June 25, 2021

Television

High-impact exercise: ‘Physical’

By Craig Mathieson

Rose Byrne as Sheila Rubin in Physical. Image via Apple TV+

Starring Rose Byrne as an uncompromising aerobics instructor, Annie Weisman’s unorthodox series leads June’s streaming highlights

Saying yes is a dangerous proposition in Physical, a blackly deceptive comic drama that is the latest instalment in Apple TV+’s unpredictable streaming roster. It is 1981 and the attraction of Reaganism is building in San Diego, as in much of America. Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne) has reached the end of the line with her self-loathing, but her “road to Damascus” moment comes when she tries an aerobics class and finds liberation and possibility. The camera fixes on her as the lighting builds to an ecstatic hue, so that a fantastical moment feels akin to deliverance. Annie Weisman’s show can be scabrous and even bleak, complete with Sheila’s self-lacerating internal monologue as voice-over, but it also has a seditious sense of wonder. More is open to interrogation in this series than you initially imagine.

Sheila is a different type of anti-heroine: disappointed by life and grasping for answers beyond being a wife and mother to a young daughter. Her fatuous academic husband, Danny (Rory Scovel), is her first vehicle for self-advancement, as she tries to get his campaign for the state legislature on track, but the more discoveries Sheila stumbles upon the closer she gets to going her own way. “I’m ready to make a fortune,” she declares in the fourth episode, and the story is laced with the rise of consumerism and the beginnings of inequality. Sheila, who has to keep her raids on the family checking account hidden from Danny, is an unstable test subject for the temptations of the 1980s, a former Berkeley radical from the 1960s who might be willing to trade being cool for being a commodity.

There are moments of suburban farce, as well as pathos generated by characters such as Greta (Dierdre Friel), Sheila’s new acquaintance who is in her own malaise, but Byrne’s nuanced performance leans into the uncompromising nature of her character. Sheila’s release is to binge and purge junk food, locked away in a motel room, and her bulimia is presented simply as being part of her psychological make-up instead of serving as a defining judgment. Aerobics, which she soon teaches, is another way of being in service to her body, and Sheila adopts the tone of the newly converted evangelical. “Use it,” she tells her students, embracing trickle-down exercise, “let it fuel you.” In this intriguing, unorthodox series, the transformative always has a hint of the terrifying.

It’s only June, but Disney+ has already issued three spin-off series from its blockbuster Marvel movies studio. The latest, and the most promising so far, is Loki, which gives the “God of Mischief” character from the Thor franchise (played with devilish impudence by Tom Hiddleston) his own arc. The plot has a redeemed Loki working for the temporal agency that regulates time (it’s unclear if he’s on an award wage or merely consulting), which allows for the inspired choice of Owen Wilson as his partner and part-time shrink, Mobius. Wilson, a long-time Wes Anderson player, brings a crooked nose, hopscotch vocal cadence and unruffled air to the very serious Marvel realm. It’s a welcome tonic that the show runs with.

The Unusual Suspects (SBS On Demand) is somewhat uneven, but it’s never afraid to be a lot. Jessica Redenbach’s limited series is a social satire set among the upper strata of waterside Sydney affluence – notably the wealthy women and their Filipino servants working far from home – but it also functions as a crime thriller and study of female solidarity. With a collection of husbands and boyfriends who prove to be uniformly disappointing, it’s up to the likes of ravenous influencer Sara Beasley (Miranda Otto) and her resilient nanny Evie (Aina Dumlao) to create their own safety net through the theft of a valuable necklace. The show knows when it is being over the top, salting some pertinent criticism amid the farce.

In brief: There are second seasons of two very different, but equally rewarding, Netflix series. The autobiographical Feel Good continues Canadian-in-London comic Mae Martin’s upending of the romantic-comedy, with a bittersweet examination of queer desire and addiction that makes far better use of Lisa Kudrow, as Martin’s mother, than the Friends reunion did. Black Summer takes life during a zombie apocalypse into winter, where naturally the blood on the snow looks even more striking. It has the momentum of a solid B-movie and an unsentimental outlook. Finally, all four seasons of Halt and Catch Fire, the acclaimed American cult drama about the birth of the modern computer industry, are out from behind pay TV’s wall and available on SBS On Demand. Originally airing between 2014 and 2017, when it was incorrectly hyped as the next Mad Men, it remains an enthralling drama about the limits of creativity.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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