Physical season 1 review – Rose Byrne elevates a lacklustre dramedy

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: June 18, 2021 (Last updated: December 16, 2023)
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Physical season 1 review - Rose Byrne elevates a lacklustre dramedy


Rose Byrne is great in Physical, but the show doesn’t seem as interested as it should be in her arresting character.

This review of Physical on Apple TV+ is spoiler-free and based on the first three episodes.

At first glance, Apple TV+’s latest original, Physical, looks like it’s going to be a tongue-in-cheek look at the more ridiculous side of the fitness industry, displayed mostly in the aesthetic of that Eric Prydz music video that everyone was obsessed with when I was in college. Rose Byrne in a headband, leg warmers, and luminescent Lycra unitard? Sure, why not? Only, that isn’t the show. Like, at all. Byrne is playing Sheila Rubin, a long-suffering housewife with an eating disorder and a lacerating internal monologue. Physical, a half-hour dramedy with an unexpectedly bleak outlook, isn’t a riff on ‘80s aerobics fashion trends but a grim character study in self-medication, self-destruction, and self-help.

So, that’s nice. Rose Byrne is great in this, by the way, but it’s weird how uninterested in her the show seems sometimes. The first three episodes dropped at once on Apple TV+ today, so I based the review on those; it was certainly better than releasing just the one, so there’s plenty of time for both setting things up – Sheila has gradually regressed since her ‘60s heyday and her relationship with her husband Danny (Rory Scovel) has become blander – and establishing the subplots we’ll be running with, including Sheila’s initial fascination with an aerobics class led by Bunny (Della Saba). There’s a lot of psyche to unpack here, and it’s important we understand what makes Sheila tick so we know what she’s hoping to get out of aerobics; her internal monologue is a bit obvious, but it speaks to an internalized, private sense of isolation and despair that her façade doesn’t reveal on its own.

For some reason, though, Physical largely leaves Sheila alone to focus on her husband’s political aspirations, or her friend Greta (Dierdre Friel), or a local mall magnate (Paul Sparks), or aspiring filmmaker Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci). There are connective threads between all these storylines, but they don’t all cohere thematically, at least not in regards to Sheila’s internal plight. It’d make sense in a bigger, more sprawling show – perhaps Physical is confident in its renewal – to split focus like this, but not in tight half-hour installments that burn one character’s interiority for fuel. Byrne is so good that it’s frustrating whenever she isn’t around, especially since none of the other characters have anywhere close to as much depth.

In a way, though, you have to admire the show’s ambition. You can certainly see what it’s going for in its melange of warring but interrelated topics and characters, it just feels like the exact wrong format for that kind of story. The tone, too, fluctuates from light comedy to bleak brokenness at a moment’s notice, and not always in a way that feels entirely intentional as a juxtaposition. It’s worth a look for Byrne, and there’s certainly potential for the remaining episodes to coalesce in a more fruitful way. We can only hope.

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