The Astronaut Wives Club, premiering Thursday night on ABC, is the kind of TV show that is impossible to watch without starting to guess at how it was pitched. Mad Men meets Desperate Housewives? Masters of Sex, starring the Stepford Wives? Pan Am, but farther off the ground? Unfortunately, it isn’t just the past several years’ vogue for TV dramas set in the mid-20th century that prompts this inquiry — it’s also the fact that the series is a jumble of obligatory themes and half-baked characterizations cribbed from other shows to form something that feels simultaneously overstuffed and underwritten.
What’s unfortunate is the nagging feeling one gets, watching the three episodes provided to critics, that this show could have been so much better. Based on Lily Koppel’s bestselling nonfiction book of the same name, The Astronaut Wives Club follows the wives of the Mercury Seven, the cohort of young astronauts chosen by NASA in 1959 to pilot the first manned spaceflights. Among the other big names in the credits are Stephanie Savage, who teen-drama fans know from her work alongside Josh Schwartz on Gossip Girl and The O.C., and Lone Scherfig, the talented filmmaker (An Education, Italian for Beginners) who directed the first two episodes and is also an executive producer.
Despite its impressive crew and rich premise, the show’s path to primetime has been troubled. Originally slated to debut last summer, Astronaut Wives’ production was put on hold while the original concept and scope of the show were reworked (and producers sought clearances for their portrayals of real people). Delays don’t always mean that a series won’t be worth waiting for, but in this case, the extra year only seems to have resulted in a cluttered pilot and too many competing visions of what kind of show it should be.
After a brief flash-forward meant to quickly convey that this is a show about women watching from the safe distance of their living rooms as their husbands get launched into space, The Astronaut Wives Club opens with Alan Shepard (Desmond Harrington) and his wife Louise (Dominique McElligot) learning that he’s been chosen to become an astronaut. At the party that follows, NASA PR flack Duncan “Dunk” Pringle (Evan Handler) explains to LIFE magazine reporter Max Kaplan (Luke Kirby) that these are “seven military families becoming American royalty.” Max is here because NASA has given LIFE an exclusive on the wives’ stories; he must sell them on the plan and then package their — glamorized and sanitized — lives for the public. And by the time he gets them all in a room together, the women are already shading and side-eyeing each other like they’re angling to get their own Bravo series.
Just a few scenes into the pilot, it’s clear that there are too many characters. Seven astronauts and seven wives, plus Dunk and Max, adds up to an ensemble of 16. Plenty of shows figure out how to deal with large casts — Orange Is the New Black generally focuses on a single inmate’s backstory in each episode, while Game of Thrones only checks in on a handful of its many storylines on any given week. But Astronaut Wives is packed with big group scenes from the very beginning, leaving little time to develop individual characters or flesh out the relationships between these very different couples (who, it must be said, can be hard to tell apart).
By the end of the third episode, the wives’ personalities have come into focus in only the most superficial ways. Trudy Cooper (Odette Annable) is the smart, tough pilot who wants to become an astronaut like her husband. Rene Carpenter (Yvonne Strahovski) is the blonde bombshell who wants be taken seriously. Betty Grissom (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) is the innocent one who really loves her husband, while Marge Slayton (Erin Cummings) has been around the block enough times to have racked up some secrets. Annie Glenn (Azure Parsons) is a sweet, shy stutterer. Jo Schirra (Zoe Boyle), who gets the least screen time in early episodes, shows signs of being a ballbreaker. And then there’s Louise — a practical, polished ice queen who refuses to look vulnerable in public and is slow to accept the other wives’ warm gestures.
Surely we’ll get to know these women a bit better as the season progresses. But the show displays such a lack of subtlety in conveying their most basic, easy-to-grasp traits that it’s difficult to imagine these types will ever evolve into truly distinctive characters. (“If I play nice now, maybe one day it’ll be me going into space,” Trudy says at one point, in case we were confused about her incredibly obvious motivations.)
The dialogue only makes things worse. In the absence of more patient storytelling, the characters’ conversations are mind-numbingly expository. “It’s not like you ladies have a bunch of secrets,” Max says to the wives, in the midst of his initial sales pitch. “Of course not,” one replies. “We’re just housewives,” says another. Hey, could Astronaut Wives possibly be setting up some dramatic irony? In Episode 2, we get a painfully obvious contrast between Betty’s relationship with her husband Gus (Joel Johnstone) and Trudy’s somewhat deceptive marriage to Gordo (Bret Harrison). In a conversation before Gus goes into space, Betty says things like, “You’re a good father, you’re a loyal husband, and you’re my best friend,” and Gus reciprocates with similar observations about what a good housewife she is. A bit later, Gordo and Trudy are about to go for a flight, and he asks her, “The question is, who’s the pilot and who’s in the jump seat?” Hey, could Astronaut Wives be inviting us to consider how different couples negotiate questions of love, equality, and division of labor?
As this conversation suggests, the show is interested in the same political and social issues as the “prestige” period dramas that it is presumably trying to emulate — but, unlike Mad Men and Masters of Sex, its engagement with topics like gender and race is superficial. Aside from Trudy’s longing to become an astronaut and Rene’s insistence on writing her own article (“I wanna show the world I can do more than just stand there and look pretty!” she proclaims), we see the men partying — and cheating — like rock stars while their wives are expected to be perfect homemakers. The show’s only black character, an adorable little boy, basically exists to inform us that Jim Crow laws are still in effect. Astronaut Wives also throws in some criticism of media’s more predatory and deceptive tendencies.
Not only do all of these attempts at seriousness feel cursory, but some are so thoughtless and tokenizing as to verge on offensiveness. They also muddle the tone of the show, adding an unpleasant tinge of self-importance. The Astronaut Wives Club might well have succeeded at being a fun, retro summer soap, where period costumes and mid-century design and attractive young couples made up for heavy-handed storytelling. Instead, much like the characters it follows, the show demands that we recognize its depth without ever giving us reason to believe it has any.