The title of the new series “Physical,” as well as the leotard Rose Byrne wears in promotional imagery, evokes a particular moment in American cultural history: the early 1980s, when Olivia Newton-John ruled the charts and spandex and legwarmers became a workout uniform for newly fitness-obsessed women. The last vestiges of cultural idealism had faded in favor of obsessive pursuit of aesthetic perfection; this may just have been the time our current era was born. Which makes Sheila Rubin, Byrne’s character on the Apple TV Plus comedy, a woman both of her time and radically ahead of it. Sheila is relentlessly self-conscious in a manner that suggests both “Greed is good” appetites and the Instagram age. Her internal monologue, which we hear in voice-over, levels anyone who can’t meet her impossible standard, including and especially herself.
“Physical,” created by Annie Weisman and defined by Byrne’s raging performance, plants us deeply inside Sheila’s mind. And what’s there is a welter of resentments, embedded by 1980s America and by painful personal history. Sheila isn’t just a character on “Physical”: She’s the show’s dark id, spewing cruel insults. The trouble is that while the show gestures toward complication in Sheila’s story, it ends up in a very simple place. Sheila hates herself and takes out that hatred on others; reasonable viewers will feel concern for her. But somewhere around the 10th time she told herself a corny joke about how fat her neighbor is, I stopped caring about what she had to say.
It’s a missed opportunity. Sheila is in a marriage that might lend itself well to interesting storytelling: She and her husband, Danny (Rory Scovel), share a history of affection and of political commitment as leftist activists. With Danny lost in ambition and in a run for local office in San Diego, Sheila finds herself at loose ends. Adrift in her relationship and in life, she responds with a sort of coiled rigor, eventually finding in aerobics the release she’s long sought in bingeing and purging — her eating disorder, we’re told, an expensive habit that’s led to the decimation of her savings.
Can she use her telegenic looks and love of fitness to rebuild the family finances? All of this is told in a style that feels less take-no-prisoners honest than simply brutal. The series saves its most amateurish writing for Sheila’s innermost thoughts: To cite just one example, a neighbor (Dierdre Friel, in a punishing role) inquires about Sheila’s workout, saying that she’d likely “stick out like a sore thumb.” “She’ll stick out like her fat ass,” Sheila tells herself.
The show is caustically effective at evoking Sheila’s mind. The issue is that said mind operates according to a somewhat scrambled logic, making each new event in an unsustainably twisty plot feel bizarre and jarring — and removing the possibility of real commentary. (A Reagan Revolution business titan played by Paul Sparks seems to exist on another show entirely.) The throughline is Sheila’s approach to life: evaluating the world around her with disgust. That she is gratuitously cruel is no mark against her — or wouldn’t be, if her digs at others didn’t feel like they came out of a child’s joke book. An entire era of prestige television was defined by men and their loathing; Sheila doing the same looks from a certain angle like equal time.
But her palpable disdain is unpleasant, even on a visual level: Assuming her point of view, “Physical” makes its characters look pallid and sweaty, food look greasy and clammy, and sex look revolting. At times, it resembles body horror: A pregnant woman rambles to Sheila about how she feels “flush with desire” as we zoom in on her teeth ravaging a tortilla chip. She goes on to describe her love life as “meat coming together,” an unbelievably trite line that conveniently justifies Sheila’s repulsion at the physical world. We have elsewhere learned of traumatic elements of her history that make her leery of the idea of touch; finding within her fear a weird and underbaked gag about a randy pregnant woman is missing the point.
“Physical’s” pilot was directed by Craig Gillespie, and it shares something with his film “I, Tonya,” which never stopped sneering at its own characters. Friel’s Greta, for instance, is a dowdy housewife whom Sheila ignores and then uses; it comes as no surprise when she indulges her husband’s degrading sexual fetish. Bringing Greta low is how Sheila finds a conditional sort of joy. It says little good about the show that it seems to feel the same way.
All of which adds up to a misuse of Byrne, a performer who has never shied away from exploring complication. Relatively early in her career, she faced down acting legend Glenn Close and made “Damages” a true two-hander; on film, her characters in “Bridesmaids” and “Spy” were villains whose wry, alluring sense of humor made us want to learn more about them. And as Gloria Steinem on “Mrs. America,” she assessed the world around her with a chilly, unreachable hauteur that made Steinem’s thoughts thrillingly just out of reach. On “Physical,” Byrne’s been handed a lead role but saddled with a rudimentary sketch of a character. Sheila’s pains and compulsions are real and will be relatable to many, but they’re anchored in nothing particular about her. What we see, with unfettered access to Sheila’s inner life, is a person who can’t bear to have a single sincere thought. As a tribute to the ethos of the 1980s, this corrosive irony may in fact be perfectly pitched — but what was unbearable then remains so now