Rose Byrne is a master at playing swans: women who are chic, motivated and put together on the surface, flawed and insecure beneath it. There was Helen in Bridesmaids; Ellen in Damages; Gloria Steinem in Mrs America. Now here comes Sheila in Physical – an impressive, oppressive dark comedy from Apple TV+ – to out-swan them all.
Sheila is an Eighties housewife and mother, but her main (pre)occupation is self-loathing. To the other mothers at school drop-off, she seems glamorous and aloof – but that’s only because she’s too busy berating herself to hear anything they’re saying. She’s “old”, “zitty”, “lazy”, “disgusting”, she says in a relentless internal monologue – but most of all, she is “fat”.
Because of this body dysmorphic delusion, Sheila is both obsessed with food and terrified of it, organising her life around trying to avoid the lure of it. She gives herself strict dietary instructions as if reciting a religious commandment – “you will eat a veggie pitta from the place next door and no chips and no soda, and if you do all this, then after dinner, you can have a reasonable serving of cobbler with no ice cream” – and when that doesn’t go to plan, she punishes herself.
At first, writer-creator Annie Weisman gives us little respite from this deluge of self-hatred; if Sheila has to be stuck in her own head, then so do we. Mercifully, though, she spares us from having to watch as Sheila vomits up the chocolate shake, three cheeseburgers and three large fries that she regularly binges and purges. Hearing it is bad enough. She rents a by-the-hour motel room to do it in, stripping the sheets, taking off her clothes, eating the burgers, then forcing them back up. It’s a secret habit that has dug a deep hole in the family bank account, one 50-dollar withdrawal at a time. “That’s the last time,” Sheila tells herself. She will do the same thing again tomorrow.
Physical is billed as a comedy-drama, though I can’t say it offers laughs so much as a wry smirk here and there. What it does provide is a revealing insight into a debilitating eating disorder – albeit a very specific experience of it. At times, when Sheila is forced to be around food, it is shot like a horror film. For a scene at a fondue restaurant, the camera is attached to the spinning plate in the middle of a table, so it begins to feel like a nightmarish, nauseating theme park ride. That’s certainly how it seems to feel for a sweaty, squirming Sheila.
In creating Physical, Weisman wanted “to find a way to explore my own struggle with a really difficult eating disorder that I kept private for most of my adult life”, she told The List. Sheila’s internal monologue is so specifically horrifying, it makes sense that it was written by someone who’s said those things about themselves.
Where Physical falls down is in the two flimsy storylines on which this all hangs. The first is the aerobics plot. One day, Sheila follows a woman called Bunny (Della Saba, winningly weird) because she is both suspicious of and intrigued by her. It turns out she runs an aerobics class, and after a little bit of blackmail (long story), Sheila joins the class and then inveigles her way into a teaching job there. We know from the opening few minutes of episode one that Sheila is destined to become an aerobics celebrity, but her path there is oddly paced.
Then there’s the politics plot. Sheila’s husband Danny (Rory Scovel), a charismatic but oafish professor who faintly disgusts her, loses his job and decides to run for local office. One rich potential donor to Danny’s campaign (Ian Gomez’s Ernie) is married to Greta (a disarmingly empathetic Dierdre Friel), who happens to be one of the mums from Sheila’s school drop-off. So Sheila must try and build an awkward friendship with a woman she has previously avoided, through fear of catching her eating habits.
It’s all a bit much, and as the series goes on, it starts to meander further into the other characters’ lives. We’ve become so used to seeing everyone through the eyes of Sheila – even if that means being subjected to her cruel thoughts about Greta’s fat rolls or her husband’s sex sweat – that it feels jarring to be in their company without her. It is as if the show has lost its nerve, unwilling to tie us to such a damaged person for too long.
Physical’s depiction of eating disorders is unlike anything I’ve seen before – the closest comparison I can make is to Melissa Broder’s novel Milk Fed. But an overabundance of plot and characters means that just like one of Sheila’s workouts, it starts to feel fairly exhausting.
For anyone struggling with the issues raised in this piece, eating disorder charity Beat’s helpline is available 365 days a year on 0808 801 0677.
NCFED offers information, resources and counselling for those suffering from eating disorders, as well as their support networks. Visit eating-disorders.org.uk or call 0845 838 2040.