The first video I remember watching was my mom’s exercise tape. It’s not the answer I give when people ask because, in hindsight, a kid sitting on the floor watching women in spandex with big hair and even bigger smiles huffing and puffing is a more loaded answer than the lighthearted question is asking for, but the honest truth is that I was obsessed with this very ‘80s phenomenon and wore out that poor tape long before my mom could.
Similar levels of depth and discomfort is explored in Physical, which in its first season sees Rose Byrne’s Sheila discover aerobics and envision the glory of the coming cultural sensation. The show itself, though, is decidedly not about glory, instead twisting itself into a pitch black comedic nightmare where every garish color and perfected pose covers a wellspring of pain and anger. “We are all sickos inside,” proclaims one character late in the show with genuine tenderness, and this might as well be the show’s thesis statement.
The striking thing about Physical is just how much of that sickness you see. The show features the running internal monologue of Sheila, who you immediately discover is a fritzing ball of vicious, undiagnosed mental disorders. It’s a deeply unpleasant experience to hear her brain lash out at anyone and everyone within range, with Sheila herself never able to escape. Her particular mixture of anxiety and eating disorders is something I’m lucky enough not to have personal experience with, but string a couple of these 30-minute episodes together and you’ll find that the disturbing pattern of thought seeps in a bit, a sign that the team behind the show have captured something a bit too honest to stomach in large doses.
Episodes naturally come with content warnings, but projects like this, ones that not only portray but attempt to give a taste of mental illness, open up complex questions about whether this is a responsible feat. 13 Reasons Why, Netflix’s hit show about a teenage girl who dies of suicide, blew these questions wide open with its deep dive into the troubled character’s state of mind, and watching its first season drew me perilously close to the suicidal ideation I’ve lived with for periods of my life.
So yes, there are risks with this kind of storytelling, but there’s also the acute comfort of knowing you aren’t alone, that there are people out there who understand the thoughts that scare the shit out of you so well that they’re able to potently recreate them. In some small way that makes them less isolating, and perhaps that balances out the potential for sliding the vulnerable into a mental illness’ clutches.
Thorny ethical issues aside, recreating such thought processes is a nasty but impressive accomplishment, and one that isn’t done lightly. The humor in the show is the spoonful of sugar that makes its bitter mixture of ‘80s greed and sexism go down, and Sheila’s inner monologue is just one symptom of the deeply embedded problems none of these characters can escape.
Sheila is a smart woman, but it being the early ’80s she’s stuck in the numbing existence of housewifery along with most of the women around her who she struggles to connect with. Bunny (Della Saba) at least has her own aerobics studio, but later episodes unfurl a past that doesn’t fit with the glare of the California sunshine.
The struggle for all of these characters, men and women, is to fit under that glare, making Physical, at least thematically, a rather traditional critique of the surface-level excesses of its day. That they’re all so damn sad about it, that you can feel it choking them out with false promises of happiness, is part of what makes the show hard to watch, and it’s a major factor in Sheila’s own scathing critique of herself.
Sheila is, obviously, the centerpiece of the show, so much falls on the very capable shoulders of Rose Byrne, who’s been one of our more versatile, underrated actors for years now. The layers of deceit she’s playing is impressive, as is the sympathy she elicits despite her character’s illness making her a prickly one to get close to. The brilliance of the performance is in the breakdowns, when Sheila gives in and binges, and the veneer she works so hard to maintain is dropped. Here is the show: an exhausted woman not bothering to hide it, moments of serene honesty about just how brutal her life is. No histrionics, nothing that Byrne would put on an awards reel, but in that ritualistic silence is every ounce of the show’s interlacing ideas about the cultural and personal lies we tell ourselves laid bare.