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An Aspiring Aerobics Instructor Exorcises Her Inner Demons In 'Physical'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Today Apple TV+ presents the first three episodes of a new weekly comedy series called "Physical" set in the 1980s. It stars Rose Byrne as a woman whose husband is running for public office in San Diego but who has aspirations of her own to produce an aerobics exercise tape for the newly emerging home video market. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The last time Rose Byrne was at the center of a TV series was about a decade ago, opposite Glenn Close in the excellent FX drama "Damages." She's recently delivered a wonderful supporting performance as Gloria Steinem in the miniseries "Mrs. America." But she's mostly known for film comedy, more than holding her own in "Spy," "Get Him To The Greek" and most famously as Helen in "Bridesmaids."

In "Physical," the new very dark comedy launching today on Apple TV+, she's back at center stage. She plays Sheila, whom we meet as the successful star of a Jane Fonda-type exercise workout video in 1986. But the 10-episode first season spends only about a minute there. The rest of the season is told through an extended flashback to five years earlier in 1981, when Sheila is having a much tougher time. For one thing, her husband Danny has just been let go from his job as a college professor, news that Sheila learns as their young daughter is banging annoyingly on some pots and pans. Rory Scovel plays Danny, whom Sheila is about to try to steer into a whole new career.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PHYSICAL")

RORY SCOVEL: (As Danny Rubin) Morons. They gave tenure positions - chairs, even - and they deny reappointment to me. I have nothing.

ROSE BYRNE: (As Sheila) I disagree.

SCOVEL: (As Danny Rubin) You're going to tell me that this is my chance, my political phoenix rising from the ashes?

BYRNE: (As Sheila) Yes. Hey. We didn't move here so you could climb some bourgeois academic ladder. We moved here because we drove down the coast and we saw that limitless horizon. The Beach Boys song came on the radio.

SCOVEL: (As Danny Rubin) "Wouldn't It Be Nice."

BYRNE: (As Sheila) Yeah. It was meant to be. Our home, remember?

SCOVEL: (As Danny Rubin) Of course I remember.

BYRNE: (As Sheila) And now that awful real estate developer, John Breem, he wants every inch of our coastline to have one of his shopping malls on it. And who's going to stop him? There's no one with the vision you have, no one with the brains

SCOVEL: (As Danny Rubin) No one cares about brains in politics anymore.

BIANCULLI: Sheila also has a possible new plan for her life - as the star of an aerobics exercise tape made for the newly popular home video market. The first season of "Physical" is about how that comes to pass, and it's a voyage that's a lot more emotional and less predictable than you might imagine. The TV series, created by Annie Weisman, is told from Sheila's point of view. And we get to hear her inner thoughts, which are angry and often self-loathing and almost always bursting with profanity. It takes quite a balancing act to make that all work. Rose Byrne essentially is playing two roles here - one public, the other private - and only we viewers get to witness them both. We learn very quickly that Sheila has an eating disorder, one that makes her very sensitive around food, which seems to be everywhere. In this clip, Sheila drops off her daughter at preschool. The first thing one of the other mothers, played by Dierdre Friel, offers her is...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PHYSICAL")

DIERDRE FRIEL: (As Greta) Doughnut?

BYRNE: (As Sheila) No, thank you.

FRIEL: (As Greta) I buy them for the twins, but then I finish them because I'm disgusting.

BYRNE: (As Sheila) No, you're not. Liar. You can't stop looking at the back fat spilling over her bra straps. Your show is a kiddie pool.

FRIEL: (As Greta) You want to go for a walk around the new mall with me?

BYRNE: (As Sheila) Oh, that sounds fun.

FRIEL: (As Greta) OK. If I make it around three times, I let myself go into Giovanni's and have one of his espressos. Have you tried...

BYRNE: (As Sheila) Don't get sucked in. She's a riptide. She'll just suck you out to sea. I have ballet, otherwise I would, but...

FRIEL: (As Greta) That's fine. Next time.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Beautiful morning. Join us for sunrise song.

FRIEL: (As Greta) Judah's (ph) mom made pumpkin bread, and it's still warm.

BYRNE: (As Sheila) I can't. I have to go. Pumpkin bread so you can turn into a pumpkin yourself - short, round, lumpy. No one wants pumpkin bread. Nobody wants you. Stop it.

BIANCULLI: One of the things that makes "Physical" work so well as it progresses is that all the other characters have inner demons also. Della Saba and Lou Taylor Pucci as an aerobics instructor and her surfer boyfriend start as caricatures but get more interesting very quickly. And in one of the later episodes, we finally meet Sheila's parents, who are played marvelously by Ray Wise from "Twin Peaks" and Wendie Malick from "Just Shoot Me!"

They had lots of depth to our understanding of Sheila's journey and her pain. Dark as it is - and it is dark - "Physical" also is enjoyable, especially in the fun it has with its early '80s period. The San Diego beach and the local mall are two very evocative main settings, and the soundtrack is loaded with the music of The Go-Go's, Duran Duran and Pat Benatar. The first season stays in 1981, but Rose Byrne is so good in this role that I hope the series gets renewed so we can watch her work her way all through the '80s.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. On Monday's show, Terry talks with Desus and Mero, hosts of their own Showtime comedy series in which they riff on politics, pop culture, viral videos, sports and the Bronx, where they each grew up in the '80s and '90s. We'll hear how graffiti, hip-hop, books and jobs like collecting dead rats have figured into their lives. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Seth Kelley directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.