23 August 2015
So it turns out, this Stephanie Savage ABC drama was commissioned as a limited series, scheduled to wrap up in the span of its 10 episode run, making Thursday’s finale the end of the road for the Mercury Seven. While I think the limited timeline rushed the story far more than was helpful (nearly 10 years in 10 episodes), it did ensure that what we got from this summer series was in fact the whole story and not just the first part then undue cancellation long before we made it to the moon.
We began the story in 1961 with the flight of Alan Shepard (the first American man in space) and moved through NASA history straight through to Apollo 13 (y’all remember Apollo 13) in 1970. With no Mercury astronauts on board and an iconic film to contend with, I would argue that there was no winning with an Apollo 13 story and the climax of the series should have come with Apollo 11 and the moon landing. Cutting off the story at the more monumental moment would have created one more episode’s worth of space in the rushed series and allowed us to spend more time with the huge cast of characters.
I needed all the time with the characters I could get because it took me about 5 episodes to be able to keep them all straight. In retrospect it seems fairly simple since they all, for the most part, are pretty distinct but, in the sea of white skin, generic names and conformist fashion, it took a long time to commit the following to memory: Betty goes with Gus (the sweet and silly ones) and Rene with Scott (the ambitious and supportive ones); Trudy is married to Gordo (though inevitably not for long) and Annie to John (definitely forever, they’re adorable); then there’s Louise & Alan (the least likeable pair by a mile), Jo & Wally (the most forgettable) and Marge and Deke (who grew to be my favourites, despite heavy competition).
In addition to the 7 main couples, there was Evan Handler’s PR guy, Luke Kirby as a pushy reporter, and a whole host of secondary wives and astronauts from the Gemini and Apollo programs. A few episodes even started to explore the next generation with storylines about the Shepard daughters (a melodramatic plot that tied into the series’ best episode), Jo and Wally Schirra’s son (the one real nod to Vietnam in the whole series) and, most successfully, Akili McDowell/Ellison Booker as Zavier Gibbs (at different ages), the young son of a housekeeper at Cape Canaveral who looks up to the Mercury Seven until he becomes disillusioned with NASA’s institutional racism and disregard for the more earthbound causes that could benefit from even just a portion of the astronomical space program budget.
It’s this wealth of character material and 10 year timeline that made The Astronaut Wives’ Club feel incredibly rushed. In ten episodes, the death of Gus Grissom was the only plot point that was allowed to breathe, benefitting from an entire episode of emotional and practical aftermath. The series’ best episode “Abort” was a perfect showcase for clutch hitter JoAnna Garcia Swisher and the beautifully lived-in relationship she developed with Joel Johnstone’s charming Gus. The episode was also the moment when I really discovered Deke Slayton and the excellent well-intentioned alpha male conflict Kenneth Mitchell was bringing to the strong and silent part. Deke was always in danger of being overshadowed by his brassy wife Marge (Erin Cummings, with all the guts and wisdom in the world) but once I tuned into Mitchell’s performance, he was hard to miss.
A feature episode or two aside, many characters faded quickly to the background, none more so than Zoe Boyle’s Jo Schirra who was the only wife from the original seven to feel simplistically captured. Azure Parsons and Sam Reid did a decent job with very few scenes establishing Annie and John Glenn as defiantly kind standouts but we only got glimpses of the similarly wonderful Scott Carpenter (Wilson Bethel, always a favourite) whose strong belief in his wife Rene (Yvonne Strahovski, ditto) was an under-the-radar highlight of the series. Aaron McCusker’s Wally Schirra barely seemed to exist and Bret Harrison’s Gordo Cooper was only there to let his tough-as-nails wife Trudy (Odette Annable) down but enough of the couples shared such a strong and engaging connection that they were worth rooting for even if they didn’t quite get their due in the over-packed series.
The dreamy pastel colour palette and light-hearted twist on the 60s (the food is a particularly fun detail) made The Astronaut Wives’ Club stand out in a sea of moody period pieces and I think it’s great whenever the networks make room for a large ensemble character-driven dramedy rather than yet another crime show. Ultimately it’s never a bad thing when my biggest complaint (aside from the strange old timey voices a few of the actresses occasionally slipped into) was that I wish I had more time to spend in this world in the company of these people.
Finale Grade: B+
Season Grade: A-