TV pilots often have a tendency to be slightly cumbersome and oddly jittery as they hit the beats necessary to introduce their characters and establish their premise. Physical isn’t immune from this setup, and it’s not a case of immediately being hooked, but instead of acknowledging the promise of the premise, and hanging in there, which is an infinitely wise decision.
The first episode sensibly begins with a fleeting glimpse of Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne) in 1986 as the big-haired, lycra-clad VHS fitness guru she’s destined to become, before leaping back to 1981, when Sheila was a wife and mother who wasn’t so much dissatisfied with her lot in life as someone with an aversion to her own existence. Sheila wears a mask of sunshine and deference that repeatedly slips, displaying the accumulated venom and discontent beneath it. And boy, is there a lot of it. Her thoughts are so wonderfully acidic that it’s a miracle her head doesn’t dissolve.
Sheila has yet to understand her own power, having made the seemingly unwise decision to stake her claim to happiness in her tiresome, low-level academic husband Danny (Rory Scovel). Desperate to conceal the financial implications of her self-destructive ways, Sheila begins to see a way forward for herself, courtesy of the new-fangled aerobics craze. While she doesn’t quite train her inner demons to emerge and claw people’s faces off on command, Physical has found the right gear by the end of the first episode.
Byrne, always an asset, is flawless as the intriguingly flawed Sheila – so much so that she occasionally comes close to overshadowing the rest of the proceedings. Her caustic inner monologues are hilarious and perfectly delivered, while being disconcertingly relatable. The 80s aesthetic is nicely handled, with the show giving regular nods to its time period without being self-indulgent. Some of the sets look like they belong in an edgy reboot of The Golden Girls.
Although the pilot dawdles ever so slightly, Physical has (well-toned) legs, and is strangely empowering in its own delightfully dark way.
Physical is released on Apple TV+ on 18th June 2021.
Watch the trailer for Physical here: