Film & Television

Two New Series Get Physical, Without Much Success

Here at Women’s Voices for Change, we’ve long lamented the fact that in Hollywood, women get much less opportunity behind the camera than men do. Although recent numbers have improved (since 2018, the number of top box office movies directed by women has more than doubled), there is still a long way to go before we see gender parity.

One place to look for it is in on-demand subscription television services — due to sheer volume of titles if nothing else. It’s estimated that Netflix will spend $17 billion on original programming in 2021, Amazon Prime will spend $9 billion, and Apple TV+ will spend $6 billion. Surely there’s enough money in those budgets for a greater, more diverse pool of creatives.

I was encouraged recently to find two new series, conceived, written, and directed by women, with female protagonists and storylines that promised to be of interest to the so-called fairer sex. Physical, which debuted on Apple TV+ a month ago, is releasing new episodes weekly. Sex/Life has been on the Netflix top ten list since its premiere a week later. 

There’s just one problem. Neither series is as good as it should be. In fact, neither series is very good at all.

Physical, created by Annie Weisman (Desperate Housewives), tells the story of Sheila Rubin, a San Diego housewife and mother in the early 1980s. She’s married to a creep of a man whom she disdains for good reason. Danny Rubin is a failed college professor who decides, conveniently after being fired, that he’s going to run for local assemblyman. “I’m going to make history instead of teaching it,” he announces. He brings in a campaign manager and the two of them strategize, smoke copious amounts of dope, and chase comely undergrad volunteers.

Sheila has her own secrets. When real life becomes too stressful or depressing (or stressful and depressing), she drives to a local hamburger chain, buys three cheeseburger combos, checks into a motel, strips naked, binges, then purges, promising herself “this is the last time.” And it is. Until the next time. Meanwhile, her eating disorder and related ritual have depleted the couple’s savings, unbeknownst to Danny, who thinks they can afford his campaign.

In voiceover throughout every 30-minute episode, we hear Sheila’s thoughts. She hates everyone and everything. Most of all, she hates — and berates — herself. “You’re stupid, worthless, old, disgusting, and fat,” she tells herself contemptibly, illustrating just how distorted an inner voice can be. Sheila is played by Rose Byrne, Kristen Wiig’s exquisite nemesis from 2011’s Bridesmaids. Suffice it to say, the actor is none of the above. In fact, she’s gorgeous, even in a headband, suspender leotard, shiny tights, and leg warmers, essentially the (now outdated) uniform Jane Fonda popularized along with the motivational catchphrase “Make it burn.” At a local mall, Sheila discovers aerobics and with sheer determination, some petty larceny, and the aid of dance instructor Bunny and her surfer videographer boyfriend, launches a Betamax workout empire.

The set-up makes Physical sound promising. After all, the aerobics industry of the 1980s was big business and fairly cultish. The sky was the limit for fitness instructors willing to work hard. And Byrne works very hard here. Unfortunately, the show itself doesn’t. Episodes are slow-moving, dull, and redundant. Virtually every character is dislikeable, if not downright despicable. Even Sheila, who I assume we’re meant to root for, isn’t really a nice person. And, if you’re hoping for a nostalgic visit back to the 80s, you won’t find it here. The sets are dark and dimly lit, and coupled with the men’s bad mustaches and sideburns, they make the whole production look like low-budget porn. Of course, that may be deliberate. Just as the emergence of video helped grow the home fitness industry, it was an enormous boon for adult entertainment.

Netflix’s Sex/Life, created by Stacy Rukeyser (UnReal), is definitely meant to be adult entertainment. The subject matter is certainly adult, but I would argue that it isn’t very entertaining. Connecticut housewife Billie lives a picture-perfect life: a mansion in Greenwich, two adorable children, and a successful and hunky husband. But she’s bored with their less than electrifying sex, which leads to fantasizing about ex-boyfriend Brad and her wild ways pre-marriage and motherhood. 

Unable to sleep, Billie writes her fantasies in a journal on a laptop that she leaves on the kitchen counter. And, because apparently Billie has never heard of password protection, husband Cooper reads them. The best way to describe his reaction is “mixed:” anger, jealousy, insecurity, of course, but also arousal. In fact, the first thing he does when Billie finds him reading her entries is pull up her nightgown and bend her over the kitchen counter. Soon, both Billie and Cooper are obsessed with Brad.

The eight one-hour episodes follow this love triangle as Brad tries to win Billie back, Billie tries to resist, and Cooper tries to cope. Flashbacks punctuate the current day, and we get to enjoy younger Billie and Brad having sex in countless places and positions, often in public. Billie bemoans losing her “true self,” but her remembered relationship with Brad appears to be built on sex and very little else. Her downtown New York life comprises going to clubs with her roommate and partner in crime Sasha, drinking, dancing, and having sex, lots and lots of sex. Did I mention sex?

The odd thing is this. For a show that is so much about sex that it’s literally the first word in its title, Sex/Life is surprisingly unsexy. The sex scenes (and, truly, I lost count early on) are pretty much all the same. Foreplay is limited to Brad grabbing Billie’s crotch (in a stairway, a pool, a roof deck, an elevator, under a throw on a couch in a club). She begins to climax immediately, and then there’s lots of thrusting and sound effects. There is a single full frontal nude shot of Brad in a health club shower (which prompted much social media musing about whether or not a shall-we-say “larger-than-life” prosthetic was used); there are lots of views of well-toned backsides. And there are breasts. Oy vey, are there breasts!

Sarah Shahi (The L Word) is seemingly topless more often than not. When she’s not pounding away with Brad or awkwardly coupling with Cooper, she’s breastfeeding her baby daughter. Shahi and her breasts are beautiful, and the actress is doing the best she can with a cringe-worthy script along the lines of  “Oh why can’t I have both a happy home and good sex?” But if Byrne is wasted in Physical, Shahi is downright exploited in Sex/Life.

I wish I had more positive things to say about both series, but — in case you haven’t noticed here — I found them equally disappointing. With billions and billions (and billions) of dollars invested in original programming, there are certainly better options available.

Some of them even created by women.

Physical is available to stream on Apple TV+. The final episode will premiere this Friday. Sex/Life is available to stream in its entirety on Netflix.

 

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