Lift­ing off with light pay­load

‘The As­tro­naut Wives Club’ is a soap opera about home life dur­ing the space race.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - ROBERT LLOYD TELE­VI­SION CRITIC

“The As­tro­naut Wives Club,” which pre­mieres Thurs­day on ABC, is a fact­based pe­riod soap opera that sets it­self down at the in­ter­sec­tion of “Mad Men” and “Des­per­ate Housewives.” And though there are no great claims to be made for it as drama or history, it is not the worst way to spend an idle hour on a sum­mer night.

Cre­ated by “Gos­sip Girl” co-cre­ator Stephanie Sav­age from Lily Kop­pel’s 2013 book, it re­turns us once again to those thrilling days of mid­cen­tury yes­ter­year, when space flight was new and news, men were hus­bands and women were wives, and to be clean cut was ac­counted an act of pa­tri­o­tism.

“It’s not like you ladies have a lot of bad habits or big se­crets,” says Max Ka­plan (Luke Kirby), a Life mag­a­zine re­porter de­tailed to cover the home life of the Pro­ject Mer­cury astro­nauts, the first crop of Amer­i­cans to go into space. The looks the women ex­change tell a dif­fer­ent story.

The se­ries be­gins with a crash course in the space race, pre­sented with pe­riod clips in an ap­prox­i­ma­tion of pe­riod style. Soon we are at a party where our prin­ci­pals

meet, not with­out fric­tion.

“Gordo has no com­pe­ti­tion,” says Trudy Cooper (Odette Annable) of her hus­band (Bret Har­ri­son) and his chances to be the first man up.

“I’m afraid you’re quite mis­taken,” coun­ters Louise Shep­ard (Do­minique McEl­lig­ott), mar­ried to Alan (Desmond Har­ring­ton). Meow!

But what starts as com­pe­ti­tion or cold­ness soon enough will turn to mu­tual sup­port. Still, they are a va­ri­ety pack, with bet­ter and worse mar­riages and older and newer ideas.

“You don’t have to put up with him run­ning around,” Trudy tells Louise, whose hus­band is the most in­cor­ri­gi­bly un­faith­ful among a group of men who need lit­tle prompt­ing to party. “Be­ing a mod­ern wife means chal­leng­ing your hus­band to be bet­ter.” Trudy, who is a pi­lot her­self, won­ders hereti­cally whether one day she might go to space.

“I’m Scott’s wife not his em­ployee,” says glam­orous, out­spo­ken Rene Car­pen­ter (Yvonne Stra­hovski) when it’s sug­gested that it’s her “job” to sup­port hus­band (Wil­son Bethel).

“Honey, ev­ery girl works for a liv­ing.” says Marge Slay­ton (Erin Cum­mings), who is mar­ried to Deke (Ken­neth Mitchell) and has been around a lit­tle more than she likes to say.

“Ex­cuse me,” replies Rene. “I’m a mother of four, and I went to col­lege.”

That most ev­ery­thing here feels a lit­tle forced is not sur­pris­ing given how much busi­ness the show has to get through and how many char­ac­ters it has to mar­shal — seven wives for seven pilots, with Evan Han­dler’s man from NASA join­ing Kirby’s man from Life as the guardians of their im­age.

There is the usual ar­ray of vintage de­tail and re­search-bear­ing di­a­logue. The women visit each other on launch morn­ings, bring­ing food gleaned from old cook­books: Dou­ble-Decker Tuna Loaf, Tater Tot Sur­prise, Cheese Por­cu­pine, Ham Loaf, Jell-O. Rene Car­pen­ter, ever the non­con­formist, brings “a new dish; it’s called Chi­nese chicken salad. It’s got cashews.”

For all that it strives at times to push a big theme, it re­mains best taken as col­or­ful light en­ter­tain­ment. There are some nice per­for­mances — the cast also in­cludes JoAnna Gar­cia Swisher as Betty Gris­som, Azure Par­sons as An­nie Glenn and Zoe Boyle as Jo Schirra — and mo­ments (es­pe­cially among the Car­pen­ters and the Shep­ards and the Coop­ers), in­creas­ingly as the show goes on, when the mar­riages seem com­pli­cat­edly real.

Space may be the fi­nal fron­tier, but love re­mains a mys­tery.

Pho­tog raphs by Cook Al­len­der ABC

ZOE BOYLE, Erin Cum­mings, Odette Annable, Yvonne Stra­hovski, Azure Par­sons and Joanna Gar­cia Swisher in “Wives Club.”

ODETTE ANNABLE and Bret Har­ri­son star as one of the cou­ples in “The As­tro­naut Wives Club,” about the home life of the Pro­ject Mer­cury astro­nauts.

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