What makes a great summer series? Something flashy, breezy, easy to DV-R and binge at a later date, perhaps. Beach reading, but on your TV. In fact, it really deserves a separate scale. The epitome of a great summer show may be Fox’s The O.C., which ran in the mid-aughts, and came (in part) from Stephanie Savage. Savage also has developed ABC’s new drama The Astronaut Wives Club, and with it, another well-suited summer show (though one that’s still looking to ignite).
The series, based on a book by Lily Koppel, details the home lives of the Mercury 7, a true-to-life group of men (including John Glenn, played here by Sam Reid) who were chosen by NASA for their fledgling space program in the early 1960s. The families were also heavily managed for appearances, with deals made with press outlets like Life magazine to convince the American public that these “perfect” couples were America’s royalty. Hearts and minds!
The Astronaut Wives Club is gorgeous and glossy, with impeccable style. The men (Reid, Desmond Harrington, Bret Harrison, Joel Johnstone, Aaron McCusker, Kenneth Mitchell, Wilson Bethel) are handsome, and the wives (Yvonne Strahovski, Dominique McElligott, Joanna Garcia, Odette Annable, Erin Cummings, Azure Parsons, Zoe Boyle) are beautiful. The makeup, clothing, and jewelry are practically awe-inspiring. But while ABC’s trailers for the series seem to have positioned it as a retro-themed Desperate Housewives, the series’ ties to real life leave it ensconced in the sentimental and reverential, even when the setup is begging for it to breakout.
The drama of the series, which is known to history, mostly revolves around the roulette wheel of whether each woman’s husband will complete his mission alive. In this aspect, The Astronaut Wives Club succeeds in illustrating the early misfires of the American space program, and just how questionable a lot of the early attempts to send a man into the atmosphere and beyond truly were. Not all of them made it, or made it back, and some only barely. Though the wives rightfully fret, they reassure each other that, “it’s our job to help [our husbands] get what they want.”
The show doesn’t just use the 60s (and the 50s’ heavily conservative influence) as a setting — it coats itself in it. The script relishes in having all of the women (save one — Annable’s ambitious Trudy Cooper) living only to serve their husbands, the very embodiment of the 50s housewife ideal. Not that the women shouldn’t be supportive, but in an early scene, they fight about whose husband is the best and most talented in a way that suggests they’ve been totally consumed by their husband’s personalities, leaving almost nothing for themselves. And yet, it’s those wives who at least establish their personalities in a way that differentiates them from one another, which is more than can be said for their (so far) largely interchangeable husbands.
The series suffers from many of the same problems as ABC’s failed retro drama PanAm, though, which favored style over substance, and similarly, didn’t do enough with its great cast (while spending too much time on winking jokes tied to historical hindsight). The Astronaut Wives Club doesn’t quite go that far, but there are better stories about this particular leg of the space program (The Right Stuff, From Earth to the Moon), and better TV shows filled with scandal and drama (many of which air on ABC during the rest of the year). Still, The Astronaut Wives Club is breezy, untaxing (except when trying to keep the couples straight), and occasionally even a little charming. It just has yet to find the ignition switch to make it a great summer sizzler.
Rating: ★★ Fair — For the beach combers
The Astronaut Wives Club premieres Thursday, June 18th at 8 p.m. on ABC.