Currently I am obsessed with Rory Scovel’s coffee cup in Physical (Friday 18 June, Apple TV+). It is this magnificent, super flared-base, almost turquoise-and-bark coloured 80s throwback: it feels as much something you would see at an art installation about avant garde architecture as something you might find in a kitchen. But it’s not just the physical manifestation of the mug, rather the way he uses it: slumped into the driver’s side seat of the car, he idly passes it to Rose Byrne’s Sheila to hold while he drives; later, in the kitchen, while talking in a self-aggrandising way about his political ambitions, he holds it out to her to fill without saying a word.
Scovel (as Danny, Sheila’s unbearable husband) is a supporting character here, but a perfectly pitched one: the way he unthinkingly shifts all ideas of domesticity on to his wife; the way he repeats “Did you tell me that?” back to her whenever he repurposes one of her ideas in front of other people; the way he talks about himself without ever once realising for a moment that he is being self-centred. Scovel’s Rubin is a husband you can dislike, but not enough to despise; the coffee cup is just one small extension of that.
So it is fair to say I am enamoured with this series. Rose Byrne, the star of the show, plays Sheila Rubin, a down-on-herself, unfulfilled housewife in southern California, 1981 – so far, who cares. But Byrne is playing two versions of the same character – the polite-at-the-school-gates smiling face of domestic bliss and competence and then, in voiceover, the insidious internal dialogue that fuels her self-hatred, telling her she’s fat, she’s old, she’s out of control, she’s useless. We see Byrne drop her daughter off at nursery and effortlessly cater a dinner party. We see her as the glamorous wife to an upstart politician. And we see her fall prey to all her darkest and basest urges, stripping off her clothes in a dirty motel to eat three burgers and a milkshake alone before puking it all back up. And then, enlightenment: she discovers the holy joy of aerobics – building an exercise video empire in the process – and the voices go quiet. I do have to mention this, after reading that paragraph back: the show is actually very funny.
Creator Annie Weisman has a background as a playwright, and you can tell: Physical has a level of guile about it that is rare on the screen. Episode one doesn’t really follow the clunking old beats of a scene-setting pilot show at all: we see Byrne’s Sheila come to, self-hating in the bathroom mirror, before Danny knocks on the door and tries to convince her they should have a threesome. A woozy scene unfolds: we learn exactly enough about each character to be enthralled.
And that’s the point, really: Byrne’s Sheila isn’t nice, exactly (nicer than her husband, yes – but still). She doesn’t even like herself very much. But there’s something dark and delicious about watching someone be an unlikable self-centred arsehole on screen and still kind of rooting for them. I was worried the “What if every character was nice? Would that be funny?” trend that Parks and Recreation started 12 years ago might have killed that off for ever. Physical is a long overdue antidote to that.