Starring Dominique McElligott, Desmond Harrington, Yvonne Stahovski, Evan Handler, Joanna Garcia Swisher, Luke Kirby, and Odette Annable
My rating: ★★ stars
The Right Stuff meets Desperate Housewives.
The Astronaut Wives Club, based on Lily Koppel’s book, fits in well with ABC’s line-up of female-skewing shows, dealing with the trials and tribulations of the wives of America’s first astronauts, the Mercury 7.
That the events are dictated by history creates the first problem with the show. There were seven Mercury astronauts, all married; thus, there are seven wives. That’s 14 characters right there. Add in administrator Duncan “Dunk” Pringle (Evan Handler) and reporter Max Kaplan (Luke Kirby), and the show has 16 major characters. That’s a huge number. I had to open up the cast list on the internet while watching the show just to keep them all straight. The seven astronauts and their wives are Scott and Rene Carpenter (Wilson Bethel and Yvonne Strahovski), Gus and Betty Grissom (Joel Johnstone and Joanna Garcia Swisher), Deke and Marge Slayton (Kenneth Mitchell and Erin Cummings), Gordon and Trudy Cooper (Bret Harrison and Odette Annable), Wally and Jo Schirra (Aaron McCusker and Zoe Boyle), John and Annie Glenn (Sam Reid and Azure Parsons), and, finally, Alan and Louise Shepard (Desmond Harrington and Dominique McElligott), the focus of the first episode. Got all that straight? No? Me, neither, and I watched the episode.
The episode gives some of the characters a single defining characteristic to distinguish them, which is a cheap substitute for actual character development. Rene Carpenter is flashy. Annie Glenn stutters. Marge Slayton has a mysterious past. Trudy Cooper is independent. Louise Shepard is standoffish.
As the episode centers on Alan Shepard’s launch into space, Louise is featured most prominently of all the wives, but we learn little about her. Why she’s aloof is never explained. We’re given no information about her background. When she discovers her husband’s infidelity, she gets one good scene where she asks him not to humiliate her, but we’re never given an opportunity to understand the nature of their relationship. The actors are not at fault here. McElligott suggests facets to Louise that the script fails to explore, and Harrington (Dexter, Gossip Girl) once again proves that he’s too compelling to be relegated to supporting roles.
The fault lies with the structure of the series and the writing. Based on the preview at the end of the episode, the ten-episode series will cover about a decade’s worth of story. The first episode begins with the announcement of the seven astronauts and ends shortly after Shepard’s launch into space. That’s a lot of ground to cover for a pilot episode. The early scenes suggest that the episode will concentrate on the competition between the wives to promote their husbands for the prized position of first man in space. However, we see little of the work by either the husbands or the wives to earn this position. Alan Shepard is selected for no reason that the episode indicates. The series easily could have ended the season with Shepard’s launch and spent the preceding episodes exploring the characters and their relationships. Or, the first episode even contains a natural stopping point halfway through, with the failure of an unmanned launch. That would have provided a neat cliffhanger and given the series at least two episodes to deal with the events leading up to Shepard’s launch.
Perhaps the most mind-boggling blunder is the choice to use bland contemporary songs instead of period music. The use of period music gives life to television shows that take place in historical eras. The music greatly enhances shows like China Beach, The Wonder Years, Cold Case, and Aquarius, currently airing on NBC. The Astronaut Wives Club missed a great opportunity.
The show aims for the moon, but it’s no Apollo 11. Nor is it an Apollo 1. It’s more like Apollo 13, falling between success and unmitigated disaster. The producers had the opportunity to tell an interesting, character-driven story. Instead, they decided to leap from event to event.