Stay Tuned: A different look at the space race on ‘The Astronaut Wives Club’

Melissa Crawley More Content Now

At the height of the space race, Life magazine helped transform the wives of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts from military spouses to American royalty. With photos of them posing together in pastel dresses or hosting a barbeque in their suburban homes, Life launched the women behind the men into history, if not into space. The perspective of seven of these women is the focus of “The Astronaut Wives Club,” a 10-episode series based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Lily Koppel.

The series explores the fear, pride, pressures and privileges of women whose husbands shaped history. Usually a secondary storyline in past depictions including “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff,” “The Astronaut Wives Club” makes the women’s stories central. It’s a refreshing viewpoint that’s worth watching but it runs the risk of becoming repetitive if not handled with complexity. The core seven characters are central to each of the ten episodes but more are added along the way to cover a time period stretching from the late fifties to the early seventies. It’s a lot of characters which means that each episode needs to make an emotional impact beyond being different versions of wives fearing for their husbands’ safety. It’s valid storytelling and I imagine, very authentic to their actual experience, but it’s limited as a weekly look into what their lives were like.

As an ensemble, the actors have chemistry. Yvonne Strahovski as Rene Carpenter and Odette Annable as Trudy Cooper shine a little more brightly than the others, but all the women play their parts with confidence. The point is that their lives are not the picture perfect scenes of domesticity that the magazine pictures suggest. This is not meant to be surprising, any secrets revealed are unlikely to shock you. Rather, it’s meant to explore how their participation in the public relations campaign ensures that perception is reality. They might be the ones left at home but they actively contribute to crafting their image.

From the outdoor locations to the clothes to the hairstyles, the show is a stylish and satisfying interpretation of the historical time period. The women have more layers than their initial personality types might suggest which keeps their stories relatable but the men are less complicated. The male characterizations verge on cliché but they are not much of a distraction since this show isn’t about the astronauts as much as it is about the impact of their jobs on their wives.

The show has an opportunity to say something interesting about the women who were suddenly faced with meeting the expectations of a nation caught up in the politics and propaganda of the space race. If it avoids becoming a weekly showcase of them being fearful wives, it has a good chance to represent this aspect of history with the respect it deserves.

“The Astronaut Wives Club” premieres on June 18 at 8 p.m. EDT on ABC.

Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at staytuned@outlook.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.