NEW DRAMA "The Astronaut Wives Club"
WHEN|WHERE Thursday at 8 p.m. on ABC/7
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Seven astronauts were selected for Project Mercury, NASA's first manned spaceflight program from 1959 through 1963. They were married to seven remarkable women. This series is their story: Betty Grissom (JoAnna Garcia Swisher); Rene Carpenter (Yvonne Strahovski), Louise Shepard (Dominique McElligott), Trudy Cooper (Odette Annable), Marge Slayton (Erin Cummings), Annie Glenn (Azure Parsons) and Jo Schirra (Zoe Boyle). Approached by editors of Life magazine for an offer they can't refuse -- their own families' stories in the magazine, with financial incentive -- they agree to have a reporter follow them as preparations get underway for the first U.S. suborbital manned space flight in May 1961. (The series is based on Lily Koppel's 2013 book.)
MY SAY Koppel's book was inspired by the idea that women -- the "wives" -- were as important to the first spaceflight program as the astronauts they happened to be married to. While their husbands made history, they made the beds -- or fed the kids, tended house, sipped the martinis, watched the TV, and otherwise played Penelope to their husband's Odysseus.
That may be an antediluvian concept in modern prime-time TV terms, but hardly in 1961 terms, because that's what the public expected and demanded. As such, these wives were literally cosseted by the public relations role forced upon them by Life's editors, who were apparently more eager to sell NASA's space program than NASA was.
Yes, the stuff of legend, history, sociology, protofeminism, journalism and even -- maybe -- a riveting prime-time TV drama, too. Except "The Astronaut Wives Club" doesn't quite turn out that way. Koppel had the luxury of a full book to explore their stories and hearts. The TV adaptation has no such luxury -- just 44 little minutes to establish seven characters and somehow also forge an emotional bond between them and viewers. Of necessity, the story is so rushed, the characters so carelessly brush-stroked, that what should be climactic -- the first manned spaceflight -- feels incidental, almost blase.
This is the sort of series that needs time to build, but I sampled the next two, and even time doesn't help much here.