I watched the first episode of Physical alongside my significant other, and sometime in the middle there, I don’t remember exactly when, he announced that he was going to head to the kitchen for a lone Oreo and asked if I would like a single cookie as well.
I can’t think of a simultaneously better and also worse show to interrupt with such a declaration. I practically shot up in my seat, wanting to barrage him with questions about why he felt the need to say that, what made him think to say that in the first place (who even has just one Oreo?), and whether that was meant as some kind of bullshit passive-aggressive hint. Also, was it a good thing for him to suggest a rational amount of sweets right before bed, or was it a bad thing that he was so hyper-focused on being “good” in the first place? In that moment, I felt compelled to stop and parse and analyze ad infinitum.
And now that you’ve watched the Physical premiere, I mean, can you blame me?
I am not sure yet how I feel about Physical, and especially how I feel about Sheila, Rose Byrne’s self-loathing, dissatisfied vortex of an everywoman. I have sympathy for her, but I’m not sure I like her; with the series’ first half-hour under my belt, I don’t think I have enough information to enthusiastically rally behind her as an antiheroine I can champion. I wonder, to be honest, the same thing she wonders after her husband (Rory Scovel, in a performance that nails the obtuseness of male entitlement) commits one of his umpteen foot-in-mouth blunders: Is she a person of significance?
However, I do know this: I have never seen an interior monologue on such teeming, unsparing display as Sheila’s is here. I think I long presumed I’d never get to see negative self-talk fully dramatized onscreen at all: how relentless and preposterous it can be and how it roils and rages underneath a perfectly placid, normal exterior. (“Long presumed” as in, it never even occurred to me before to wonder if I’d ever get to see it.) Watching someone hating on herself in real time is a trip, and while Sheila’s mind’s voice is intense, I don’t believe it to be inaccurate. In fact, I’m already convinced that, thanks to this show, I’m going to be in the habit of checking in with myself and unpacking my counterproductive thoughts for quite some time. (If I sound like I’ve had a lot of therapy, it’s because I have!)
But I’m getting ahead of myself, so to use a phrase one of my former shrinks used to use in session all the time: Let’s back up. We start with a snippet from 1986. A woman (presumably Sheila) who’s Spandexed and Aqua Netted to the max is led out of a dressing room and onto a soundstage that looks like Star Search (or, even more fittingly, one of those super-meme’d ’80s workout videos). Before anything can happen, we now see Sheila staring into a bathroom mirror, silently berating herself for the zit on her face, and we learn that we’ve jumped back to 1981 … except was anyone else convinced it was actually, like, mid-to-late ’70s? The louche clothes, the wood-and-wallpaper decor, the soundtrack, the getting-high-and-angling-for-a-threesome hedonism all looked very Boogie Nights/American Hustle. The whole setup of Sheila and Danny’s life feels like well-known tropes getting smooshed together in an unfamiliar way and it took me a while to get used to it; when I picture “leftist Berkeley professor guy and his wife in early ’80s SoCal,” none of this is what I picture. That disconnect is sort of explained away by Simone, the college student who Sheila and Danny are trying to seduce, who remarks, “You guys are stuck in this whole ’60s thing.” She agrees with Sheila that maybe the right word to describe them is “rooted,” which seems to mean grounded for Simone, but to Sheila, it’s more like stuck.
Sheila abruptly ends the night after Simone informs her that Danny is about to lose his job at the local college. (Sheila, to herself: “Hope you like sucking unemployed dick.”) The next morning, she runs through her daily to-do list in her head. “Today, you will eat clean healthy, foods. After school drop-off you will go to ballet. Afterward, you will have a veggie pita from the place next door and no chips and no soda … None of these things are particularly hard to do. Other people don’t need this kind of hand-holding.”
Again, this is amazing to me. It registers as a small miracle that the thought patterns and shame spirals I’ve experienced deep down in my existential self are suddenly part of a TV series for anyone to see. (Before Physical, the best movie I can think of that came close to getting it right is … Bridget Jones’s Diary?) It feels like someone crept into my house in the middle of the night and stole some prized personal possession, one that I hadn’t thought about in years but still felt very core to my being, and then I woke up and turned on AppleTV+ and there it was. No one’s supposed to know that I’ve talked to myself like this! How am I not the only one who’s talked to herself like this?
However, there’s the fact that people talk to themselves like this in real life, and then there’s trying to dramatize that fact. Sheila’s interior monologue is accurate and therefore plausible, but does it make for good TV? Does it make Sheila relatable or does it render her one-dimensional, just a conventionally attractive Debbie Downer? I’m still not sure. The funny thing is that, as a viewer, I feel compelled to want to know where Sheila’s self-hatred comes from, but as a person, I know that treating yourself badly doesn’t have to specifically come from anywhere; in modern society, self-loathing is practically in the ether. (Thank you for coming to my TED talk.)
Sheila drops her kid off at hippie-dippie preschool, where we’re shown that she doesn’t reserve her putdowns just for herself; she also silently lashes out at fellow mom Greta (Dierdre Friel) for daring to eat doughnuts. Sheila tries to go to ballet class, but finds out the studio has closed due to evil local real-estate developer John Breem. Then Sheila sees another woman driving past in a VW Rabbit convertible (what a perfect cultural touchpoint from the era) and while she dismisses the woman in her head as “a skanky bottled blonde,” it’s obvious that she feels a sense of longing to be or be with her.
And speaking of longing, we then witness Sheila’s most disordered behavior: Her bulimia. It starts when she’s offered a sample of honey at the supermarket. That snowballs into not only buying a jar of honey she tells herself she shouldn’t have, but pawing the sticky stuff into her mouth while driving. Following that, she pulls up to a fast-food drive-thru and requests what sounds like a rote order: three cheeseburgers, three fries and a chocolate shake. She checks into a seedy motel (a cash transaction, like the fast food, in order to hide the evidence) and, like many people do when they check into seedy motels in the middle of the day, she engages in a most illicit affair: She strips down, spaces the food out on the bed just so, and she goes to town. Afterwards, she tells herself, “Okay, that’s the last time. You’re done.”
Not to beat a dead horse here, but oh my goodness, the resonance. I have never experienced bulimia, but I have fallen into unhealthy episodes that ended with me telling myself it’ll never happen again, and I have shoved food into my face behind the wheel and stashed away the wrappers. Is Physical my new therapy? Physical … therapy? Oh my god that joke is so embarrassing don’t say it out loud.
Through all of this, Sheila is going through the motions of being a supportive wife now that Danny is out of a job. She suggests that he get into politics and run for office. (I mean, I guess that’s a way to find work.) He claims all of her ideas as his own, even telling her at one point, “You are the bass line underneath the melody, undetectable at times.” Gah.
What will very soon be detectable to Danny is the fact that their savings is gone, wiped out one $50 cash withdrawal at a time for clandestine fast food and motels (and therefore, unable to be used as seed money for his first campaign). Sheila runs to the bank and finds out there’s $57.13 left in their account (love the dot-matrix printer in this scene). Feeling out of control, she asserts control by engaging in “one more run around the bases” and heading back to the fast food place. But then she sees the lady in the Rabbit again and actually leaves her order unclaimed at the drive-thru to tail her. She follows her to a mall, past John Breem doing some sort of ribbon-cutting ceremony on the mall concourse for a new store, Video World. (She also notes that John Breem is good-looking, so I assume they will wind up having sex at some point.)
Body by Bunny. That’s the name of the aerobics studio at the mall where VW Rabbit lady is an instructor, and that name is just too perfect. Sheila walks in and seems instantly entranced. She begins following along, doing the moves, looking increasingly exhilarated until she passes out.
Why the instantaneous obsession? Is the idea that she can replace an unhealthy obsessive behavior (bingeing and purging) with another (exercise addiction)? This may be a reach, but there’s a certain orderliness to an aerobics class that may be drawing her in: counting repetitive moves out loud the way she rattles off her three-burgers-three-fries order, all the students spaced out just so, like the food on the motel bed.
A bigger question for me: If Sheila reminds me so much of myself, why am I so hesitant about embracing her as a character? Hey, maybe it’s because you don’t need to be reminded about any self-loathing you’ve dealt with in your life, did you think of that, duh … okay, no need to criticize yourself like that, just keep watching.