So much of a TV show’s success is right place at the right time.
That’s even more true now with so many streaming platforms clamoring for our attention and trying to break through the deluge of new programming (that somehow is still going relatively strong despite a global pandemic).
So the question must be asked: Is this the right time for a show about a bunch of white men heroes?
The honest answer is probably not. The story of the Mercury Seven, the nation’s first astronauts, has already been told in the 1979 book by Tom Wolfe and the Academy Award nominated 1983 movie of the same name starring Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, and Dennis Quaid.
Disney loves going into its vault and re-purposing its properties. (See the slew of live action remakes of their beloved animated classics that have been coming our way for years now.) So it’s fitting that this joint production among National Geographic, Warner Horizon Television, and Appian Way Productions (Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company) landed on Disney+. We’ve seen the story of The Right Stuff before, but even if we hadn’t, it’s 2020 and Google plus a quick trip to Wikipedia will tell you everything you need to know.
But despite these obstacles, the eight-episode series—seeped in its era much the same way Mad Men was—is more often than not a compelling, inspirational drama that does its best to command our attention. That’s largely due to the stellar cast starting with Patrick J. Adams (Suits) as Major John Glenn and Jake McDorman (Greek) as Lieutenant Commander Alan Shepard. Glenn and Shepard are polar opposites. Glenn, by his own admission, is a “square”: reluctant to drink, devoted to his family, and unlikely to let loose with the boys in any capacity. In later episodes, he’s revealed to be something of a tattletale, ready to put his desire to be the first man in space over his loyalty to his fellow astronauts. Shepard, one of the best pilots in Navy history, is a womanizer who enjoys liquor and fast cars and whose partying ways get him into trouble. For the most part The Right Stuff is Glenn and Shepard’s story, two men whose approach to their careers and their lives is vastly different and that tension is the undercurrent to every episode.
What they both have is a devotion to the nascent space program. It’s 1959 and NASA, which has only recently been formed, is in a race with the Soviet Union to get a man into space. In addition to Glenn and Shepard, the Mercury Seven—hand-picked because they among the best military test pilots in the nation—includes Gordo Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue), Wally Schirra (Aaron Staton), Scott Carpenter (James Lafferty), Deke Slayton (Micah Stock), and Gus Grissom (Michael Trotter). Bob Gilruth (Patrick Fischler), head of NASA’s Space Task Force, is a ball of stress. “Another one of our rockets exploded. I’ve lost count of how many that makes and I’m good at counting,” he bellows.
As it is today, image is everything and the men must win the support of the public in order to maintain the financial support of Congress. Enter NASA PR guru John “Shorty” Powers (Danny Strong, who is also one of the series executive producers). Soon Shorty has the men on a publicity trip across the country as they hop from Akron, Ohio to Shreveport, Louisiana where they are greeted by an adoring public. Glenn, who went on to become a long-running Senator, is the most at ease with the crowds and easily the best orator. “The nation’s eyes may be on us, but we will reach the stars on your shoulders,” he tells the rapt audience.
As celebrities are today, the Mercury Seven are hounded by the press who are particularly interested in Gordo, the only other character who gets a more fully realized story. Gordo is separated from his wife Trudy (Eloise Mumford) and the estranged pair must pretend to be happily married because in 1959 a divorced couple could be the downfall of the whole program. An obvious solution from a PR perspective is to control the narrative which is much easier to do when print media was the dominate media and there was ample time from when something happened to when it hit the papers. Life magazine offers the men a deal, $25,000 a year (three times their annual salary) for the exclusive right to tell their stories. Loudon Wainwright, Jr. (Josh Cooke) profiles each man. “Make me sound heroic like John Glenn but not so boring,” Shepard tells him.
In the five episodes available for review, The Right Stuff also attempts to tell the story of the wives of the Mercury Seven. Trudy is an accomplished pilot herself during a time when the idea of a female astronaut was viewed as ludicrous. Louise Shepard (Shannon Lucio), tacitly aware of her husband’s infidelities, must keep everything at home in check especially after her sister unexpectedly passes away. Annie Glenn (Nora Zehetner) struggles with stuttering and is therefore viewed as quiet by the press. “Nobody minds a quiet woman. Sometimes I wouldn’t mind a quiet man for a change,” she tells Trudy.
But despite these efforts the women remain afterthoughts. This is the story of white men in suits who smoke cigarettes, drank whiskey, and changed history. The Right Stuff also isn’t interested in exploring the systemic racism that kept anyone of color from even the option of being part of the program.
So while yes, their story is a good one as these men took unfathomable risks to take us into space, I’m just not sure it’s a story that needed to be told again.
The first two episodes of The Right Stuff stream October 9th on Disney+, with one new episode premiering each week after that.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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