TV Review: ‘The Astronaut Wives Club’

The Astronaut wives club TV Review
Courtesy of ABC

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.

TV Review: 'The Astronaut Wives Club'

(Series; ABC, Thur. June 18, 8 p.m.)

Production

Filmed in Louisiana by Fake Empire and Groundswell Prods. in association with ABC Studios.

Crew

Executive producers, Stephanie Savage, Josh Schwartz, Len Goldstein, Michael London, Janice Williams, Lone Scherfig; co-executive producers, Liz Tigelaar, Becky Hartman Edwards; producer, Reid Shane; director, Scherfig; writer, Savage; based on the book by Lily Koppel; camera, David Stockton; production designer, Mark White; editor, Rachel Goodlett Katz; music, Deborah Lurie; casting, Patrick J. Rush. 60 MIN.

Cast

JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Yvonne Strahovski, Dominique McElligott, Odette Annable, Erin Cummings, Azure Parsons, Zoe Boyle, Desmond Harrington, Bret Harrison, Wilson Bethel, Kenneth Mitchell, Joel Johnstone, Sam Reid, Aaron McCusker, Luke Kirby, Evan Handler

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  1. elizabethannaheim says:

    Thanks for the article. ABC Go offers some great shows and of course the ABC live feature. If you don’t live in US, you can use UnoTelly or similar tools to access it in your country.

  2. I was the Special Assistant to Bill Anders (Apollo 8) when he was a Commissioner at the Atomic Energy Commission. The story line presented in this TV Show is extremely inaccurate. The Astronauts and their wives I knew during that period would not even recognize the lives presented in this make-believe soap opera. The TV Show offers people behaving in the most sophomoric manner and attempts to show the competition among the actors as being infantile. There was competition among the Astronauts, but at a scientific and technical skills level they proudly recognized in each other. The petty interactions among the wives are degrading to the lovely and educated women I knew. They were “Military Wives” who carried the responsibilities of their family with great efficiency and camaraderie among them. A military wife is a special person who, when successful, is amazingly competent. Not many women are cut out to be the spouse of a Naval or Marine Officer, but the ones who are do a fantastic job. Not the silly performance of the wives in this inaccurate TV Show.

  3. Cindylover1969 says:

    It’s called “The Astronaut Wives Club” – why would the women not get top billing?

  4. Les Dorr says:

    It’s Alan SHEPARD! But I guess critics aren’t responsible when the network itself screws up in its own blurbs!

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