Apple TV+’s enormously frustrating ’80s fitness comedy Physical bounces back for its third and final season this week. Aerobics queen Sheila faces a new adversary, both physically and mentally, as well as a new business model — and all the same old problems.
In the first two seasons, the show never expanded or focused enough to make its surface-level treatment of a tormented self-help icon the impressively acidic comedy or drama it so clearly strove to be. Season three of Physical opens with a few promising developments before becoming bogged down in the same distraction and confusion that marred its first two outings.
Physical recap: First two episodes
Season 3, episodes 1 and 2: Semi-self-made aerobics guru Sheila (played by Rose Byrne) is ready to launch her new product, a step to be used in exercise routines, despite the fact that soap opera star Kelly Kilmartin (who was played by Sloane Avery last season but is now played by Zooey Deschanel) is releasing something very similar. It’s exactly the same, in fact.
Sheila may not be daunted, but her husband-and-wife business partners Greta (Dierdre Friel) and Ernie Hauser (Ian Gomez), and Sheila’s ex-husband Danny (Rory Scovel), all have concerns. Danny’s still acting terminally upset about the environment, so he doesn’t like that the step is made of plastic. Ernie doesn’t like that Sheila is delusional about the product’s competition, or about the fact that Sheila won’t even release the thing.
Ernie’s not just frustrated with Sheila, either. He snaps at Greta at dinner when she pokes gentle fun at him in front of some friends. She goes to Sheila to commiserate, but Sheila’s distracted. She keeps seeing a blonde woman (who is also Kelly Kilmartin) around her home and office, and finally decides to confront her.
Greta, of course, sees Sheila talking to herself. The phantom blonde tells Sheila she better get on TV or she’s gonna lose her war of attrition with … Kelly Kilmartin. Naturally, Greta is concerned that she’s spending her husband’s money on a sinking ship steered by a lunatic.
A hot ticket to TV land
Later, Sheila goes to her old flame John Breem (Paul Sparks). First she asks for dirt on Kilmartin (which she then declines to use). Then she seeks advice on getting on television to compete with Kilmartin in a standup fight.
John was hoping to be done with Sheila because his wife nearly left him after finding out he was sleeping with the fitness star. However, he acquiesces anyway just to get Sheila away from him. The next morning, she’s on Wake Up, San Diego, and much to Danny’s chagrin, she’s parroting his anti-plastic agenda.
As a result, Sheila gets herself a weekly spot on the TV show. All good, right? Well, yes, except for the fact that Sheila’s dormant intrusive thoughts have now manifested as her blonde rival.
Wake up, Apple TV+ viewers
The first episode of Physical’s third season ends with a shot of Sheila in a bathroom talking to Kelly in the mirror. Kelly warns that everyone’s going to learn how crazy Sheila is if she becomes more famous. The camera then lifts up to the ceiling to look down on Sheila, very … slowly … turns and then comes down in front of her to match her reflection and show us what we already know: Kelly isn’t there and Sheila is alone in the bathroom, while Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Spellbound” plays.
Here we have the trouble with Physical in a nutshell. Rose Byrne plays the scene well. She’s an extraordinary actress who is practiced at holding a close-up. This isn’t enough, though.
The camera takes 20 seconds to underline what the show already made abundantly clear. If the move was slicker or quicker, it would have been acceptable, maybe even impressive. But it’s just so obviously a move predicated on the time it takes to move the mirror back in the set so the camera can fit in the space and for Deschanel to clear the shot. What should be a neat formal encapsulation of the episode’s themes becomes a labored recitation of the show’s only idea, that Sheila is unwell.
If this wasn’t the only idea, the Physical creative team might have found something interesting for Danny, Greta or John to do. And that’s to say nothing of the absent Bunny (Della Saba) and Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci), who the show’s writers lost interest in basically right away.
The problem with Physical
Everyone’s function here is to be a negative reflection of Sheila. So if there isn’t a weakness to exploit, these people just tread water like non-player characters in a video game. Instead, we must watch Danny — maybe the least appealing character on television — struggle with fitness and the singles at his bachelor motel. Oh, and we get to watch John attempt to fix his marriage. Just what do any of these people have to do with each other?
Physical is broadly about how improving one superficial thing can’t magically improve everything else wrong in your life. But the show never takes more than a passing interest in what that means to anyone but Sheila, whose problems are nevertheless movie problems. Seeing Zooey Deschanel in your kitchen isn’t really how most of us experience mental illness.
At least trading Sheila’s inner monologue for this new outer monologue allows for more consistency in Sheila’s characterization. What it does not do is give the show anything like a coherent continuity of its aims.
After two seasons of Physical, what do we know about Sheila?
In the first two seasons, Sheila went from a bored housewife who tries to start a lifestyle brand to a divorcee who’s running a flagging lifestyle brand. We learned precious little about her in the interim, and there has been next to no personal development or narrative development outside of her incremental rise to success.
I guess I just want the characterization to be thicker if the story is going to be so thin. The show aims to be a dissection of a “modern” woman’s problems with her image and her mental health. But Physical repeatedly plays the same notes, and they’re just not interesting enough. Nor are they funny enough. (Hiring Whitney Cummings just to have her say the word “pussy” is a comedy white flag if ever I’ve seen one.)
Plus, the show doesn’t play to Byrne’s strengths enough to justify so much pastel-hued sameness (even if the team mostly turned up the lighting enough to not lose the show’s characters in its compositions — a frequent problem last season).
Realistic? Yes. Worth watching … not really.
An agonizing crawl toward self-actualization, replete with relapses and cul-de-sacs, is definitely true to life. But there’s a reason we watch TV to escape the drudgery of our own lives. If it’s not an escape, it had better have great writing (The Wire), great direction (Apple TV+ standout horror show Servant), great acting (The Sopranos) or all of the above (Deadwood).
I already know how Physical’s final season ends, and I know it’s not a satisfying conclusion given where the show started, at least from my standpoint. I know what I want from TV isn’t what everyone else wants from TV. So I’m going to cut Physical a break and not recap the whole third season. (Yes, Physical wins The Hasselhoffs Memorial No Recap Prize, named for the ill-fated A&E reality series starring David Hasselhoff and his two daughters that only managed to get one episode to airtime before being canceled).
There’s no point in ragging on Physical as it continues to march to the beat of its own drum. The show is what it is — I’ll just go ahead and let it be that for its final moments.
Watch Physical on Apple TV+
New episodes of Physical season two arrive Wednesdays 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 and But God Made Him A Poet: Watching John Ford in the 21st Century, 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.