Our modern world is filled with the inexplicable, including the fact that Rose Byrne was overlooked in the Emmy race for the first two seasons of the Apple TV + series PHYSICAL. As the third season of this black comedy premieres today, her housewife turned celebrity aerobics instructor Sheila Rubin continues to shine as one of the most complex characters created for any series. Byrne not only navigates all of Sheila’s contractions – she’s smart and foolish, sexy and insecure, generous and petty – but she manages to make her relatable and likable, even at her worst. PHYSICAL is not only a sharp character study of a sitcom, but it’s a strong tale about feminism as well. The show has taken Sheila from hapless housewife to fitness guru in the first two seasons, and in this final one, she turns into not only a take-charge businessperson, but evolves into a mature and caring heroine. If you liked the movie BARBIE, you owe it to yourself to watch this series as it showcases a similar story of an outwardly gorgeous woman who discovers the truer beauty inside.
Byrne makes the transformation wholly believable, as striking as her flawless American accent. She alone makes PHYSICAL worth the binge, but there are so many other great aspects to creator Annie Weiss’ show that demand attention too. The writing is always sharp, finding the comedy and the drama in the story of a woman trying to make more of her life, especially in this, the final and best season. Weiss and team also do a splendid job with all the satire once again, this time spoofing branding strategies, gaudy “New Wave” fashions, and fitness trends like “The Step” and “fat-free cookies.”
Sheila wrestles with all of them as she becomes more and more of a fitness celebrity. Of course, with that comes the opportunity for her to brand herself across various mediums and that includes everything from fitness segments on local and national TV shows, as well as endorsement deals. A lot of this year’s funniest scenes occur with her dealing with endorsing a Snackwells-type product and all the shortcomings of the shortbread cookies. And as Sheila tries to work out just how to sell her ‘brand’, she starts questioning just what is her brand and is it one she feels comfortable promoting.
That basic dilemma sets up both the most hilarious scenes in season three, as well as its most heartbreaking moments too. During a fashion show at a fitness convention, Sheila feels confined by her outfit and rips it asunder right during her time on the catwalk. It’s one of Byrne’s best comedic moments on screen, one that would make Carol Burnett envious. And when Sheila breaks down and talks about her bulimia during a live TV segment, her revelations feel so raw and blunt, they’ll take your breath away. (Maybe Byrne should be in the Best Actress in a Drama category.)
Such moments like that speak not just to the problems of women trying to be all things in the world, similar to America Ferrara’s great monologue towards the end of BARBIE, but it reveals all the human truths of how no one can truly escape their past. The show is suggesting that we can’t shed such history, but maybe we can turn such self-awareness of the past into a strength to combat the future. That which does not kill us makes us stronger, right?
Every character this season learns to embrace their foibles and not let it ruin the journey. In fact, I can’t remember a show where so many characters had such arcs in one season, both inspiring and funny. Rory Skovel’s Danny, the ex-hippie ex-hubby of Sheila, finally starts to see beyond his nose and become a mature man and a good dad. Deirdre Friel’s Greta learns to stop being a doormat and stand up to both her domineering husband and the often mercurial Sheila. And Mormon businessman John Breem (Paul Sparks, underplaying brilliantly) learns to accept his shortcomings as a businessman, a husband, and a lover. Breem even learns to temper his Type A inklings, especially when he’s brought down a peg by being given the responsibilities for the Port-o-Potties at the 1984 Los Angeles-based Olympic Games. (Yes, the show takes some very funny pot shots at that bit of Eighties history too.)
This year, Zoey Deschanel is the special guest star and she’s a fantastic addition. She plays Kelly Kilmartin, a rival celebrity aerobics instructor with as many contradictions and peccadilloes as Sheila. I love Kelly’s wavering Southern accent, clearly a choice by Deschanel to show that her Southern belle beauty influencer is a con artist. Kelly also doubles as Sheila’s inner voice this season, an all-knowing nag representing Sheila’s innermost insecurities. It makes for a lot of wicked banter for the two actresses to play and they run with it.
In fact, the more this season goes on, Sheila’s inner voice becomes her own, and a more kind and just one too. Instead of expressing fear or resentment, Sheila’s inner voice starts to voice wisdom, even morality. The maturity of the voice shows the growth of Sheila and it makes for an uplifting trajectory, letting the show go out on a positive high. Sheila finally gets out of her own head, and that’s the healthiest routine she discovers in any of the three seasons.
It’s a good lesson for all of us. And in Byrne’s striking performance, it couldn’t be delivered better.