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TV review: With restraint, ‘Astronaut Wives’ could take off

Yvonne Strahovski (left) as Rene Carpenter and Wilson Bethel as Scott Carpenter in ABC’s “Astronaut Wives Club.”
Yvonne Strahovski (left) as Rene Carpenter and Wilson Bethel as Scott Carpenter in ABC’s “Astronaut Wives Club.” ABC

ABC’s new series, “The Astronaut Wives Club,” can’t make up its mind if it wants to be a serious, nuanced fact-based drama about the wives of the Mercury Seven astronauts, or “The Real Housewives of Cape Canaveral.”

Fortunately, there’s enough legitimate drama in the show, premiering Thursday, to counterbalance its cheaper moments.

The show was created by Stephanie Savage from the book “The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story” by Lily Koppel and is based on the real women who were married to the nation’s original seven astronauts.

The names of these space pioneers are known to us today: John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Alan B. Shepard, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra and Gordon Cooper. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, you might have also known the names of their wives, because NASA was intent on marketing the Mercury Seven and their families as epitomizing American idealism.

The framework for the NASA spin campaign, in “Astronaut Wives Club,” is an exclusive story in Life magazine about the seven women who stand beside – or preferably, a step behind – their heroic husbands.

Max Kaplan (Luke Kirby) is virtually embedded with the wives to write the story. The mastermind of the PR campaign is Duncan Pringle (Evan Handler), and he has every intention of making the wives fit the marketable image of supportive, subservient women behind the men in space.

It’s impossible to overstate American obsession with the space race in the 1950s and early ’60s. Everything was at stake. The U.S. had to play catchup with the Soviet Union or else … or else what? Ask many Americans at the time and they’d probably say that if the Russkies got to space first, the next step would be to conquer the U.S. It was that important.

Lots at stake

The space race wasn’t just about technology and science – it was about the rightness of everything American.

The problem with the NASA PR campaign was that parts of it were lies. Louise Shepard (Dominique McElligott) is careful not to let the public know how terrified she is when her husband, Alan (Desmond Harrington), becomes the first American in space (Soviet Yuri Gagarin got there first). She’s so committed to the space program and the projection of marital perfection that she pretends not to see her husband’s dalliances with other women.

Marge Slayton (Erin Cummings) is terrified that the press and public will find out she was married once before. Worse, she’s never told Deke (Kenneth Mitchell) she is a divorcee.

Annie Glenn (Azure Parsons) has a serious stammer. She is terrified of speaking in public and rehearses a statement to give to the press after her husband, John’s (Sam Reid), historic orbital flight in 1962.

Rene Carpenter (Yvonne Strahovski) speaks her mind, and it goes against the carefully nurtured image of the God-fearing modern American woman.

One of the marriages is virtually a sham as the series begins, a hastily arranged reunion for public relations purposes.

The women may look like Donna Reed, but some, at least, are proto-feminists. They bristle at being told how to look and what to say. They are far more than merely support personnel for their husbands, or mothers to their children. And the longer they are required to toe the official line for NASA, the more smothered they feel, even the more acquiescent among them.

Archival footage

The show’s credibility is enhanced by a mostly successful blend of archival footage with re-created scenes. However, the technique falls completely flat when the astronauts and their wives gather for a ticker-tape parade in New York after Glenn’s flight. The number of extras along the route is shown to be embarrassingly sparse when we see overhead shots of the real parade, with hordes of people lining the streets.

You can feel the writers trying not to give in to an obvious temptation to overstate rivalry and mistrust between the women, especially in the pilot episode. Fortunately, the friction never reaches the cat fight level, but it suggests that history is both a friend and adversary of the show. On the one hand, “Wives Club,” like “Mad Men,” mines one of the richest moments in American history. On the other, unlike Megan Calvet, Betty Hofstadt and Joan Harris, these are real women, and dramatic possibilities of their TV stand-ins are limited by facts.

We feel the push and pull of history in some of the weaker moments of the series, but if the writers stick to the facts and resist the temptation to go full “Real Housewives,” “The Astronaut Wives Club” should take off.

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