Aidan Smith's TV week: Aerobics revived in Physical (Apple TV+), social undistancing in Too Hot to Handle (Netflix) and the finale of the brilliant Time (BBC1)

Remember the aerobics boom? I was there. Three classes a week of feeling the burn to the Hi-NRG beats of Donna Summer and Hazell Dean, although never “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John - what a cash-in track! - and never in spandex or leg-warmers, although there may have been some headband action.
Rose Byrne transforms herself into a fitness guru in PhysicalRose Byrne transforms herself into a fitness guru in Physical
Rose Byrne transforms herself into a fitness guru in Physical

Physical (AppleTV+) is the title of a Rose Byrne dramedy about a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown in 1980s California who hates everybody but mainly herself, who’s decimating the household budget on junk food for bulimia blowouts in motel rooms - but who then has an aerobics epiphany and becomes a fitness guru.

The set-up is promising. Byrne’s Sheila Rubin and her husband Danny (Rory Scovel) met as radical students tussling with the National Guard, sent in by Ronald Reagan when he was state governor. Now the old cowboy actor is the president. They’re paving paradise and putting up loads of shopping malls. And Danny is into threesomes.

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Where did the love go? Where did the hope go? The last time I saw Byrne - not counting Peter Rabbit 2 with my four-year-old - she was Gloria Steinem in Mrs America and I suppose Sheila could be classed as another voice of feminism. But the anger spews out of her via an internal monologue which never lets up and the device quickly becomes irritating.

Brian McCardie in typically terrifying in TimeBrian McCardie in typically terrifying in Time
Brian McCardie in typically terrifying in Time

An old friend, just as much of an activist back in the day, announces at a dinner-party: “The real way to make a difference is to make a fortune.” Rather than cursing silently, I want Sheila to tip the tray of cobbler - a fruit-filled dessert, I had to look it up - over her guest’s head. Physical is supposed to be at least half-comedy but isn’t particularly funny and needs to be much smarter. The lame script seems even more wheezy by the time Byrne dons her leotard to become a VHS superstar.

Did this age of narcissism begin with aerobics in mirror-walled gyms? That it’s currently rampant is not in doubt, what with Too Hot to Handle going head-to-head with Love Island. Bum-to-bum and boob-to-boob as well.

Love Island returns next week by which time the Netflix upstart hopes we will be gripped by the poolside profundities of the likes of Cam (“It’s just the sea, innit?”) and Larissa (“I feel as if I should be, like, wise but my tits get me free drinks.”). She’s a lawyer and he’s got a degree in criminology - but you guessed that, right?

This is the second season of Too Hot to Handle where you only win if you don’t bonk. The new intake think they’ve signed up for another show, one with no holds barred, and don’t twig until the reveal at the end of the first episode, having clearly spent too long preening and pumping iron.

I’ve no history of panic attacks and don’t want to trivialise sudden and intense anxiety, but I’m wondering if the last 20 minutes of Jimmy McGovern’s devastating prison drama Time have just induced one.

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They begin with the New Year bells, everyone banging metal cups on metal doors including Mark Cobden (Sean Bean) who’s come to accept his plight, even if he’s been epicly unsuited to jail life, and besides he’s on the final stretch.

We see him in the exercise yard, breathing in the fresh air he’ll soon enjoy every day. We see him helping young prisoners and those who can’t read or write, impressing the warders sufficiently to be allowed to speak at a conference on the outside, unescorted.

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But Jackson Jones (Brian McCardie) gets wind of the trip and tells Mark he must deliver a package. “No!” I’m shouting at the screen. “Don’t do it!” But that’s easy for me to say, only having to endure level-two Covid restrictions. Our guilt-ridden teacher, who knocked down and killed a cyclist while drunk, faces an impossible choice.

He’s just finished telling that conference he intends leading a good life from now on. Turn down Jones, though, and he’ll be answering to the prison’s drugs overlord.

McCardie makes a nice and nasty habit of drugs overlords. He was one in Line of Duty a few years ago, and the chilling voice on a succession of stolen phones: “Ya bent b*****d!” Further back, the Carluke-born actor was Derek the Cuckoo in an Irn-Bru ad - catchphrase: “Coo-coo!” - but he gets more meaningful work as a right bad yin and here extracts the maximum amount of terror from a mere “nope”.

His entire dialogue could be written on a ciggy paper and yet he’s one of a host of characters which McGovern, with fine brush-strokes, has painted like Gainsborough miniatures: they may only have a few minutes to tell their stories but their creator ensures that all leave a deep and lasting - and invariably tragic - impression.

Should they even be in prison? Guard Eric McNally (Stephen Graham) says the mental hospitals are all full up “so we do the best we can”. Eric does, until compromised by attacks, in another jail, on his son. In close-up, you think you can see right into his mind, to the ferment of panic, fear and guilt, and the same with Mark. Graham and Bean will fight it out for the best actor prizes when Time wins drama of the year. Hang on, you say, didn’t I already nominate Mare of Easttown for that? So I’ve changed my mind. Any issues, see Brian McCardie.

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