitness guru in California, heads to a funeral this week to rethink its priorities. Sheila’s finally cracking up, John’s lies catch up with him in a sad way, Bunny is at the end of her tether, and a vengeful mother gets her hooks into two generations of women.
A couple of standout performances lift this week’s episode out of the usual doldrums. Rose Byrne is allowed to stretch a bit beyond the usual limitations of her role as Sheila Rubin — and the result is a glimpse into a better version of what this show could be.
Physical recap: ‘Don’t You Go Far’
Season 2, episode 3: In this week’s episode, titled “Don’t You Go Far,” Sheila’s dad (played by Ray Wise) is dead. She, Danny (Rory Scovel) and Maya (Grace Kelly Quigley) go to his funeral to look after his affairs.
Sheila’s stomach still hurts from last week and she doesn’t know why. Sheila hated her dad, and Danny’s attempts to get past her defenses on the subject come to naught. Danny’s paternalistic therapy talk is getting very old.
So Sheila tries to have a heart-to-heart with her mother (Wendie Malick). Sheila only sees the things she did wrong as a kid when looking at her mom. That’s because her mom’s perfectionism and vanity rubbed off in all the wrong ways. She even asks not to be called “grandma” because it makes her sound old.
Sheila runs into old friends, including tightly wound Tanya Logan (Mary Holland), but mostly this day is all about her mother. Her mom teases her about the aerobics tape, which she cut a check to finance. But Sheila gets the upper hand by repaying her in front of her friends at the wake.
“We just buried your father!” her mom says, and Sheila backs out of the room.
Elsewhere, John Breem (Paul Sparks) is having an awkward parental moment of his own. His son Zeke (Ian Ousley) asks him to not tell his mom Maria (Erin Pineda) that he wants to go to a dance with a girl. In former times, John wouldn’t so cool about his son dating. But getting with Sheila has awoken his mischievous side.
John gives his son 20 bucks to buy his girl a corsage, then sends him on his way. Maria is starting to notice that John doesn’t want to be intimate with her anymore. But when she corners him, he sells out Zeke rather than confess about his dalliance with Sheila.
Sheila takes her frustration to the nearest exercise studio, which is run by a high-energy lunatic named Vincent Green (Murray Bartlet). But her body is telling her to quit. Maybe it’s the grief, maybe it’s stress, but the pain inside her is growing and finally she faints. Turns out it’s a twisted ovary.
Meanwhile, Sheila’s aerobics nemesis Bunny (Della Saba) has had enough of Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci). So, Bunny tries to get back to her old flame, Gary (Rob Cordry). He blows it, though, freaking out and punching a wall when Tyler tries to convince her there are other ways to reclaim her sense of self. Bunny redoubles her quest to get back at Sheila.
I think I got a lemon
Thank god for Mary Holland. Ten seconds with her in the role of Tanya, and Physical recovers. I forgot for a minute how punishing this show as I basked in the glow of the actor’s manic energy.
This is probably the best episode of this show I’ve yet seen. The camera and edit are attuned to Sheila’s mental state. The chaos of aerobics is put to good use finally. And they finally find a productive use for the show’s primary technical device.
Sheila’s inner monologue serves a purpose here at long last, since she’s in a situation where: A.) Byrne gets to do more than smile politely and B.) There’s real psychological character work being done.
Admittedly, anyone who’s seen Gilmore Girls will find this very familiar. Still, Byrne and Malick make good foils. The editors cheat by scoring their final moment of reconciliation to “Hold Me Now” by Thompson Twins, but I’ll let it slide because I was finally enjoying myself.
Giving Rose Byrne a chance to stretch
Byrne is so often asked to be a pleasant, pleading blank on this show. So watching her lose that composure until she’s reduced to shrieking hysterics was quite satisfying indeed. Physical still doesn’t deliver any punchlines (beyond Holland’s clearly ad-libbed line about wanting to kill her son). But this week’s episode at least proved compelling and went somewhere new. If the writers can keep yanking the reins on the usual dramatic momentum, and find new directions to send Sheila, they might recover the season.
What concerns me is that the point of this episode is that Sheila is at a breaking point. She’s finally succumbing to a health problem established last week, plus the combined pressure of her guilt at sleeping with John, her guilt at not being who her mom wanted her to be while her mother treats Maya like a little Sheila, and her grief at her father’s death.
If she gets over this, Physical might return to business as usual. We’ll have to wait and see.
Watch Physical on Apple TV+
New episodes of Physical’s second season arrive Fridays on Apple TV+.
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.