PM Pick

'The Astronaut Wives Club' Shoots for the Moon, Finds a Star or Two

Dominique McElligott and Erin Cummings in The Astronaut Wives Club (2015) (Photo by Cook Allender/ABC - © 2015 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved. / IMDB)

Based on Lily Koppel's 2013 book by the same name, The Astronaut Wives Club suffers from a bloated cast, allowing for only one or two compelling storylines.

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.

5

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image