Physical (season 3) ★★★★
Fluent in the language of self-loathing, the initial episodes of this darkly comic period piece scared off some viewers. Rose Byrne’s Sheila Rubin, a deeply unfulfilled graduate of the ’60s counter-culture stewing away in 1981 San Diego, was berated by her own inner monologue, which in turn set off the ritualised binges that punctuated her eating disorder. Sheila experienced a Road to Damascus moment when she discovered aerobics. Annie Weisman’s show never took a step backwards as its protagonist tried to move forward.
Now that Physical has reached its third and final season, those who exited early or haven’t yet given this series a chance should strongly reconsider. As a sharply chiselled body of work across 30 half-hour episodes, the show feels authoritative and complete. It dug deep into Sheila’s trauma – the second season featured a blistering reckoning with her mother – and weighed up the wayward motivations she carried: to be commercially successful, to understand herself, and to be free of her husband, Danny (Rory Scovel).
With its exuberant production design and welter of voices both real and imaginary, Physical hit upon a fluid tone that let it infiltrate the dark interior that prestige dramas try to batter down. The mood could flip between the farcical and the fearsome. The new season, with Sheila in recovery and her aerobics studio looking for national exposure, adds a different wrench. The voice in her head has fallen silent, but Sheila is in conversation – or a mentorship – with a projection of her blonde rival, Kelly Kilmartin (Zooey Deschanel).
Byrne has had a terrific last decade as a late blooming comic actor (see her other Apple TV+ series Platonic), but Sheila may well be her definitive role. Byrne’s ability to make an edge of doubt palpable, to let you sense how she’s trying to tamp down Sheila’s emotions, is masterful. And the story never lets Sheila off – her false starts and feminist slips, little lies and comic panic, are all illustrative.
Physical found more to explore in less obvious supporting roles, forging a magnet for Sheila in the ramrod form of mall owner John Breem (Paul Sparks), and with each season its approach has grown more specific and accomplished. There are camera set-ups in the new season that perfectly delineate the space around Sheila in telling ways, while a single scathing line can encapsulate years: “your feelings aren’t my job anymore,” Sheila tells Danny. And what’s more, the final episode sticks the landing. Physical played the long game and won.
They Cloned Tyrone ★★★
There are numerous layers – in turn exuberant, menacing, and paranoid – to this science-fiction comedy, but never doubt that they’re in service of knotty ideas about African-American community, cultural traps, and the extremes of the American experiment. There’s also a terrific running gag about the Nancy Drew detective books supplying advice to a misfit group of hood sleuths: drug dealer Tyrone (John Boyega), pimp Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx), and prostitute Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris).
As skilfully as they’re played, those roles are meant to be archetypal, but once Tyrone has a way too close encounter with death, the trio start to suspect something is seriously astray in their inner-city district, The Glen. Playing on historic racial crimes and Black conspiracy theories, the team of director Juel Taylor and his co-writer, Tony Rettenmaier, invoke a Blaxploitation vibe and John Carpenter’s They Live.
In its own ambitious way, They Cloned Tyron is unrelenting: the violent, illegal day-to-day grind of Tyrone is unrelenting, while the wild misadventures of the three amigos goes thick with the gags. Crashing the contradictory together is what the film does, because that’s the worldview that lets the wild plot – with a further nod to Jordan Peele’s Us – finds its groove. It does waver at times, but the laughs are always backed by insightful ideas.
Extreme road rage and violent snark are the calling cards of this post-apocalyptic action comedy, which has Marvel star Anthony Mackie as the vehicular delivery man on a mission across the American wasteland. The cars are armed but the scripts mostly fire blanks, as creator Michael Jonathan Smith (Cobra Kai) has to create a Frankenstein series of found pieces to turn a PlayStation video game into a working show. Some of the parts, such as Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Stephanie Beatriz as a car thief, are welcome, but generally this is closer to Sad Max than Mad Max.
Futurama (season 8)
The first new episode in a decade of this animated sitcom probably won’t change anyone’s mind about Matt Groening’s science-fiction successor to The Simpsons. Self-deprecating and self-referential, with all the characters and voices actors returning, the new Futurama threw around silly quips as the crew at Planet Express had to deal with perpetual 20th century idiot Fry (Billy West) trying to ingest every episode of robot soap All My Circuits – also known as “the one that got cancelled three times” (it’s very self-referential). A breezy familiarity is its selling point.
Nip/Tuck (seasons 1-6)
Twenty years ago, prolific one-man studio Ryan Murphy – American Horror Story season 12 is on the way! – got his breakthrough hit with this medical drama that leapt from the lascivious to the lurid. The series cut into the Miami practice of a pair of plastic surgeons, Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh) and Christian Troy (Julian McMahon), who provided physical solutions to psychological issues – whether for their patients or themselves. A huge success in its early seasons, Nip/Tuck soon became a reflection of Murphy’s outrageously maximal tendencies, albeit mostly through a heterosexual lens.
Five Star Chef
Thankfully lean at six episodes, this luxury dining reality competition offers head chef status and creative control at a restaurant inside London’s The Langham Hotel to a field of up-and-coming chefs. The structure is familiar, from the first episode’s signature dish audition and judging troika to the teamwork challenges and ever-increasing demands, but the contestants have a genuine level of expertise and there’s a fitting subtext of finding not just the best chef, but also the one who can create a profitable, attention-grabbing profile. The commercial realities, in this case, are welcome.
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