Even if you haven’t seen the 1983 film or read Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book of the same name, chances are you’ve already seen something exactly like “The Right Stuff.” In its retelling of the true story of “The Mercury 7” (i.e. the intrepid group of American astronauts vying to be the country’s first space travelers), this TV version of “The Right Stuff” never met a space story cliché it didn’t embrace with open arms. Its determined, talented men storm in and out of rooms, demanding answers and praise and cooperation. The series frequently evokes the specter of Russia beating America to the moon to everyone’s haunted horror, the score swelling dramatically to underline the severity of the situation. It pits the saintly John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams) against the cocky Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman) to exactly the effect you’d imagine. Everything about this “Right Stuff” is, in other words, about as predictable as it gets — which isn’t exactly a deal-breaking knock against it. For those who already love the idea of outer space and the people who get to explore it, “The Right Stuff” should be straight up comfort food.
This latest adaptation, from showrunner Mark Lafferty, is a glossy TV series produced for Nat Geo but premiering on Disney Plus, where it will live amongst the streaming service’s many other tales of heroes overcoming the odds to do something extraordinary. Throughout eight episodes, five of which were screened for review, “The Right Stuff” hones in on three members of The Mercury 7 in particular. John Glenn is the teacher’s pet, a sturdy family man with a strong work ethic, an impressive collection of bowties, and a wife, Annie (Nora Zehetner), he considers an equal. Alan Shepard, by huge and obvious contrast, is the playboy pilot who just wants “to go fast and be left alone,” no matter how obvious his unhappiness and transgressions. Sweet but restless Gordo Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue) struggles to reconcile with his wife Trudy (Eloise Mumford), a fellow pilot reeling from her husband’s recent dishonesty. (Chuck Yeager, the World War II veteran played by Sam Shepherd in the 1983 film, does not feature in the series.)
Though they have huge shoes to fill, both thanks to the men they’re playing and the men who have played them before, Adams and McDorman do good work embodying their respective archetypes. McDorman has the easier job in playing the flashier character, but he embraces it with an irresistible smirk; Adams, meanwhile, toes a trickier line with Glenn and impressively avoids making him out to be as boring a saint as the scripts dictate. Zehetner and Mumford work hard to flesh out Annie and Trudy out during their relatively minor screen time, while O’Donoghue gets a little lost in Gordo’s admittedly myopic self-pity.
But no matter how committed or nuanced its performers, or how accurate and beautiful its production design, “The Right Stuff” ultimately suffers from doing a familiar story in an all too familiar way. American pop culture is overflowing with stories about righteous men taking risks for their country and messing up their home lives along the way. We are not hurting for reenactments of how the United States got into the space race and the global implications thereof. This “Right Stuff” does a fine job painting by numbers, but without deviating from a script we’ve seen onscreen a thousand times before, it’s unlikely to make an impression all its own.
The first two episodes of “The Right Stuff” premiere October 9 on Disney Plus.