Physical puts a grim face on blackmail and adultery [Apple TV+ recap] ★★☆☆☆

Apple TV+’s Physical has an incurable itch to break free this week. Both Sheila’s and John’s spouses know something is up. They try to help, but they can’t — because there’s no cure for being blackmailed by a vindictive Bunny.

John stars a new life in the face, a real one and an imaginary one. Sheila contemplates becoming an even worse version of herself. And Danny’s out of luck in every way he can be.

Brace yourself for more of the same bad behavior in this week’s episode, entitled “Don’t You Have Enough.”

Physical recap: ‘Don’t You Have Enough’

Season 2, episode 6: Wannabe aerobics superstar Sheila (played by Rose Byrne) goes to John (Paul Sparks) with bad news. They’re being blackmailed by Bunny (Della Saba) and Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci) for thousands of dollars. The two dizzy fools have security camera footage of the two of them performing sex acts at the same time across a room at the mall.

Bunny wants to destroy Sheila for stealing her workout idea, making a video out of it and building a lifestyle brand. After all, Bunny thinks that should be her making that money — even if Sheila really isn’t making all that much now.

However, because she’s got a chip on her shoulder about Sheila, Bunny feels no compunction about blackmailing her. The fact that her lover is a millionaire land developer and mall owner is icing on the cake.

Sheila doesn’t want her husband, Danny (Rory Scovel), to find out she’s been hypocritically stepping out on him. Plus, she doesn’t want her image (or her finances) to take a hit just as she’s getting started. She also doesn’t want Bunny to feel like the victor for any reason.

Danny’s finding out his own battery of Sheila’s secrets already, like that she’s been secretly binge-eating meat this whole time while insisting the family turn vegetarian.

Blackmail and positions

John doesn’t want to give in to Bunny and Tyler’s demands. But that might be because he’s sick to death of the lie he’s been living at home. His kids don’t get him. His pregnant wife, Maria (Erin Pineda), is the opposite of Sheila — cold and controlling, strict and nonsexual.

What if he and Sheila just ran away together instead of fixing things here? Sheila isn’t sure, but John’s fully into the spiral. He gets publicly drunk for the first time in his life.

Meanwhile, Sheila’s getting weird propositions all over the place. Her best friend Greta (Dierdre Friel) and her husband, Ernie (Ian Gomez), invite Sheila and Danny to take a sexually charged hot tub soak with them. They start with some games, but then Greta and Ernie quickly and awkwardly ask if Danny and Sheila want to engage in an orgy with them.

They politely decline.

Ruining the moment

Afterward, Danny and Sheila find themselves in a good place — until he ruins it by bringing up her eating disorder. Then they start screaming at each other. (The play to make these characters seem human doesn’t work. One and a half seasons of drawing them like sociopathic cartoon characters can’t be undone by a beach-core cover of “More Than a Feeling” and some tears. Nope. No way.)

John agrees to pay the blackmail money, then goes home to discover Maria went into labor. Their kid was born without him knowing about it. Whatever he’s feeling is going to be short-lived, however, because Sheila’s about to throw him under the bus.

Auggie Cartwright (Wallace Langham), who owns Sheila’s brand, won’t release her from her contract. Would he have second thoughts if that tape of John and Sheila masturbating made its way into their hand as second-hand blackmail?

The cinematography of Physical: Less than a feeling

Honestly, can you even tell what’s going on here?
Photo: Apple TV+

The cinematography on Physical is largely undistinguished, but this week it was an active hindrance to enjoying or frankly see the show. When Bunny and Tyler hit a church for a late-night prayer session, you genuinely can’t see a thing. A candle-lit dinner looks almost as bad.

Digital photography and broadcast standards for streamers frequently combine to produce the very worst-looking imagery. Also, there’s just no fail-safe for clarity. A show like this, trying in vain to come up with some hybrid visual trick for combining the collective nostalgic understanding of what the 1980s looked like while adhering to popular visual idioms, lands in a depressing nowhere.

Like Netflix hit Stranger Things, this show’s attempts at repackaging the ’80s aesthetic have not yet managed to include “media literacy.” So Physical frequently just looks like every other thing on TV, except frequently worse because you can’t always see anything. The Rubin house is deliberately underlit, from what I can tell. It works in the daylight, but not even in the way it ought to.

Too gray, too grim

By the 1980s, the kind of grim, gray brownness of sunlit interiors had been traded (in movies) for a much starker, harsher light quality. Partly this was due to the invasion of the popular cinema by commercial directors. They used the logic of selling you a product, but broadened their scope to sell you a fantasy.

Aesthetic holdovers like Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort and Louis Malle’s Atlantic City marked the last gasp of the ’70s aesthetic. And Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo, Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way, Michael Mann’s Thief, Tony Scott’s The Hunger, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Clint Eastwood’s Firefox pushed that dabness into a newfound neon extremity.

Images were dirty, yes, but clean enough to make sense of. If I could detect some more active intent on the part of Physical’s creative team members, I’d say they were aiming for some kind of stop-gap look with the series. But there’s just such carelessness about everything that the show seems stranded in a mire of misfiring memories of the period.

If I’m speaking overmuch about the look Physical, it’s because nothing happened this week of any dramatic interest. Sheila, who we’re asked to feel for because she cries as her husband shows her love and affection for the first time on the show, immediately turns around and ruins her lover’s life for the sake of her career.

It’s a bleak and terrible reality they’ve created here, one they’ve left soaking in this contemptible shorthand quirky comedy so that it never feels like you’re watching American Psycho. Grim stuff.

★★☆☆☆

Watch Physical on Apple TV+

New episodes of Physical’s second season arrive Fridays on Apple TV+.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.

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