On the heels of the Justin Theroux-starring “The Mosquito Coast,” Apple TV+ has delivered another well-filmed, well-acted and decidedly downbeat bummer of a series in the Rose Byrne vehicle “Physical.”
In both cases, we’re asked to spend an inordinate amount of time with a thoroughly unlikable, narcissistic lead character who isn’t as captivating and interesting as the series would like us to believe.
Not that Byrne’s Sheila Rubin is a bohemian rebel felon on the run a la Theroux’s Allie Fox. She’s a self-loathing Real Housewife of San Diego circa the early 1980s, and her internal monologue is a constant reminder of her nasty, bitter, petty worldview — and her deeply rooted self-loathing. Time and again, we hear Allie’s bitchy remarks about her friends, her fellow mothers, her husband, people she’s just met.
And when she’s not making catty observations about others, she’s berating herself for being terrible and stupid and “fat,” even though she is not the least bit overweight. She’s bulimic, prone to bouts of binge-eating and purging in a seedy motel room in the middle of the day — a secret she keeps from everyone in her life, including her oblivious husband.
Series creator Annie Weisman (“Desperate Housewives,” “Almost Family”) does an admirable job of re-creating the look and sound of the early 1980s, from the sets and fashions to the use of songs such as “Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash, “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks and “Atomic” by Blondie. (Each episode ends with a pop/rock tune that sets the table for the next show and extends into the closing credits.).
With hair straight out of the Jennifer Beals/“Flashdance” catalog and California-tanned skin, Byrne’s Sheila looks gorgeous but feels ugly inside and out, often retreating into her internal monologue even as she tries to maintain her wobbly smile while tending to her 4-year-old daughter, conversing with moms at daycare or mustering up enthusiasm for her loathsome, borderline creepy husband Danny (Rory Scovel), who has been fired from his teaching position at a mediocre college and has decided he’ll run for local assemblyman and try to make history, not just teach it, as he so grandly puts it. (Relax, pal. You’re not gearing up to challenge Ronald Reagan for the presidency.)
We’re told Danny and Sheila were liberal hippie activists at Berkeley in the 1960s and somehow lost their way. But it’s hard to believe they ever cared about anyone but themselves.
Danny hopes to reclaim his idealism with the campaign but seems more interested in trying to hook up with a worshipful former student named Simone (Ashley Liao) and getting effed up on booze and coke than in making a real difference.
Sheila plays the dutiful, supportive wife at social gatherings and fundraising efforts. But her mind wanders as she thinks ugly thoughts, often concerning the physical appearance of other women — though she always directs the most scathing and hateful inner comments at herself.
At the local mall run by the pious, Reagan-era developer John Breem (a miscast Paul Sparks), Sheila is introduced to the world of aerobics. She immediately wants to get physical, physical, in the immortal words of Olivia Newton-John. She becomes obsessed with the classes taught by a scrappy go-getter named Bunny (Della Saba) and eventually partners with Bunny and Bunny’s surfer-dude, porno movie-making boyfriend Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci) to shoot a series of exercise videos.
We learn Sheila comes from money and has a strained relationship with her WASP-y parents. And we see Sheila becoming inexplicably attracted to Breem the businessman, who just might be the only man in San Diego LESS interesting and appealing than her garrulous husband.
There’s a running subplot about the marriage of wealthy neighbors played by Ian Gomez and Dierdre Friel. (Let’s just say there’s a kink or two in the relationship.)
With so many storylines, there’s a lot crammed into every half-hour episode of “Physical.” But it’s not entirely clear what the series is trying to say about the go-go early 1980s and Sheila’s journey, which is tied so closely to her damaged self-image and her tendency to judge most people she meets by their appearances.
Rose Byrne is an immensely likable actress playing a character who needs help but is too shallow, too self-consumed and too damaged to know where to look. We get the feeling it’s exhausting to be Sheila. And, unfortunately, it’s exhausting to spend so much time with her.