After a buzzed over premiere earlier this summer, creator Stephanie Savage’s period drama “Astronaut Wives Club,” about astronaut wives in the 1960s, touches down with its series finale at 8 p.m. Thursday. Looking back on the limited series that served as both a growing up moment for both the “Gossip Girl” co-creator and summer programming in general, Savage talked to Variety about writing female characters, Civil Rights and the state of the word “sudser.”
We’ve called this a “sudser” or a “summer series,” which makes the show seem so much lighter than what it really is. What do you think about that label? How do you think summer programming is changing?
In my mind, I don’t necessarily associate a summer show with lightness. In some regards, this show does fit this description in terms of there’s a lot of cute guys, it’s largely in Houston and Florida and there’s a lot of great food and music and the clothes and makeup are fun.
But, at the same time, in my mind, it always has that historical weightiness to it. There was a historical epicness to the journey. That was my hope in the way we built the series: It would start as these seven women as the first reality stars and track their relationships with each other, but move to a deeper and darker place as the historical stakes did get bigger as presidents are assassinated and lives are lost and the terrible tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire. There was a maturing process to the characters and to the show.
At its core, this show is really about women’s relationships — not just with friendships, but also with the way women interact in general.
That was something that I thought a lot about going into the series with the character of Betty [Joanna García Swisher] especially. I think it’s something that drew Joanna to the role in early conversations. But there is a sense of public and private personas and the private self in each of the women’s characters.
At the beginning of the show, there’s more humor to that and more of a light tone in terms of Life magazine taking photos so we all better act like we’re perfect. As we get deeper into the show, particularly with Betty, then it’s not so funny anymore that you have to act a certain way in public versus how you might be feeling inside. That’s not only Life reporters and the press, but that’s also with people who were close to you as well.
With her, in the finale, the Apollo 11 celebration and the moon landing mean something different to her [than] it does to everyone else.
Meanwhile, you have Rene Carpenter (Yvonne Strahovski) who shows how women’s roles are evolving.
I think the amazing thing about Rene’s arc — and she has the biggest arc of any of the characters in terms of where she started in the show and where she ended — is that’s all based on reality. Rene Carpenter really did end up with her own talk show. We watched a couple episodes of it and it’s amazing. The set design and even the interview she does in our show is inspired by real life.
In Rene, you have a real woman who is experiencing that popular feminist period in all its glory. She is literally finding her voice in terms of knowing she has thoughts and experiences that are valuable and the platform of being an astronaut’s wife lets her share those thoughts and feelings with the public and inspires her to want to keep going beyond being an astronaut’s wife to grow her voice and share her thoughts and communicate with the public in a way that I think is so powerful and still so relevant today in terms of the journey of how so many women go about their lives.
Would you ever do a project like this again?
One of the things that sort of keeps coming up is there’s not a second season of this. What could you do to keep this going? There are so many incredible stories of women in history that haven’t been told. I’d be very happy to do one every summer for the rest of my life. It’s the ‘20s and World War II and Wall Street and the ’80s — there’s so many worlds that can be explored and women have amazing stories that haven’t been told the way they should be.
You also touch on Civil Rights in this series. Would you be interested in exploring something like that, since that’s so topical right now?
The ‘60s is such an explosive period. It was very interesting for me because I grew up in Canada and obviously I know some American history because I’ve lived here for many years and even in Canada, that does permeate. But I was studying for my American citizenship test while working on the show and I felt like I had that duel emergence of thinking about what it means to be American while thinking of that time period.
By the time we got to 1968, I was thinking this is crazy. Martin Luther King is assassinated. Bobby Kennedy decides to run for president. Bobby Kennedy is assassinated. If those things were happening now, our world would be so chaotic. That level of change and chaos is hard for people who didn’t live through it to understand.