'Physical' Is An Uneven Look At '80s Ambition : Pop Culture Happy Hour In the new Apple TV+ series Physical, Rose Byrne plays a woman whose early '80s journey from miserable wife to powerhouse businesswoman goes directly through the fitness industry. Created by Annie Weisman, who used to write for Desperate Housewives, the show centers around Sheila Rubin, who despite being very beautiful, has a profoundly miserable relationship with her body, from bulimic behavior to an unrelentingly abusive interior monologue.

'Physical' Is An Uneven Look At '80s Ambition

'Physical' Is An Uneven Look At '80s Ambition

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Rose Byrne plays Sheila in the Apple TV+ series Physical. Hilary Gayle/Apple TV+ hide caption

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Hilary Gayle/Apple TV+

Rose Byrne plays Sheila in the Apple TV+ series Physical.

Hilary Gayle/Apple TV+

We first see her backstage, sitting at a mirror lined with lights. She looks like the 1980s: permed hair, a high-cut berry-colored leotard, a sparkly silver belt. It is 1986, according to the numbers on the screen. She gets up and travels a series of hallways, never showing us her face, until she arrives in a large room where someone says "Places, everyone." This is the aerobics goddess shooting a video, clearly the master of all she surveys. But before she can reveal herself, we cut to a miserable-looking Rose Byrne, and the on-screen date rolls back from 1986 to 1981. This is the aerobics goddess five years earlier. Her name is Sheila.

The problems with Physical, which started streaming on Apple TV+ on Friday, show up in this first sequence. Alan Sepinwall has written eloquently on the limitations of this kind of jump-back structure when it pivots around an on-screen card that reads "24 Hours Earlier" or "One Week Earlier." This is, after all, "Five Years Earlier."

Five years earlier, there's a lot going on in Sheila's life, much of it miserable. We hear a constant chatter of her inner monologue in voiceover, and she spends most of it telling herself how ugly and fat and pitiful and old and boring she is, an aging housewife everyone secretly thinks is a joke. Her college-professor husband Danny (Rory Scovel), the father of her young daughter, is both self-righteous and sleazy, pursuing threesomes with students while lecturing about making the world a better place. His ambitions ultimately bring him into local politics and a regrettably dull run for state assembly. (Creator Annie Weisman has worked on a bunch of TV shows including Desperate Housewives, so possible links to other depictions of miserable married women are not hard to find.)

The best parts of Physical rely on Byrne's magnetic performance as Sheila, who's suffering from bulimia and a brutal barrage of negative self-talk. That voice in her head is damning, not about Sheila, but about the world she's living in. Sheila earnestly hates herself, and how she views and treats her body teeters on a knife's edge between empowerment and health on one hand, and self-destruction and sickness on the other. The line between self-harm and diet/fitness culture, while it isn't unexplored territory, isn't usually tackled so directly. There is some thoughtful (and dark) exploration here of hunger both literal and figurative, and how Sheila's hatred of her own hunger relates to her doomed attempts to deny that she wants to be powerful.

What the opening sequence of the series promises is a transformation. But that transformation moves at a crawl. Based on the pacing of the first season, there would seem to be at least four or five seasons of runway between where we are now and 1986 Sheila shooting her video.

And viewers are going to be hard-pressed to invest in multiple seasons that don't move the Sheila story along, because the other angles the writers are pursuing don't amount to much. Physical wants to take on not only the culture of diet and aerobics that roared to life as the '70s became the '80s, but also a kind of yuppie-adjacent California liberalism in the early days of Ronald Reagan's presidency. Unfortunately, while Scovel is solid, the character of Danny is a snooze — kind of by design! — and returning to him always seems like an interstitial that isn't actually part of the show. Byrne's electrifying work as Sheila, this miserable but potentially unstoppable force hiding in plain sight, developing other alliances while her husband emotionally disengages from her — that's the show.

There is a promise in that opening: This show is about Sheila becoming a star. The aesthetics of aerobics and '80s pop culture, and of sunny Californian wealth and intellectualism, are faithfully rendered. But why is any significant time spent on Danny soliciting campaign contributions? We know where we're going, and we are here for Sheila. And when she's not in the center of the screen, it's hard to understand why any of us are watching.

The Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast panel includes guest Kristen Meinzer. The audio was produced by Mike Katzif and Candice Lim. The audio and text was edited by Jessica Reedy.