Review: Style and performances keep ABC’s ‘Astronaut Wives Club’ watchable

Too little too late, but ABC has finally found the perfect companion piece for “Pan Am.”

A bright-and-glossy dose of '60s nostalgia mixed with easily digestible proto-feminism, ABC's “Astronaut Wives Club” premieres on Thursday (June 18) night, more than three years after “Pan Am” was cancelled and I suspect they're likely to be remembered in the same way: Period dramas with high production values, a fantastic cast that ABC will look back at yearningly and unrealized creative potential obscuring otherwise solid storytelling.

Is there a hypothetical TV series about the wives of the Mercury astronauts that's more than a slightly superficial, slightly choppy and slightly misfocused showcase for fine performances and some snazzy retro-style? Absolutely, but there's still some virtue to this sort of watchable, somewhat nourishing summer entertainment, even in a landscape that's overflowing with summer viewing options.

Thursday's exposition-heavy premiere episode begins in 1961 with Louise Shepard (Dominique McElligott) nervously awaiting husband Alan's attempt to become the first American to travel into space. Things quickly flash back to the initial meetings between the women, in which they helpfully introduce themselves in proximity and very rapidly exhibit one or two traits — Azure Parsons' Annie Glenn is pathologically nervous, Erin Cummings' Marge Slayton is saucy, Yvonne Strahovski's Rene Carpenter likes the spotlight, Odette Annable's Trudy Cooper is having marital issues — and hint at one or two secrets and we have lift-off, or your astronomical cliche of choice.

Just as the title of the show — also the title of Lily Koppel's book — contextualizes the women only in terms of the men in their lives, “The Astronaut Wives Club” can't really bring itself to break wholly from the men whose lives have been so well depicted from “The Right Stuff” to “From Earth to the Moon.” The astronauts are not-insignificant pieces of this story and with recognizable actors like Bret Harrison, Wilson Bethel, Desmond Harrington and Kenneth Mitchell rounding out the ensemble, it's no surprise that even if the wives are the ostensible focus, they're not the consistent points-of-view for the series. We get a number of scenes that focus on the astronauts and things that the wives couldn't know about and this feels like a mistake to me, but what do I know? It just seems like if you're trying to do the “unknown” story for seven main female characters in only 42 minutes per episode, there isn't much time for new versions of the previously depicted male side of the story.

The structure of the series is entirely defined by the men, as we see how each of the wives deal with the tension of their husbands' launches and how the successes or failures of those launches govern their positions in both the space-crazed world and these more intimate family structures.

I don't want to make it sound like this formulaic approach to the story is necessarily bad. It's clean. Created by Stephanie Savage, “The Astronaut Wives Club” has to cover a lot of time in 10 episodes and nobody would suggest that the various astronauts' missions weren't the defining features in both their private lives, but also the lives that were being presented to the world through insatiable news coverage, embodied by a one-dimensional Life magazine composite reporter played by Luke Kirby. It's still odd that a TV show with so many main female characters struggles so mightily to pass the Bechdel Test. 

It does pass the Bechdel Test. Don't get me wrong. And I don't love the Bechdel Test being used as a placebo arbiter for balanced female representation anyway. All I'm saying is that goodness gracious these women spend almost all of their time talking about these men, which is simultaneously not unrealistic, I guess, but also not as illuminating or specific as “The Astronaut Wives Club” ideally yearns to be.

But “The Astronaut Wives Club” has a definite trepidation when it comes to the quieter moments that theoretically ought to be where the show lives. With the exception of Annable's Trudy, a pilot with high-flying aspirations of her own, it's hard to pinpoint the individual dreams or goals for any of these women and the show doesn't get deeply into the sense of what it's like to have your dreams so totally consumed by both societal gender restrictions and also the added pressure of living in the spotlight. Even the things that might have offered additional definition for some women in this period — maternal responsibilities, domestic concerns, etc — rank behind “Standing by your man” on their respective to-do lists. That's the plot. I get that. But through three episodes, there isn't nearly enough time to get below that surface fact. 

Directed by Lone Scherfig, who covered a similarly situated [time-wise] clash between female empowerment and containment with more depth in the terrific “An Education,” the first two “Astronaut Wives Club” episodes set a swift template for fabulous costume work, spirited hair and makeup and a bright and varied color palette. Unlike NBC's “Aquarius,” “Astronaut Wives Club” isn't burdened by the notion that this period of the '60s has to be represented as “gritty,” so Scherfig and her DP can go for a look presumably representing the boundless enthusiasm of the burgeoning space program in its initial Florida home (Houston will come in later episodes), rather than taking a perhaps more appropriate mood of paranoia and fatalism.

What Scherfig does best as a director has always been performance-wrangling and she's quite exceptional at catching the little moments between women and, perhaps most importantly, between lines of dialogue. Those exchanges of expression, exchanges that don't need to include any mention of husbands, astronauts or men in general, are sometimes funny and often sad and always bring out the best in the castmembers.

Because maybe talking isn't always what they do best, if only because you have Aussie Strahovski, Irish McElligott and Brit Zoe Boyle all working on different versions of American accents. I can't begin to speculate on what Strahovski is doing, accent-wise, but she carries the rest of the character well, showing both Carpenter's alacrity in the face of fame, but also her uncertainty. Boyle gets away with her accent because Jo Schirra is soft-spoken. And McElligott's Louise is putting on an affectation of strength and rectitude because she's decided it's what America wants, so maybe I can just read her accent as “ostensibly patrician” or something. Accent aside, McElligott was one of my favorite parts of “Hell on Wheels” when I still watched that AMC drama and I think she's quite good here. 

My favorite performances from the core cast come from Erin Cummings, often underused as a sexy bombshell, as the most modern of the wives, and the often missed JoAnna Garcia Swisher, whose work in the second episode, revolving around Gus Grissom's launch, is one of the finest acting hours of her career.

The weak link, or the least convincing link, is Odette Annable. Trudy Cooper could, in a different version of this show, be the standout character. Instead, Annable's attempts to play strength come across as strident and unmotivatedly mean, like the bad girl in a soap, which I don't think was the intention. It's possible that this particular woman was too complicated to be depicted in the shorthand that “Astronaut Wives Club” has chosen utilize. It also hurts Annable that Bret Harrison is taking a rare step into character-actor-dom and his accent, hairline and mannerisms, while not distracting, do attract attention to themselves. Harrison is the best and most interesting of the male co-stars, with Kirby as the easy candidate for the most annoyingly superfluous.

I mentioned narrative cleanliness as both a plus and minus for the storytelling of “Astronaut Wives Club” and it's definitely something that will keep me watching. “Astronaut Wives Club” has already covered a lot of history in the three episodes I've seen and it seems that more years will be covered before we reach the moon and the end of the series. But I find it comforting knowing that this is neat and close-ended. That lets me concentrate on the production values and performances and the paucity of other network summer programming and not worry as much about the less effective choices.

“Astronaut Wives Club” premieres on Thursday, June 18 on ABC.