If 2016’s Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures, a much-needed look at a group of African-American women who worked behind the scenes at NASA during the 1961 space race, piqued your interest, you may also find something to like about the 2015 ABC mini-series The Astronaut Wives Club, recently released on DVD.
There are stark differences, of course. The women of The Astronaut Wives Club were anything but hidden. The seven wives, all married to the initial seven astronauts selected by NASA in 1959, were everywhere. Found within the pages of Life magazine and interviewed before and after every launch, they were stars in their own right. But because it was 1960, other things remained hidden: illnesses, pregnancies, divorce, infidelity, and sometimes, their own ambitions.
Hidden Figures is certainly the more confrontational of the two, in both emotional impact and in social criticism. To its detriment, the first few episodes of The Astronaut Wives Club strike some semblance to Desperate Housewives: Women try to one-up each other, men are sleeping around, gossip flies through the halls as easily as it did on creator Stephanie Savage’s first project, CW’s Gossip Girl. But as the women slowly shed their veneers, the show takes a different turn.
Alan Shepard is the first to go to space. His wife Louise is standoffish and, hell, a bit rude, but there’s something about seeing a fellow woman’s husband launched into the nether in a tube that could combust at any moment that will bring a bunch of women together. Or so we’re led to believe. After the first few episodes, the petty fighting is supplanted by a type of “Lean on Me” spirit that would make Bill Withers proud. In fact, the women all move into the same block in Houston, come to each other’s houses for launch parties (with Jell-O salad in hand), and more or less become a 30-something version of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, except, y’know, there’s seven of them … and none of them are Rory Gilmore.
The number of characters on the show is indeed a bit of an issue. The screenwriters are trying their darnedest to give us all the feels, from the empowerment of female sisterhood to the grief of losing a loved one. But given that there are 16 primary characters [seven wives, seven astronauts, a reporter for Life (Luke Kirby), and NASA’s overeager PR manager (Evan Handler)] the real challenge isn’t getting to the moon, but keeping everyone straight — especially since half the cast are look-alike slim white dudes with identical military haircuts.
As a result, by the end of the series, only one or two storylines make much of an impact. Most successful is the story of astronaut Scott Carpenter’s wife, Rene Carpenter (played by Yvonne Strahovski, now playing Serena Waterford on The Handmaid’s Tale). She gets a true story arc. She seems obnoxious and overbearing at first, showing up for the first Life photoshoot in a bold, patterned dress, when everyone was told to wear plain pastels. But it turns out to be her doesn’t-give-a-shit attitude that lets her forge ahead with a career in journalism, when everyone else along the way is trying to keep her pretty little face in its proper trophy-wife place.
We get a little more feminist power from Scott Carpenter’s wife Trudy (Odette Annable). Trudy’s a pilot in her own right and has to sit aside as her husband — who doesn’t seem to want it as much as she does — gets to live out her dreams. Annable gives an honest and complex performance as Trudy, at times feisty and unmoving while still toeing the line when appropriate. If any wife is to garner a 21st-century fan club, it’s likely her.
Clearly, the script, based on the 2013 book by Lily Koppel, was written with a 21st-century perspective. The series really comes alive around Episode 5 when we get beyond the initial small talk and dinner parties to see these women occasionally stand up for themselves: whether demanding NASA give them timely feedback on their husbands’ safety or, in the case a few wives, having to build the strength to leave a philandering husband, bad press be damned. But whether it’s because the times were just so limiting for women or the screenwriters were more interested in pulling at the heartstrings than developing a searing social criticism, the series ultimately doesn’t push its 21st-century commentary far enough. The feminist storylines feel muted compared to other period dramas, like the 2016 Amazon series Good Girls Revolt or even the long-running AMC show Mad Men. And its commentary on race almost doesn’t even try: A black teenager meets astronaut Gus Grissom for two minutes in one episode, and then we periodically return to this kid in future episodes — a well-intentioned effort that comes across as the “token black (future) astronaut.
Disappointingly, the DVD version of The Astronaut Wives Club doesn’t come with any bonus material, which seems like something of an oversight since a couple of the wives are still alive. If there’s any behind-the-scenes footage, it’s in the show itself — each episode makes ample use of old news footage which gives the show a fun, vintage feel. However, to be honest, this is about as deep as we get on the historical front. Other than a brief investigation around the untimely death of one of the wives’ husbands, most of the history shown is as surface level as a Wikipedia entry (but with a better soundtrack!).
Instead, the show seeks to fondly remember a better time, when our TV news covered American heroes instead of insane Twitter ramblings. Each episode ends with a The Wonder Years-esque monologue — sometimes cleverly integrated as one of Rene’s newspaper columns — where we’re reminded that even when times get hard, we’ll get by with a little help from our friends.