Alibi V.24 No.26 • June 25-July 1, 2015 

Idiot Box

Rock(et) Opera

“The Astronaut Wives Club” on ABC

Once upon a time summer was a dumping ground for reruns and reality shows. Way back in the day, when July rolled around, the only thing you had to look forward to watching on TV were “Welcome Back, Kotter” reruns and “Battle of the Network Stars.” It’s not that things have changed entirely. We still get plenty of reruns, and the networks still try to pass off a lot of cheap reality shows. (FOX, we’re looking at you.) Even so, fighting off the encroachment of cable and Netflix, the broadcast networks have had to step it up with some higher profile off-season offerings.

Last week, for example, ABC launched its splashy summer offering, “The Astronaut Wives Club.” Based on the best-selling book by Lili Koppel and adapted by Stephanie Savage (“Gossip Girl”), the 10-episode series concentrates on the ladies of late-’50s/early-’60s Cape Canaveral as they perform their wifely duties, run promotion for America’s space program and wait for the husbands to die (or not) on some pioneering NASA training mission.

Koppel’s book was the gender-reversed flip side to The Right Stuff. The show wants to be a combination of WGN’s “Manhattan” (a historical, behind-the-scenes exposé of mid-century science and politics) and AMC’s “Mad Men” (lots of fabulous period clothing and sets). Despite its important subject matter, “The Astronaut Wives Club” hasn’t hit the heights achieved by either of its idols. “Manhattan” has done a deft job of avoiding soap operatic plotlines by exploring the dark paranoia behind its atom-bomb-building setting. And “Mad Men” was always more than just (shark) skin (suit) deep. At least based on the pilot, “Wives Club” is going to have to dig deeper if it wants to get into orbit.

All of the characters are based on real people. Front and center is painfully proper wife Louise Shepard (Dominique McElligott from “Hell on Wheels”), whose husband is about to become America’s first astronaut (but isn’t above cheating on his wife). We get all the other gals and their various problems, including Rene Carpenter (Yvonne Strahovski from “Chuck”), Annie Glenn (Azure Parsons from “Salem”) and Trudy Cooper (Odette Annable from “House”). The famous husbands show up every once in a while, mostly to disappoint their wives, but the concentration is on the dedicated ladies.

The show tries to wring drama from the wives’ concern for their husbands’ safety. It was a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of time, and the original Apollo astronauts were serious daredevils. But we know they didn’t die getting to the moon, so that drama is moot. Also, with seven wives to concentrate on, a lot of them wind up getting short shrift. Hopefully, future episodes will focus on wives other than Mrs. Shepard.

ABC has clearly dropped a few dimes on “The Astronaut Wives Club.” It’s got a fine pedigree and it looks swanky as hell. There are moments that resonate—as when Louise nearly faints watching her husband blast off and confides in a reporter that “Alan can never know I was scared.” If the remaining episodes flesh out the characters and find some more earthbound drama, this could be a successful mission after all.

“The Astronaut Wives Club” airs Thursdays at 7pm on KOAT-7.