More than 30 years after “The Right Stuff,” Philip Kaufman’s 1983 movie based on Tom Wolfe’s tome devoted to the Mercury 7 space program, “The Astronaut Wives Club” seems like inordinately fertile material for a primetime soap. Essentially a slow-motion version of the film, the main wrinkle in the ABC series — culled from Lily Koppel’s book — is viewing the story from the perspective of the women behind the men, who instantly became celebrities, with all the distractions that entails. While it’s not clear how long the producers can keep the concept aloft, the opening episodes certainly make for a splashy entry.
Written by Stephanie Savage and directed by Lone Scherfig, the premiere opens with the shrewd framing device of Alan Shepard’s 1961 space flight, flashing back two years to when the program began. As part of a scheme envisioned by what amounts to NASA’s perpetually apoplectic PR guru (Evan Handler), the decision is made to exploit the families as well as the astronauts, with a magazine writer, Max Kaplan (Luke Kirby), enlisted to chronicle the women’s stories.
“It’s not like you ladies have a bunch of bad habits or big secrets,” Kaplan says.
But of course, as “Mad Men” explored in its early seasons, the end of the Eisenhower years forced women to hide all sorts of things. They range from the philandering ways of Shepherd (“Dexter’s” Desmond Harrington) and his wife, Louise (Dominique McElligott) — who at one point snaps, “Don’t humiliate me” — to Yvonne Strahovski’s Rene Carpenter, who provokes eye rolls when she protests that she “can do more than stand there and look pretty.”
Meanwhile, the thrown-together personalities clash in interesting ways, competing every bit as much as the wildly competitive men in terms of the jockeying to see which astronaut gets to go on the first mission. That said, the women remain trapped by the mores of the time, forced to live through their husbands’ reflected glory, and enduring the slights that go with that.
Admittedly, for anyone familiar with the history — or who even just saw the movie — a lot of this will feel familiar, including a subsequent episode replicating the incident when Annie Glenn (Azure Parsons), the wife of John (Sam Reid), is panicked by the prospect of an impromptu visit from Vice President Lyndon Johnson, given her pronounced stutter. Yet even those interludes are played well enough to work in this context, and will certainly come as revelations. And there are several lump-in-the-throat moments in seeing loved ones having to endure watching a husband or father blast into the unknown.
Beyond the particulars, the series is beautifully put together, from the hair and costumes to the casting (notably, the women receive top billing) to judicious use of news footage. The only real challenge, in the early going, is keeping track of which wife goes with which astronaut.
One would think the soapy qualities would be pretty inherently commercial. Whether that, and a lot of promotion during the NBA Finals, can get the ratings into a satisfactory orbit is anyone’s guess. But if “The Astronaut Wives Club” experiences a failure to launch, it won’t be due to a malfunction at the controls.