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‘Physical’ Depicts a Rarity on TV: The Dark Side of Women’s Body Image

The new Apple TV+ dramedy lays bare the contradiction at the heart of exercise as a commodity. Lead Rose Byrne and creator Annie Weisman discuss how they set about portraying the fitness community in 1980s San Diego.

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Every weekend of my childhood, my mom would drive us down to the local mall for her weekly aerobics class. While I waited in the designated holding pen for young kids, the moms—all the parents were moms—would sweat. This was in late-’90s San Diego, but the scene was straight out of the previous decade: leotards, leg warmers, a soundtrack out of a Richard Simmons tape. It was my introduction to group exercise, and how a feeling as individual as women’s body image could make for very big business.

When I tell this story to Annie Weisman, a veteran TV writer and creator of the new Apple TV+ series Physical, she knows exactly what I mean. “That was our mall!” she exclaims. “I spent much of my childhood in that mall. My formative experiences were in that mall.” (“That mall,” for the curious, is University Town Center, a retail hub on the city’s suburban fringe.) Physical is a specific show about a specific place, one that’s not nearly as well known as its neighbor to the north. It’s also a more universal story about the emotional needs fulfilled by a frankly silly-looking hobby. Beneath the high knees and hip gyrations, there’s a sense of community, and also control.

Physical is a personal story for Weisman, a San Diego native and erstwhile aerobics instructor who’s struggled with eating disorders and exercise compulsion in her past. On Physical, that biography is refracted through protagonist Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne), a ’60s radical turned ’80s housewife to academic Danny (Rory Scovel). When Danny loses his job, he decides to turn his attention to local politics, running for state assembly as an environmentalist against the heavily favored Republican. But unbeknownst to him, Sheila begins a career journey of her own: teaching aerobics at the local mall, a temple to ’80s consumerism bankrolled by the Republican’s chief backer. As Byrne’s recent role Gloria Steinem would say, the personal is political—in exercise as everything else.

Sheila is empowered by her newfound passion, gaining a following among her peers and independence in her marriage. But it’s not quite right to call it empowering. What Sheila gets from aerobics is an outlet for an illness that’s also an addiction: a binge-and-purge cycle we can instantly recognize as bulimia, though no one on the show identifies it as such. (This was years before Princess Diana would give the disease a face and a much more prominent name.) And what it brings out in her is a cutthroat instinct to lie, cheat, and steal her way to the top of the then-fledgling fitness industry. “She finds in aerobics this opportunity to tap into that inner rage and anger and just release it,” Weisman explains. “It’s a replacement. It’s one obsession for another.” Physical isn’t an uplifting story about a woman finding her purpose. It’s an ambivalent one about a sick person who finds a way to change her circumstances without addressing their root cause.

That theme makes Physical a much grimmer story than its GLOW-but-aerobics marketing may suggest. The dearly departed Netflix ensemble was often shrewd and nuanced in its exploration of gender roles, but at the end of the day, it was a show about female solidarity; on Physical, Sheila gets her first gig by blackmailing her future business partner. The show doesn’t make light of aerobics, Byrne says, before backtracking: “I mean, aerobics is innately kind of comic.” Still, she was drawn to the part by some of the deeper questions it posed about the dark side of one woman’s liberation: “[Sheila] has no agency, and that to me was very interesting. How did women find that? A lot of women did through economic independence, but at what cost? Like anything, how do you take your values when you make that choice?”

Gradually, Sheila drifts away from the hippie ideals that first drew her to Danny at anti-war protests in college. But it’s not like their marriage honored those ideals to begin with, a fundamental flaw that gives Sheila ample cause to reconsider her allegiance. Danny is a preening blowhard who soaks up attention from wherever he can find it, including nubile young undergrads. He’s happy to lecture others about fairness, but doesn’t apply the same principle to, say, co-parenting his daughter. “She has been left out of the goals of equality and liberation that her husband’s been fighting for,” Weisman says of Sheila. “She’s at a point in her life where the disconnect between what he fights for in the world and how he behaves at home is becoming pretty unbearable.” As viewers, we may not agree with or enjoy Sheila’s choices, but we at least understand where they’re coming from.

At its weakest, Physical can mirror the asymmetry in the Rubins’ relationship. Much of the season is focused on Danny’s campaign, a grassroots coalition of students and surfers united against beachfront development. In arguing that Sheila has sacrificed her dreams for Danny’s, Physical ends up focusing as much on Danny’s story as Sheila’s, if not more. Understanding Danny is key to understanding his wife, but it’s not Sheila who suffers most from the show’s divided attention. It’s the women who surround her. Bunny (Della Saba), the Lebanese instructor who gets Sheila hooked, is oddly underdeveloped given her pivotal role in the plot. Greta (Dierdre Friel), a fellow mom who craves Sheila’s approval even as Sheila envies her wealth, fares better. But a subplot about her own insecurities, especially around weight, shows how much the show could do with some breathing room, if only the male lead weren’t hogging so much oxygen.

Still, it’s Sheila’s point of view that indisputably powers the show. Physical’s signature device is a voice-over that subjects us to Sheila’s intrusive thoughts, an incessant barrage of insults and nitpicks that only stops when she gives in to her self-destructive urge. It’s the literal voice of Sheila’s eating disorder, which may not be explicitly defined but still rules her life. “I really wanted to focus on the emotional truth of how she feels and not so much on the behavior,” Weisman says. “It felt to me, and a lot of women, like it’s almost an outside force—a hijacking entity coming into your life and trying to pull you into its orbit.” By having us listen in on Sheila’s internal monologue, Physical puts us in the grip of compulsion right along with her. It also offers a showcase for Byrne, who effectively delivers two performances in one: the first in the moment, the second in the recording booth after the fact.

For a half-hour dramedy, the results can be viscerally unpleasant. I have multiple friends who tuned out after the pilot, where Byrne’s voice-over is almost distractingly dominant. But over the next nine episodes, Physical also puts forward one of the more convincing portrayals of dysfunctional body image I’ve seen on TV. Even when they don’t rise to the level of a clinical disorder, legions of women have experienced negative thoughts or behaviors around food and exercise. (Some surveys put the number as high as three in four.) When Sheila balks at a food-centric campaign event because it throws off her meal plan for the day, it’s queasily familiar. Today, weight loss has become “wellness” and crash diets are now “cleanses.” But Physical lays bare the contradiction at the heart of exercise as a commodity, then and now: What’s supposed to make you healthier can actually keep you prisoner to your unhealthiest habits. It’s never easy to tell which is which.

To depict Sheila’s world, Weisman assembled a largely female crew. The pilot of Physical was directed by Craig Gillespie of I, Tonya, whom Weisman calls the show’s “token man.” But the remaining directors, plus cinematographer Paula Huidobro, were all women: “It was important to me to find collaborators that I felt understood this perspective,” she says. (Not all those who suffer from eating disorders are women, but one look at a standard Pilates class makes clear just how gendered the fitness-industrial complex has been from the start.) She also looked to real-life aerobics idols—not just celebrities like Jane Fonda, but self-made women like Gilda Marx and Bess Motta who started from scratch.

Byrne, for her part, cast her net a little wider in the search for inspiration. “I’ve talked to people who were there in California when it started and they always described it like a little bit of a cult,” she says. “That was something I was really interested in capturing—these people who cut through the masses, whether it’s Tony Robbins or Jenny Craig, these people who have cultivated a following. What kind of personality that takes, what kind of drive.” When Sheila commands her disciples like a Spandex army, she has the zealotry of a true believer.

Not everything in Physical took that much research. The show didn’t actually shoot in San Diego, but to those who’ve spent time there, the bits of local color are subtle yet distinct. Characters go on a grunion run. The mall magnate is Mormon, a nod to the Church of Latter-Day Saints’ heavy presence in the region. When Sheila tells a former teacher about the new gig, she’s skeptical: “Bitchy may play in L.A., but not in the coastal communities,” the woman scoffs. These aren’t trivial details. They’re key to the contrast between lefties like the Rubins and the conservative, image-conscious culture that surrounds them—what Danny derisively calls “Reagan’s San Diego.” It’s a contrast that runs throughout California, but is especially heightened at its southern extreme. And as Sheila drifts away from Danny, she starts to switch sides.

“Sometimes people think San Diego is like L.A.,” Weisman says. “It’s actually like the Midwest. It is 100 miles away and 100,000 miles away. It’s its own world.” That difference is both obscured and evidenced by movies and TV shows about Southern California. L.A. has an entire canon of iconic entertainment showing the rest of the world what it’s like; San Diego has Anchorman, Almost Famous, and now Physical, allowing most outsiders to assume it’s a mere extension of L.A.’s sprawl. (As an Australian, Byrne wasn’t even aware the city historically skewed Republican until she worked on the show.) But San Diego’s obscurity also makes it the ideal setting for a story about someone who’s so consistently overlooked. No one else sees the rage and fear Sheila keeps bottled up inside—at least until they can’t look away.