First look review: Physical Season 2
James R | On 03, Jun 2022
Season 2 premieres on Friday 3rd June with new episodes arriving weekly. This review is based on the opening episodes and contains spoilers for Season 1.
What does success look like to you? Is it money? Fame? Power? Having a life-sized cardboard cutout of yourself sporting a massive grin? Sheila (Rose Byrne) definitely has the latter, as she races to find empowerment and fulfilment through building her own fitness empire. But she’s also raw from happy, and her self-critical narration makes us all too aware of that fact. That intrusive, relentless voiceover made for uncomfortable viewing in Season 1 of Physical, Apple TV+’s satirical series that sits somewhere between uneasy dark comedy and unpleasant period drama – with a half-hour runtime that leaves you just as confused about its intended tone. Season 2, though, sees the programme begin to find its rhythm, toning its comic muscles and honing its dramatic weight.
We pick things up as Sheila is at the painfully realistic midpoint between success and failure. Capable of leading a crowd in an aerobics routine on stage, she’s a charismatic force with her own VHS tape, thanks to a partnership with a family-run business. But she’s also several steps away from really achieving her goals, stuck selling those VHS tapes at tiny department store fairs, while the son of her company’s owner audibly counts the number of customers she interacts with. Similarly in limbo is her marriage to Danny (Rory Scovel), who lost his local election campaign and is now determined to work on being a house husband so Sheila can do her thing – although it’s not long until he starts using that role to try and curry favour with the public once again.
There are threads that still feel frayed at the edges. The threat of old partner Bunny (Della Saba) feels irrelevant, while Sheila’s affair with real estate mogul John Breem (Paul Sparks) struggles to justify itself as an act of self-sabotage. But the constant – apart from Rose Byrne’s fantastic, committed performance – remains our unfiltered experience of Sheila’s self-critical outlook on life. This sophomore run is more successful than the first at capturing the tragically cyclical nature of destructive patterns of thinking. That, in turn, means that the show feels clearer in its target and stance, as Sheila gives hollow advice to others about dieting that she doesn’t follow. But along with those darkly comic stings, there’s also more nuance in her inner monologue, as we also hear her encouraging and pushing herself – a welcome change from bitter self-loathing.
The challenge of working out one’s own well-being is a particularly timely one, as the wellness industry today now plays a similar role to the exercise boom in the 80s and 90s. Creator Annie Weisman, whose CV includes The Path, is no stranger to exploring the frustrations of living in a society that’s geared towards making people feel inadequate, and Physical is at its best when examining the relationships between consumerIan, commercialism, capitalism and control.
It helps that the people around Sheila are also becoming more rounded, with Scovel the standout as her toxically dependent other half, who is as self-centred as it gets, even though he isn’t entirely without sincere affection for his wife. A real standout this season is Sheila’s friend, Greta (Dierdre Friel), who provides support and a much-needed counter to the oppressively downbeat tone that otherwise dominates proceedings. All that and the promise of The White Lotus’ breakout star Murray Bartlett as aerobics rival and role model Vinnie Green means that Physical is showing promising signs of getting into shape.