'Physical' recap: Breezy rehab can't fix Apple TV+ show's core problem

Breezy rehab can’t fix Physical’s core problem [Apple TV+ recap]

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Physical recap: Sheila (played by Rose Byrne) tries to sort out her problems this week. Sorta.★★☆☆
Physical recap: Sheila (played by Rose Byrne) tries to sort out her problems this week. Sorta.
Photo: Apple TV+

Apple TV+’s Physical, the story of would-be workout icon Sheila Rubin, is in recovery this week. Can Sheila finally combat her inner critic? Can she make Danny forgive her? Will she make friends at a retreat? Can she finally be honest with herself about her life and her problems and her image of herself?

The answers probably won’t shock you in this perfectly ordinary episode.

Physical recap: ‘Don’t You Want To Get Better’

Season 2, episode 9: In the episode, entitled “Don’t You Want to Get Better,” Sheila (played by Rose Byrne) finally actually checks herself into a facility. She’s obviously lying to everyone about her growth journey, though.

Her roommate is especially not buying any of her lies about having grown or recovered. The woman who runs the program (Alison Wright) knows she’s lying, too, but she’s nicer about it. The girls find out Sheila is a fitness guru, which means she has been lying to her customers. She isn’t healthy because of her fitness regimen, but because she’s been throwing up most of the food she eats for a long time.

Her husband Danny (Rory Scovel) and daughter Maya (Grace Kelly Quigley) visit her, mostly so he can scold her once again for her affair with John Breem (Paul Sparks). Sheila internalizes all this judgment and spits it back out at everyone during a particularly stressful group session.

Another cop-out

In another of this show’s mercilessly manipulative editing decisions, after Sheila screams vitriol at the rest of the women, they forgive her and welcome her to recovery for the first time — and Cindy Lauper’s “Time After Time” plays on the soundtrack.

Letting songs do the work of writing and performance and editing and direction has been one of Physical’s most egregious ploys, and this one really takes the cake.

After a week of being honest with herself and trying to tune out the voice in her head, Sheila feels like there isn’t any reason to go back to the workout business. But then Greta (Dierdre Friel) shows up to pick her up from rehab and brings a surprise with her.

While Sheila was away, letters started pouring in by the hundreds from appreciative women who found her workout tapes. They all say she changed their lives. She can’t turn her back on them now can she?

I’m still so mad at you

I found this episode of Physical no more pleasant than any of the rest of the season. However, I was at least relieved that — because the show finally pitched Sheila’s inner voice as the villain of the series — Rose Byrne is now doing as much or more work in her visible performance as on the soundtrack.

Byrne is an incredible performer and the show has been hamstringing her with the same facial expression for the last two seasons, unable to fully express who she is. Yes, I get that that’s the point of the show. But that does not make watching an actor self-consciously fight their best instincts a good time.

Similarly, in perfect Physical fashion, the episode immediately rewards Sheila for her few minutes of clarity by giving her renewed purpose in life in the form of all those letters. It beggars belief that a locally sold exercise tape in a California neighborhood has somehow impacted the lives of hundreds of people in something like four months, but I’ll forgive that because I understand you need to plot tightly to move forward.

Giving rehab short shrift

Physical recap: Wham, bam, all better now, ma'am.
Wham, bam, all better, ma’am.
Photo: Apple TV+

What bothers me is that Sheila’s “recovery” took 15 minutes of one episode. I’m sure there will still be problems going forward, because otherwise you don’t have a show anymore. But to just hand her the keys to the next part of her life the second it might seem like she needs a new direction is everything wrong with this show in a nutshell.

The show introduce the idea that Sheila might actually have to do some work to be a different person, then just gives her the answer the next minute. It’s deeply frustrating to watch a show committed to showing a complicated, awful central character, who nevertheless never really deals with life as it happens to most people.

Sheila may be a realistic-ish kind of damaged person, but Physical has never been realistic about the life she lives. Greta forgives her for her outburst, for her cruelty, and then it’s on to the next plot point.

What’s next for Sheila the monster?

I’d say I’m curious to see how the show will treat the idea of Sheila’s recovery and inevitable backsliding going forward, but, well, I’m not. I don’t want to put my experience in the hands of people who will create roadblocks for their hero only to give her wings to get over them.

A real show would find it interesting to see what it’s like for a monster to have to be a real person, which the writers have gone out of their way to tell us Sheila is meant to be.

I don’t think we’ll actually see a recovered Sheila because Physical is too high-concept to become ordinary. Letting her live would mean admitting the show was more than a gimmick. And boy oh boy is it not more than a gimmick. Two seasons in and nothing has changed.

★★☆☆

Watch Physical on Apple TV+

New episodes of Physical’s second season arrive Fridays on Apple TV+.

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 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.