It’s easy to dismiss ABC’s “The Astronaut Wives Club” as just another sudser, but the limited series based on Lily Koppel’s chronicles of the Mercury Seven astronauts’ wives has more lurking in its atmosphere. Ahead of its premiere, creator Stephanie Savage (“Gossip Girl,” “Hart of Dixie,” “The O.C.”) talks to Variety about how her show differs from the similarly set “Mad Men,” how it’s made her grow beyond her teen-skewing roots and how a race to put the series on the air last year would have resulted in a crash and burn.
“The Astronaut Wives Club” premieres at 8 p.m. June 18 on ABC.
Why did you decide to do a period story?
I love the period [of the 1960s]. I’m thrilled that I’m able to tell a story set in that time period for a broadcast network. Just for myself personally, I love the fashion and the music and the design. I love the way that it allows us to tell a story that’s very relevant to issues that are going on today through a lens that allows us to put a historical perspective on it.
What issues in particular?
There’s a lot of issues in terms of gender equality inside marriage … and we still get to tell them from a perspective of that time period.
Do you have an interest in space exploration?
I didn’t have a particular interest in space until I started doing research into this project. I do love the period and I do love the idea and the awesomeness of the space program and the ambition of the space program — this idea of all of these people coming together to do something that had really not been done before. It wasn’t just a technological innovation. It was like Christopher Columbus going from the idea that we’re going to put a man on the moon and look down on the Earth. And to do that in such a short time; 10 years being pretty short.
The book was compared to “Mad Men.” How are you preparing for the inevitable comparisons for your show?
The only thing it truly has in common with “Mad Men” is the period. We’re a limited series, so we’re only 10 episodes. We’re doing the eight seasons of “Mad Men” with each episode. We’re sort of marching through time at a much faster rate. I was a huge “Mad Men” fan, so I’m flattered by any comparisons.
That show was known for its obsession with detail. Did you go to similar measures?
We did put a lot of time and attention into researching period detail and we also wanted to make sure our world felt different from the “Mad Men” world. Obviously, the show takes place in a different part of the country, but we also wanted to spend a lot of time outside. We talked about how the sky was a character in the show. And we created our neighborhoods so that we had a lot of green grass, blue skies, cars in driveways … really being able to be on the beach and seeing another slice of the world than what “Mad Men” gave us with that New York, claustrophobic world.
There is one other thing “Astronaut Wives Club” has in common with “Mad Men”: infidelity. How much of the cheating that’s in your show is based on real events and how much is storytelling?
Because our story’s based on real people, we couldn’t tell a story of infidelity unless that story of infidelity was pretty well documented. All of that is kind of coming from Lily’s book and the oral histories that she did of traveling around the country and sitting with these women in their kitchens and taking down their stories.
This show also serves as rite of passage for you, since you’re more known for teen dramas like “Gossip Girl” and “The O.C.”
I’m definitely in touch with my inner teenager and I hope I never lose that connection. But it’s been a challenge and a pleasure to be writing more fully adult characters; to be writing about marriage, to be writing about adult female friendships. It’s been fun for me and some would say an appropriate evolution, given I’m not a teenager anymore.
”Astronaut Wives Club” was supposed to premiere last year. Why the delay to launch?
I’m not sure how it’s been portrayed in the trades, but the show was ordered on a regular pilot schedule. I think we got picked up at the beginning of February [in 2014] and we only had the one pilot episode written. Then we were ordered to series and they wanted the series to go on TV in June. I don’t know of in the history of television if anything ordered on a regular pilot schedule would be ready to have 10 episodes on starting in June. For “The O.C.,” we were able to get seven episodes on starting in August.
Once we realized that doing a period show meant that we needed to take some extra time to research and prep, we realized that this wasn’t a realistic schedule. But it was always designed to be 10 episodes and it was always designed to be a summer series.
Why do you think it works best as summer series?
I think the show is set in Houston and Florida, so it’s sunny and there’s lots of blue skies and bikinis. The fact that it’s a limited series, that just felt right for summer: something people could get invested in in June, watch until the end of August and then the fall schedule starts.