Physical starts with a zit on Rose Byrne’s laugh line. It’s an imperfection that’s seems so contradictory it’s laughable, the flaws of youth battling with the wrinkles of age. But Shelia (Byrne) never laughs at this contradiction, and there’s a good chance the audience won’t either. Though it’s billed as a comedy, Physical stands as one of the most scathing and devastating reflections on disordered eating and inner toxicity brought to screen. It won’t just make you sympathetic to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, Shelia included. Annie Weisman’s new show will force you to take a hard look at what exactly your own inner voice is saying.
That’s because Shelia, on the deepest level imaginable, defines herself through self-hatred. At any given moment in the series two stories are unfolding simultaneously. There’s the story you see, one about a secretive housewife who has been stealing money and her deluded husband running for office. And then there’s Shelia’s inner monologue. It’s through Byrne’s cutting insults and screams buried under her pained smile that Physical truly finds its voice.
Shelia perfectly fits the mold for a forgettable prestige TV housewife. She’s pretty, slim, and unfailingly supports her husband, at least externally. If this were a different show it would be easy to imagine Shelia’s irresponsible spending emerging as a poorly-established midseason twist. Yet instead of being forced onto the sidelines, Shelia and her near-constant self-flagellation become Physical’s driving force. It’s a positioning that’s pointedly brilliant. If Shelia started this series from a place of agency in her own home she would risk turning into just another TV antihero. Instead the message Physical preaches time and time again is that all of us, even the most ignored, are all hiding our own secrets. Even the most well-adjusted looking, happiest, brightest person you can imagine has their inner demons.
And Shelia’s are about as toxic as it gets. It never takes much for Shelia to spiral. Her favorite ballet studio closing down prompts a binging and purging session from a fast food joint. Feeling judged at a friend’s birthday party leads to her single-handedly eating an entire sheet cake before throwing it all back up. If we were to simply watch these moments they would risk feeling cartoonish and trivializing toward the very real eating disorder that plagues Shelia’s every thought. Instead we’re given constant access to Shelia’s brain. We know every bitter, angry, and more often than not outright wrong thought that enters her mind to tear her down. We understand her. After listening to just a few minutes of this onslaught you’ll be tempted to drown yourself in honey as well.
As cruel as this voice is, it chillingly mirrors the thinking that accompanies disordered eating. The show even makes several arguments about why Shelia’s self-hatred is a good thing, a distorted argument that reflects real conversations and struggles with these thought patterns. If she didn’t have these aggressive thoughts, Shelia rationalizes, she wouldn’t be as skinny as she currently is and she would be judged for it. She needs these vices, Shelia tells herself. It isn’t until she stumbles into an aerobics class that those toxic assumptions are challenged. Even then Body by Bunny is never treated as a panacea for Shelia’s self-hatred. Her deep loathing of her own body and her obsession with food characterizes almost every waking moment she isn’t doing aerobics.
For decades now shows and movies have explored the draining expectations that come with being a woman. A countless number of projects have challenged the “Women can do it all” mentality, often coming to the same conclusion that these expectations are unachievable at best and harmful at worst. AMC’s new dramedy Kevin Can F**k Himself drills deeply into those long-held general assumptions. Conversely, Physical takes a different approach. More than anything else Apple TV+’s latest show is about one woman learning to not actively hate her body in a world that demands her shame. Shelia’s deepest thoughts may make you chuckle at times, but more often they’re so real no one is left laughing.
New episodes of Physical premiere on Apple TV+ on Fridays.