Behind the Scenes in the Dark Comedy ‘Physical’
Executive producer and showrunner Annie Weisman has a hit on her hands with the dark—very dark—comedy Physical. The new Apple TV+ series, which premiered on June 18, follows the story of Sheila Rubin, an insecure, bulimic housewife in 1980s San Diego. After attending an exercise class at a local mall, Sheila (expertly portrayed by Rose Byrne) develops a love of aerobics. Think classic ‘Jane Fonda workouts, colorful legwarmers, headbands and high-cut leotards and the Olivia Newton-John hit song that inspired the show’s name. The exercise craze enhances Sheila’s life and empowers her to become a professional instructor.
When we first meet Sheila, she is adrift and at an emotional low point. Every day after dropping her daughter off at school, she orders burgers at a local drive-thru and binges and then purges them in a hotel room. Sheila is pretending to be a perfect, happy wife to her aspiring politician husband, Danny, yet her inner monologue, revealed in voiceovers, is filled with self-loathing. She uses that hatred to eviscerate both herself and others—at least in her own head.
“She has been in the shadows of a really dynamic and charismatic husband and there’s this seed inside her that wants more than that,” Weisman explained in a behind-the-scenes promotional segment.
The veteran producer, known for shows like Almost Family, Suburgatory, About a Boy and, most famously, Desperate Housewives, wrote and created the series, mining her own personal struggles with eating disorders in writing Sheila’s character.
“I wanted to explore how divided women feel,” she said, “projecting a certain look and personality on the outside but having something much darker and secretive on the inside.”
Weisman uses other touchstones from her life to flesh out her characters: Unlike Sheila, Danny (Rory Scovel) is Jewish. Throughout the series, Weisman explores their troubled marriage as well as their cultural differences. The two met in Berkeley in the ‘60s, a time of social upheaval and changes in campus culture and once shared a genuine affection as well as liberal political perspectives.
“For Sheila…Danny’s radical politics were the primary draw, but certainly the fact that he was so different from her own father against whom she was rebelling was also a factor in her attraction to him,” Weisman explained in an exclusive interview with Hadassah Magazine.
Danny’s background is important to Weisman, who was raised in San Diego. “I grew up as a Southern California Jew,” she said. “I was excited to represent a little bit of a different image of a Jewish character, to step away from some of the more East Coast or New York stereotypes.
Weisman was raised by a family she described as “surfing Jews.”
My family has been here since the gold rush,” she said, “and very assimilated into California life, including beach and surf culture, so I really liked getting a chance to show that.”
Being Jewish made her stand out in the San Diego neighborhood where she grew up. “I had close to zero practicing Jewish friends,” Weisman said, “and took a bus downtown to go to Hebrew school where I didn’t know anybody.”
That feeling of being an outsider and experiences of casual antisemitism defined her high school years. “It wasn’t unusual to hear people say ‘you Jewed me!’ or to make a hook with their arm to indicate a big nose to mock or belittle someone.” Some of those put-downs have made their way into dialogue in Physical.
Despite her difficulties in high school, “Jewish faith and culture were important to our family, and I always felt comfort and connection in learning and practicing Judaism,” Weisman added. “But it wasn’t until my adult life that I found a supportive Jewish community where my kids could have a much better experience than I did in their Jewish education and practice.”
Today, Weisman lives with her husband, who is Christian, and two children in Los Angeles. She is “well acquainted,” she said, with the complexities of raising a family “when backgrounds and rituals are different. It’s an ongoing conversation in our family and something that continues to evolve, so it’s an area I was interested in exploring in the show.”
Indeed, Weisman plans to explore Danny and Sheila’s interfaith marriage as well as their backstories and extended families in Physical’s second season. “If we’re lucky enough to get a second season,” she said. “It’s an exciting area that I’m eager to give more story real estate to. Also, as their child gets older, Sheila and Danny’s differences will start to emerge as they begin to face rites of passage where faith comes into play.”
Susan L. Hornik is a veteran entertainment and lifestyle journalist.