There’s never been a better time on network TV for a 20th-century period drama about the secret history of a major historical moment. The behemoth of Mad Men has just cleared the floor and left an appetite (and a tolerance for the slow burn). WGN’s Manhattan has garnered critical acclaim but doesn’t yet have a household name to struggle past, and Masters Of Sex continues to show off its historical polish from the safely distant horizon of premium cable. Sure, the specters of recent failures still hover —Pan Am and The Playboy Club both tried and failed to hook viewers on their behind-the-scenes dramas—but the ubiquity and structure provided by the space program suggests enough patriotic gravitas to lend The Astronaut Wives Club the benefit of the doubt.
In theory, then, a sun-drenched ensemble drama which promises a glimpse into the private lives of the women who held down the homefront during the space race of the 1960s should be perfectly positioned as a summer attraction. And it was going to be—a year ago, before it was yanked from the schedule by ABC for retooling. Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz are no strangers to developing books for TV, and have a proven track record of establishing a standout tone and sense of place—they’re responsible for Upper East Side shark-fest Gossip Girl and the iconically California O.C.—so it’s hard to imagine The Astronaut Wives Club’s crisply clashing florals and geometric, early-’60s motels left anything wanting. Among the changes the network allegedly ordered: more focus on the astronauts and their missions, to flesh out the historical context and provide drama.
And frankly, it’s no surprise that the most dramatic scenes in The Astronaut Wives Club usually feature those astronauts on their quest to reach the moon: Sending a few brave humans from a tight-knit group to the deadly vacuum of space in frequently malfunctioning equipment is inherently high-stakes and compelling, and if the behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt about their addition is to be believed, the forced economy of that storytelling works in the show’s favor, suggesting long relationships yet to be explored. The Astronaut Wives Club’s biggest problem—either something the showrunners and network were trying to mend, or something they created in the process—is that those scenes are the series’ de facto highlights. By shifting the focus from secret history to crowded space-race alongside the domestic drama, the biggest stakes became celestial, and the wives have become somehow frivolous in their own story.
It feels as if this could be a deliberate through-line as the wives try to negotiate their positions as living accessories. Unfortunately, it’s still not clear. That does the ensemble of women a disservice (almost as much as asking their actors to create whole characters out of the expository platitudes they’re routinely asked to deliver), and despite side arcs for each wife in turn, few so far feel like more than a holding pattern. Even the potentially fascinating role of the press, trying to shape the wives as America’s sweethearts, feels sanded down: The local reporter has their best interests at heart, leaving the scheming types on the fringes. It’s all in perfect earnest—this is clearly meant to be a show about life-changing friendships—but despite its good intentions, there are a lot of near misses in tone: dialogue a little too on-the-nose, relationships developed on the cutting-room floor. Some of this isn’t surprising, given that the series is trying to balance a cast of over a dozen main characters in several spheres; in a world of Netflix series ready for binging, establishing as much as possible as fast as possible to keep a live audience is practically broadcast-network house style.
There’s a lack of early hooks, even in moments that stood out in Lily Koppel’s source biography, as with the Gemini’s shirtdress photo shoot, to which Rene Carpenter (Yvonne Strahovski) shows up in a floral cocktail number to establish herself with the press. The show errs on the side of a general group pleasantness that feels more like the polished image the press was after than an attempt to draw any particular psychology out of its characters. That’s too bad, since whenever The Astronaut Wives Club does manage to bring its veteran cast, summer-pastel aesthetics, and its historical context together, there are glimpses of a very interesting show. When Rene gets caught flat-footed by the press, the moment ripples through her relationships with the other wives, her husband, the press, NASA, and the public eye, and establishes serious earthbound stakes. The interwoven and inextricable pressures on these women seem to snap into focus, and for a moment the show takes a deep breath. It’s both a parallel to modern press politics and a glimpse into how several of the women deal with the sudden setbacks, and feels like it’s telling a story rather than ticking off boxes for a story it hopes to tell someday.
Despite this unimpressive start, that hidden story might be a good one: an examination of complicated relationships between women during a decidedly masculine American moment, touching on the power and vagary of a press so closely tied to government approval. The question is is whether, after the network’s changes, The Astronaut Wives Club will ever be able to tell it.