Apple's Aerobics Dramedy 'Physical' Is Not the Cheery Workout You'd Expect

The bruising Apple TV+ show, starring Rose Byrne, is a personal story about body image for creator Annie Weisman.

physical
Apple TV+

For all the pep implied in its premise of housewife-becomes-aerobics-entrepreneur, Apple TV+'s new series Physical has a voiceover from its protagonist, Rose Byrne's Sheila Rubin, that's caustic and mean. When the show, created by Annie Weisman, retreats in to the head of Sheila, the wife of a professor in 1981 San Diego, she's brutal to herself and others, specifically honing in on people's weight. It becomes quickly evident that Sheila is suffering from an eating disorder, but that doesn't soften her words at all.

"The key thing for me with the voiceover was it was a way to dramatize the illness, because the illness is constantly telling you lies and constantly trying to isolate you from other people. It was constantly trying to isolate me from other people," Weisman says.

While Physical certainly takes some of its inspiration from the lives of diet and fitness pioneers like Jenny Craig and Jane Fonda, for Weisman it was a deeply personal story, one that mined her own eating disorder as well as her childhood in San Diego with hippie parents who eventually became Reagan voters. Byrne was immediately hooked. "I read the pilot and I was very arrested by the writing. I thought it was uncomfortable and dark and very funny," Byrne says. "And then I started a conversation with Annie and I'd never seen anything depicted like this before, particularly Sheila's illness and her addiction."

Physical operates as a dual portrait of a woman in the throes of a disease, and an era crumbling under the allure of capitalism. Sheila and her husband Danny (Rory Scovel) are Berkeley liberals who moved to San Diego for his job and their family. When he loses his job in the pilot, he decides to run for state assembly as a progressive alternative to the Reaganite Republicans backed by developer John Breem (Paul Sparks). Sheila is outwardly supportive of her husband's campaign, but she also resents his treatment of her as an employee, while battling her desire to binge and purge, and being drawn to a mall aerobics class where she can punch and kick away the voices in her head.

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Weisman grew up in San Diego, a city that flies counter to the notion that California is a bastion of liberalism. "My childhood was watching the embers of the '60s die out and turn into the '80s, and the landscape of that was this San Diego paradise, which was also going through this shift from idyllic beach town to something really different," she explains. Sheila is the perfect candidate to embrace this shiny new world of consumerism and trickle-down economics, according to Weisman. "In many ways, the liberalism of Berkeley in the '60s has failed her personally so she's primed for the seed of capitalism to come in and tell her, 'You know, the only way you are going to get actually liberated is if you get rich and then you are going to have independence and power.'"

The role came at a strangely coincidental time for Byrne, who had just come off of playing Gloria Steinem in Mrs. America, about the attempts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in the '70s. "It's almost subconscious when it came to me: 'Oh, this is a chronological companion.' [Shiela] would have read The Feminine Mystique, she would have looked up to Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug, and then we meet her in 1981 and the ERA is not ratified, Ronald Reagan was the president, so much of the movement dismantled and fractured and broke off and was left a little bit in tatters."

Byrne trained with choreographer Jennifer Hamilton while in COVID lockdown to nail Sheila's moves and immersed herself in the era that birthed the likes of Craig and Suzanne Somers as health gurus. "I've often read a quote that 'success doesn't change you, it just reveals who you are,' and I would remind myself of that with Sheila a lot," Byrne says.

Weisman started with her own childhood and her own illness, and then saw aerobics as a vehicle to explore one woman's complicated relationship to her own advancement and her physicality. "There weren't traditional avenues to becoming entrepreneurs," Weisman says. "There was no such thing as a female fitness lifestyle guru like today. Women invented that and they invented it because that was the only thing available to them, through their bodies. It's all this exploration of how your body can be this trip, but it can also be this liberation, this empowerment."

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.