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'The Right Stuff' review: Astronaut drama shows promise, but needs better character development

Back left to right: Aaron Staton as Wally

Back left to right: Aaron Staton as Wally Schirra, James Lafferty as Scott Carpenter, Colin O'Donoghue as Gordon Cooper, Jake McDorman as Alan Shepard. Front left to right: Michael Trotter as Gus Grissom, Patrick J. Adams as John Glenn and Micah Stock as Deke Slayton in "The Right Stuff." Credit: Disney+

SERIES "The Right Stuff"

WHEN|WHERE Streaming on Disney+

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The Disney+ streaming service revives the story of the Mercury Seven astronauts that Tom Wolfe immortalized in his 1979 book and the filmmaker Philip Kaufman further cemented with his excellent 1983 movie adaptation.

This time, Alan Shepard, John Glenn and company are fodder for an 8-episode drama series, the first two episodes of which premiered last week.

These men have been assembled in 1959 by the earliest iteration of NASA to join the fledgling space program and to become the first American astronauts.

"The Right Stuff" is developed by Mark Lafferty and stars Jake McDorman ("Limitless") as Shepard and Patrick J. Adams ("Suits") as Glenn. It's adapted from both the book and the movie. The remaining episodes will premiere weekly on the streaming platform through Nov. 20.

MY SAY Let's get one thing out of the way: there's no comparing this version of "The Right Stuff" to its cinematic predecessor, even though one might be inclined to do so. These actors can't compete with an ensemble fronted by the likes of Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid and Scott Glenn, and the efficient, crisp storytelling that characterized Kaufman's work is serialized in such a way that there is more dramatic filler.

But, like the movie before it, the first two episodes of this 2020 iteration remain true to the spirit of the monumental book that started it all.

There's an ineffable quality permeating the narrative, even if the opening hours of the series are largely spent on the ground, introducing us to Shepard, Glenn, Gus Grissom (Michael Trotter), Scott Carpenter (James Lafferty), Deke Slayton (Micah Stock), Gordon Cooper (Colin O'Donoghue) and Wally Schirra (Aaron Staton).

That quality is a commitment to testing human boundaries, even in the face of grave danger. It's possessing the "Right Stuff" of Wolfe's creation, the willingness to stare death in the face for the purpose of advancing our sense of what's possible.

Mark Lafferty and the directors Chris Long (who helms the pilot) and John Coles (the director of the second episode) do not hesitate to illustrate the immense risk facing these men. It's familiar by now, so many decades later, but still palpable. The series begins with the death of a test pilot, plummeting through the air and into the earth. A training montage showcases the trauma of zero gravity.

The series is at its best when it bears down and focuses on the mission. The portrait of NASA as a shoestring operation struggling to justify its existence highlights the extent to which the achievements over the next decade, culminating in the 1969 moon landing, were thoroughly improbable.

When "The Right Stuff" drifts into the personal lives of the astronauts, the drama is rendered tragically earthbound.

Glenn was always the most dynamic of these individuals and he's played that way by Adams, who imbues him with the sort of personality and sense of humor that's largely missing from the rest of the crew.

Through two episodes, the creators have not found a way to adequately distinguish the rest of the astronauts — including, sadly, Shepard himself, who seems to be defined here mostly as a womanizer. Good luck telling the difference between, say, Carpenter and Slayton.

These men deserve better than to be rendered as faceless characters living in the world of a run-of-the-mill TV drama. It's incumbent on the actors involved and the individuals behind the scenes to improve this in the coming episodes.

BOTTOM LINE The first two episodes of "The Right Stuff" offer a lot of promise, but the characters other than John Glenn need to be more fully developed.

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