TV writer Annie Weisman was captivated by Don Draper and Walter White, the two very complicated family men at the heart of “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” when those ground-breaking characters were introduced nearly 15 years ago. Yet she yearned for more female-centric storytelling from both shows.
“I love ‘Mad Men,’ and I love ‘Breaking Bad,’ but I wanted to know about their wives,” says Weisman, creator and showrunner of Apple TV Plus’ “Physical,” starring Rose Byrne as a tormented young mother living in San Diego circa 1981.
Byrne’s Sheila Rubin, a disillusioned progressive afflicted by intense self-loathing and an ongoing eating disorder, is on a par with Draper and White for sheer complexity. And she’s easily the most conflicted of new wave of moms getting a share of the TV spotlight these days in shows ranging from “Mrs. America” to “Girls5Eva” to “Hacks.” They present an image of motherhood with more flaws than June Cleaver ever could have imagined.
All backed by streamers, the shows tackle knotty feelings about parenthood, gender roles and ambition in storylines that range from comedic to dramatic.
“I feel like there’s an opportunity to tell different kinds of stories,” says Weisman, whose past credits include working as a writer-producer on such series as “Desperate Housewives,” “Suburgatory” and “The Path.” “Women are in more decision-making roles in studios and networks and streaming entities than they were 10 years ago, and 20 years ago when I was starting out.”
Whereas once a show might have focused on Sheila’s husband Danny (Rory Scovel), a professor turned local candidate, now it can spotlight his seemingly serene but roiling inside wife.
“In the first wave of really excellent television storytelling that came out, you see a lot of these really divided, complex men written by these complex male writers,” Weisman points out. “We want to tell stories from different points of view.”
A twist on Cate Blanchett’s Phyllis Schlafly in FX’s period limited series “Mrs. America,” Sheila ostensibly has an enlightened husband who is a former fellow Berkeley radical but she is still expected to shoulder childcare responsibilities for their young daughter even as she explores a career as an aerobics instructor at the dawning of the age of fitness videos.
Why? Because she’s the mom.
Byrne’s striped leotard on promotional imagery and the title of the series evoke a very particular time in America for those that lived through it: when Jane Fonda’s aerobics workout was all the rage and Olivia Newton-John’s lascivious “Physical” was a No. 1 hit. But it quickly becomes apparent the series is less upbeat than those signifiers might indicate: Over the course of 10 episodes, which began streaming June 18, we learn more about secrets from Sheila’s past and her husband’s obliviousness to some of her private struggles.
Weisman, who has struggled with her own eating disorder, didn’t want to airbrush Sheila’s dark side or her punishing internal voice, which we hear throughout the season. For her, it is key to conveying the character’s mental health struggles.
“I recognize that it can be painful to hear,” she says. “But it’s true to my experience of living with this kind of illness.”
Buoyed by the backing of women throughout the development process, she believes “Physical” will find an audience, but recognizes that the storyline won’t resonate with everyone. “I think when you don’t stand the edges off of things, you’re going to get some pushback,” she says. “I’m okay with that.”
She adds: “The really cool thing about streaming is just that it can kind of live out there and find its audience to grow, and it’s not a sink or swim everybody or nobody kind of thing. So I’m really, really grateful for that.”
Tina Fey, as exec producer of Peacock’s “Girls5Eva,” also considers a streaming service the perfect home for her comedy about a ‘90s girl band that reunites.
“I definitely think that streaming has turned out to be better for comedy,” Fey said during a Tribeca conversation with “Girls5Eva” creator Meredith Scardino and fellow executive producers earlier this month. “Not that we go that hard, but because people are choosing to come to you, you don’t have to make plain rice. You can make something that isn’t maybe for everybody, but it’s delicious.”
In the series, Grammy winner Sara Bareilles plays Dawn Solano, a mother of a young child that misses the spotlight and begins to flex her once thwarted songwriting skills. Though the series is much more upbeat than “Physical,” she, too, suffers from self-doubt.
“Outside of being a mom, I haven’t tried at anything in so long that I’m not even sure how to do it,” her character says in episode four.
Dawn also grapples with ambivalence about having another child with her husband, and her fellow bandmates face age-related sexism over the course of the season. Schlafly, the real-life conservative activist who rose to power in the 1970s, faced even more overt sexism than Dawn or Sheila; FX on Hulu’s limited series “Mrs. America” explores the seeming contradiction of a woman who embraced traditional gender roles while spending time away from her family in pursuit of political clout.
A pivotal subplot in HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant,” meanwhile, revolves around Rosie Perez’s Megan Briscoe, a frustrated middle-aged mom who inadvertently becomes enmeshed in high-stakes corporate espionage. Like Rashida Jones’ character in 2020’s “On the Rocks,” she admits to feeling invisible as a mother.
And on “Hacks,” also streaming on HBO Max, Jean Smart’s Deborah Vance recalls the sexism she encountered as a young mother on the comedy circuit. She and her now-grown daughter (Kaitlin Olson) have a strained relationship; Deborah feels more kinship with her young staffer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) than her own daughter by the end of the first season.
There are other examples: Kate Winslet’s troubled Philadelphia-area cop on HBO’s “Mare of Easttown” certainly had her flaws as a mother and law enforcement officer as well. And there is a direct through line from Kerry Bishe’s Donna from AMC’s 1980s-set computer drama “Halt and Catch Fire” to Sheila in “Physical.”
So far, storylines involving complicated moms have proven to be viable in today’s crowded TV ecosystem: “Hacks,” “Girls5Eva” and “The Flight Attendant” have all been renewed for a second season. Weisman hopes to follow that path with “Physical.”
By the end of the first season (no big spoilers here), Sheila is seemingly coming to be more at peace with her body and her drive.
“We definitely see and have thoughts and ideas for where she goes from here,” Weisman says. “The ‘80s are still before her. And, we know what happened, but they don’t. So there’s a lot more growth ahead for her, but also obstacles and pushback.”
(Pictured: Apple TV Plus’ “Physical”)