Physical: Rose Byrne stars in a bleak and disdainful portrayal of the 1980s

Apple + has made an aerobics show but neglected to give it a pulse

Rose Byrne in Physical, a new dramedy  on Apple TV+.

Rose Byrne in Physical, a new dramedy on Apple TV+.

 

It’s hard not to feel cheated watching Physical (Apple TV +, Friday), which has been marketed as a nostalgic celebration of the aerobics boom of the early 1980s. Leg-warmers, Jane Fonda workouts and big retro bouffants all feature in the promotional campaign. Yet the script by Annie Weisman turns out to be suffused in a misanthropy that often veers into toxicity. The lesson is that the 1980s may have been glory days for pastel fitness wear – but the people were obnoxious narcissists.

The rogues’s gallery is headed by Rose Byrne’s Sheila Rubin, a neurotic San Diego housewife obsessed with her weight and the wrinkles around her laugh lines (she has a secret bulimia habit to boot).

Byrne’s voiceover frames the story and makes it quickly apparent that, if Sheila hates herself, she loathes everyone else even more. Those on her naughty list include her sleazy, aspiring politician husband Danny (Rory Scovel), his suspiciously friendly student (Ashley Liao) and Sheila’s friendly neighbour Greta (Deirdre Friel).

The inside of Sheila’s head is an exhausting place to be. Her internal monologues are a chorus of bitterness and volcanic vitriol. She constantly refers to herself as a “stupid fat f***,” for instance, despite looking like a glamorous movie star.

But Sheila sees a way out of her asphyxiating middle class existence when she discovers aerobics at a local mall. The exercise scenes are mesmerising, starting with a dazzling sequence in which Sheila is thunderstruck upon attending her first work out and the colours wink from black to red, like a nightmare sequence from Twin Peaks.

Netflix’s Glow utilised the 1980s and its absurd fashions and politics as a sandbox in which to tell complicated stories about the place of women in society, then and now. Physical, directed and executive produced by I, Tonya’s Craig Gillespie, is far bleaker and, if anything, disdainful about celebrating the 1980s.

A bit like Sheila throwing up the delicious burgers she’s just scoffed, it wants to gorge on nostalgia and then violently purge itself. And while it does so slickly and with no little style, its coldness is difficult to warm to. Apple + has made an aerobics show but neglected to give it a pulse.