‘Physical’ Season 2 Finds a Better Stride in Its Drama About Suburban Workout Woes

What started as an intriguing enough concept gets better in the second season of Apple TV’s “Physical.” Originally this series dropped last year as yet another tour through the existential woes of American suburban life. It also conveniently touched on the ongoing wave of ‘80s nostalgia. But it was also driven by a lively performance from Rose Byrne as Sheila, our protagonist who seems to find salvation in the decade’s explosion of aerobics culture.  To its further credit, “Physical” was not driven by showrunner Annie Weisman down the usual rabbit holes and story avenues this kind of drama typically takes. There’s not a unifying murder or other crime tying up the story threads. This season is even more about broken personalities trying to find balance.

After becoming a hit with her video series of aerobics workout routines, Sheila is now a star on the rise. The season opens with her seeking new backing from slimy money men who either dismiss her or of course, start getting a little too flirtatious. Sheila is also grappling with her desire to finally leave dopey husband Danny (Rory Scovel), the fired professor who was so aloof to his wife’s descent into self-loathing. After Sheila refuses to come home one night after a dinner party, Danny makes a firm resolution to do better. But Sheila is already finding satisfaction by secretly carrying on an affair with John Breem (Paul Sparks), the conservative Christian and business developer who ran against Danny for public office. Meanwhile, seething with envy is Bunny (Della Saba), Sheila’s former aerobics teacher now trying to put together her own tape with boyfriend Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci). Yet Sheila will seek new guidance when her life refuses to stabilize, and seems to find it with Vinnie Green (Murray Bartlett), another fitness guru who has turned himself into a media sensation.

With this season, “Physical” better establishes itself as part of a Peak TV trend of genre subversion. Much of the first season had the familiar takedown of comfortable ‘80s suburbia, where pristine homes and lawns hide despairing spouses willing to do extreme things. In many ways this is a sharp series about the dark side behind all that colorful Reagan era iconography and music. It’s also a generally potent allegory about our culture’s obsession with finding satisfaction through seeking physical perfection. Even more than in the ‘80s exercise and fitness has now become something beyond a matter of health, but a form of validation proving one looks good, and has the means or discipline to do it. Sheila’s aerobics videos prove she’s worth more than just being Danny’s loving, supportive wife. It solidifies her autonomy. But it also doesn’t bring real happiness, so her journey becomes even broader this season. John makes her feel desired, yet that isn’t enough. When she enters Vinnie’s studio, it’s almost a religious experience. Murray Bartlett, who was great last year as the boiling resort supervisor of HBO’s “The White Lotus,” turns his aerobics studio into a semi-religious, almost cult-like space. He sells VIP memberships with self-help speeches, framed by crystalline music, hypnotizing Sheila and everyone else in the room.

Other characters take surprising turns. Instead of continuing to spiral downward as a useless husband, Danny really does try to become a caring and helpful husband, taking on duties at home to care for their young daughter, Maya. We learned last season he and Sheila had once been student radicals in college, before becoming regular ‘80s liberals. Now it’s his chance to actually prove his leftist, feminist rhetoric is more than just hot air. This also gives the show a more refreshing sense of flexibility, because it’s true to how people are quite complex. Sheila herself wears different masks. With John she’s sexually liberated, but with bestie Greta (Dierdre Friel) she defines ambition, then with Vinnie she’s once again a student. Bunny was all cutthroat ambition when we first met her. Now she despairs over Sheila’s success and cries out to Tyler that she would just like to be on the winning team, for once. 

“Physical” is more visually playful as well this year. Vinnie appears in hilariously tacky exercise ads, sometimes riding a motorcycle by the beach with a dog. Bartlett is a total show stealer this season, playing the role with the mania common in all of those self-help gurus who come across as a bit too jolly. As the season progresses we wonder just how much of a friend he is, or if he just sees in Sheila a convenient new tool for his business. The soundtrack has the required slew of ‘80s staples like “Shout” by Tears for Fears and “Hold Me Now” by Thompson Twins. Making it all work is stronger writing, which finds a sharper focus. “Physical” reveals itself this season to be settling on the theme of how we search for ourselves in our passions. Sheila thinks being an aerobics star will define her and bring acceptance, instead it raises further questions. This show may be set in 1981, but makes total sense in 2022, where we are so desperate to be accepted physically or on social media, while feeling lonelier and empty.

Physical” season two begins streaming June 3 with new episodes premiering Fridays on Apple TV+.