Apple TV’s ‘Physical’ Turns ‘80s Suburban Woes Into an Aerobics Workout

Nostalgia and suburban woes come together in unique ways in Apple TV’s “Physical.” For years now two major themes in Peak TV have been a longing for the 1980s and how living in a plush neighborhood with set career paths brings little joy. In this series Rose Byrne becomes the face of the distraught American housewife. Her self-perception is distorted and her marriage is becoming a slow, grinding hell. Salvation comes in the form of one of the era’s most famous workout phenomenons, the aerobics class. It’s almost a surreal premise, but it manages to pull you in through a combination of strong acting and feverish visual style. 

Byrne is Sheila, a suburban wife living in San Diego with husband Danny (Rory Scovel). They were once radical activists in the ‘60s, but now it’s 1981 and the couple has settled into a deceptively conservative lifestyle with young daughter Maya (Grace Kelly Quigley). Danny has just been fired from his teaching job at a local college, while Sheila is undergoing a private hell of frustration and self-doubt. Lately she’s been taking money out of the bank to splurge on burgers and hotel rooms, where she strips, eats the junk food and then purges. In her eyes Sheila is nothing but a fattening loser. Then Danny decides he wants to run for office, expecting Sheila’s full support. But when Sheila wanders into a new mall and comes across an aerobics class, she’s instantly enthralled. The class is led by Bunny (Della Saba), an ambitious blonde with a chilled out but helpful surfer boyfriend, Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci). Despite Bunny’s suspicious attitude, Sheila is determined to become a part of this scene. It transforms into a secret life as she becomes involved in the aerobics class, ponders the possibilities of videotape, and deals with all the chaos Danny’s political run entails.

In many ways, “Physical” is another example of postmodern nostalgia. It does a fantastic job re-creating the ‘80s in its look, feel and soundtrack, which features expected hits from Pat Benatar and Stevie Nicks, but keeps its real aims tucked under a narrative sleeve. Creator Annie Weisman, who also helmed “Desperate Housewives,” works with her directing team to find new ways to say what’s always been said about American suburbia since at least “American Beauty.” The wives feel helpless, the men are bores and attractive coeds swim around like threats. Without some kind of clear statement, it still works as vicious satire and drama. The pilot in particular works very well, since it is directed by Craig Gillespie, who made “I, Tonya” and this year’s “Cruella,” a Disney movie that sneaks in jabs at the fashion industry. Individual American sectors all get put through the blender. Danny and Sheila are middle-aged remnants of the ‘60s, with Sheila having left all that behind while Danny tries to hold on to his activist persona. He runs on a slate concerned with preserving the environment, but hires a leftover hippie friend to run his campaign. It’s no surprise when Danny starts missing important fundraiser events because his staff turns into a smoked out party. His opponent in the race is a Ronald Reagan clone named John Breem (Paul Sparks), who has subtle verbal standoffs with Sheila at the mall brimming with sexual tension.

It all combines into an energetic show where every episode has a great pace. The chapters are also not too long, running at about 30 minutes each. Weisman and the writers combine the nostalgic aesthetic of the ‘80s, from the aerobics classes to video cameras, with a narrative of personal angst that could fit easily with today. Sheila is suffering inside but rarely shows it. A voiceover tells us what she really thinks. She will be compassionate to large friend Greta (Dierdre Friel) then utters something merciless in her mind. Sheila feigns confidence but calls herself old, sagging and ugly inside. Bunny’s class becomes something more than mere exercise. It becomes a tool of empowerment. The workout sequences are filmed with a perspiring excitement, with shots that are an obvious homage to the classic Jane Fonda videos that made the trend so popular. Once Sheila gets to run her own class she combines the moves with fiery words of encouragement, like a kinetic Ted Talk. There’s another homage to Fonda and other trailblazers when Sheila gets the idea of videotaping her routine, in order to make it accessible to potential students who can’t attend a session. Like many pioneers she gets pushback and has to prove it can work. 

“Physical” might have just as well been in a movie format, where the plot would be condensed into a tighter story. But as a series it also gives room to side characters and stories. Bunny has her own backstory involving the wars that were raging in Lebanon at the time, and Danny does indeed have a hovering, co-ed temptation in Simone (Ashley Liao). But in telling such a white suburban tale, “Physical” also repeats odd mistakes typical in California-set shows. Simone is the only Asian character in the series and for a show set in San Diego there are not many Latinos visible in its world. Suburbia was even more enclosed in the ‘80s, but this is not a show that sits still and wanders to the beaches and urban zones of the era. But credit should still be given for making Bunny an Arab character devoid of stereotypes. Rose Byrne brushes away any doubts, anyway, with a performance that rides on both insecurity and powerful will. Sheila thinks she’s pitiful, when we can clearly see she is not. Rory Scovel’s Danny is the real pity party, while surfer Tyler as played by Lou Taylor Pucci is hiding the biggest heart in the group.

On a richer level “Physical” can be seen as a drama explaining the deeper reasons why those workout tapes became such a phenomenon. They promised self-improvement in the privacy of home, but who knows how many people also seek such escapes and methods to find a much-needed validation. We want to feel good about ourselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Even when this series doesn’t seem quite clear on what it seeks to say about suburbia and the ‘80s, on a metaphorical level it’s quite effective. For Sheila getting to use her body as an exercise vehicle to reach the masses is a way of fighting back. In the season finale there’s an encounter between her and someone else in a darkened mall with erotic undertones, and for once in the final image we sense that she is truly free. Or is she? “Physical” will hit the spot for nostalgia junkies who can’t get enough of hearing “Edge of Seventeen” over and over in soundtracks, but it does offer more than just another stylish workout. 

Physical” season one begins streaming June 18 with new episodes premiering Fridays on Apple TV+.