'The Astronaut Wives Club': TV Review

ABC
A creative concept fails to take off

The story of the "Mercury Seven" astronauts hits the small screen (on ABC), told from their spouses' points of view.

A big part of the allure of historical drama series is that they’re able to play with nearly every storytelling element, from costume design to dialogue to cinematography.

The downside? Sometimes history can be a little, well, boring. And herein lies the problem with The Astronaut Wives Club.

Based on the book by Lily Koppel, ABC’s new series focuses on the spouses of the “Mercury Seven,” the elite group of astronauts selected by NASA in 1959 to pilot flights and become America’s proud public faces of the Space Race.

In the first episode, we meet the club: There’s Louise (Dominique McElligott), the determined wife of Alan Shepard (Desmond Harrington). Kind and quiet Annie (Azure Parsons) is married to John Glenn (Sam Reid). Heads turn for Rene (Yvonne Strahovski), the stunning and outspoken wife of Scott Carpenter (Wilson Bethel). Trudy (Odette Annable), married to Gordon Cooper (Bret Harrison), is an accomplished, yet overlooked, pilot in her own right. Marge (Erin Cummings), the wife of Deke Slayton (Kenneth Mitchell), struggles to keep a secret from the press. Cheerful Betty (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) is happily married to Gus Grissom (Joel Johnstone), and Jo (Zoe Boyle) champions her husband, Wally Schirra (Aaron McCusker).

If that sounds like a lot of folks to keep up with, it is — and it’ll probably take viewers several episodes to tell the characters apart.

Despite all the drama and thrills associated with space travel in the '60s, Astronaut Wives Club can’t help but be a little repetitive: Someone goes up, the women watch it on TV, they eat some Jell-O salad, they speak to the press, they wait to hear about the next mission.

And though the seven get fairly equal screen time, Strahovski and Parsons stand out from the pack, mainly because their characters have the most TV-ready stories. (Annie Glenn’s severe stutter is a storyline here, as it was in 1983’s The Right Stuff.) Other notables include Evan Handler (Californication, Sex and the City) in a small role as NASA’s anxious PR officer and Luke Kirby (Rectify) as the Life magazine reporter who follows the seven families — and provides a tidy framework for the show. The astronauts mostly stay in the background, but Harrington’s philandering spaceman leaves a solid impression.

Though Astronaut Wives takes place in the same era as Mad Men’s early seasons, the similarities end there. Attention to period detail here is comparatively minimal, and its historical context prevents any debauchery from going too far. The show’s restaging of real photographs and use of archival footage is a nice touch, as is the soundtrack, which eschews ‘60s standards for contemporary performers who echo the mood of the series, like The Drums and Ariana Delawari.

And while comparisons to Desperate Housewives are inevitable, those aren’t apropos, either, as this series falls more on the fuzzy side of the spectrum than the soapy one. Episodes end on feel-good notes, not nail-biting cliffhangers, and most will be able to watch safely with their kids and/or elderly relatives. (If one must liken it to a “wives” franchise, its tone probably has more in common with Lifetime’s Army Wives than anything else.)

The Astronaut Wives Club has an interesting concept with several talented folks behind it; executive producers Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz are best known for addictive teen dramas Gossip Girl and The O.C., and the first two episodes were directed by An Education’s Lone Scherfig.

Unfortunately, the result is surprisingly grounded and muted, leaving its likelihood of finding an audience rather up in the air.

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