The Astronaut Wives Club follows seven men who became the core of Project Mercury, the 1960s team that represented America’s first venture into human spaceflight. No, I mean it follows the wives of those men. Well, really, it follows both groups. Sort of. Actually, The Astronaut Wives Club frequently doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do.
Given its title, it’s no surprise that the majority of the premiere is about how the wives of men we now know as heroes — Alan Shepard, the first American in space, for example, and John Glenn, the first man to orbit the Earth — coped with the long hours and subsequent celebrity their husbands acquired. Initially, the series focuses on Louisa Shepard, played by Hell on Wheels’s Dominique McElligott — but that’s only because the first episode inevitably centers around Alan Shepard, played by Dexter’s Desmond Harrington.
You see the problem here that’s baked into The Astronaut Wives Club premise? There is no show without the men, yet it’s the women the series wants to explore more closely than the surface of the moon. And while decades of feminist pop culture have taught us that women must be treated as independent agents capable of shaping their own destinies and pursing their own ambitions and desires, by any practical measure, an accurate portrayal of housewives in the early 1960s is going to be pretty feminist-free. That means a big chunk of the TV audience is going to watch it waiting for the characters to assert themselves and start behaving like contemporary women — which cannot happen if the creators want to adhere to historical accuracy.
And those creators have done admirable work in the past. They include producer Stephanie Savage, who wrote the pilot based on the book of the same title by Lily Koppel, and producer Josh Schwartz. Savage and Schwartz worked on The O.C. and Gossip Girl, so they know how to create vivid characters, especially female ones. With this new show, they clearly wanted to give us the female point of view of an era portrayed most famously in the movies by 1983’s The Right Stuff. They’ve assembled a cast that’s fully up to the challenge of making otherwise-ordinary housewives three-dimensional: The rollmcall includes, in addition to McElligott, Yvonne Strahovski, from Schwartz’s Chuck, as Rene Carpenter; Joanna Garcia Swisher from Reba as Betty Grissom; and Odette Annable, from Cloverfield and House, as Trudy Cooper.
What Astronaut Wives Club has these and the other women do, however, is spend the most dramatic moments staring anxiously at the sky or at big black-and-white TV screens, while their husbands risk their lives up among the stars in the service of NASA’s space program. The rest of the time, they each evince a single character tic — Rene is a flirty show-off; Glenn’s wife Annie (Azure Parsons) has a debilitating stutter; Trudy Cooper is pushy — which doesn’t lead, early on in the series, to anything approaching depth. Combine this with clunky lines such as “Being a modern wife means challenging your husband to be better,” and you’ve got the potential for one dull show.
Except Astronaut Wives Club isn’t dull — not quite. Merely by having seven interesting female actors playing scenes together, you have something rare on television: women filling the screen, communicating often without the interference of men. They may be saying banal things; they may be talking about men; they may be making gloppy 1960s food like a salad that mixes lime Jell-O and mayonnaise — but the sight of women filling the screen and interacting may be novel enough to keep viewers intrigued for a while.
The Astronaut Wives Club airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on ABC.