Sunday, 28 June 2015

Episode Close-Up: The Astronauts Wives Club (2015-): 1x01 'Launch'

We’re in the middle of summer and with that come basic human needs such as cold drinks, sunny weather, and a desire for light and uplifting entertainment. What could be better qualified to satisfy this latter need than ABC’s new period drama Astronauts Wives Club? Based on Lilly Koppel’s novel of the same name, this summer TV show provides an in-depth look into the lives and minds of the seven women whose husbands were in the race to become the first man in space and eventually on the moon. 

Obviously set in the 1960s, the show offers a glimpse at a time when America once again felt that it had something close to royalty in its midst: Not only Jackie and JFK as the first lady and man of state, but also the possible first man and lady of space. And let’s be honest, the lives of these possible spacemen and –women couldn’t be anything short of perfect and glamorous, right? Right? Well, nothing’s ever as peachy as it seems, but, with only 2 episodes broadcast so far, I would guess the real drama’s yet to come. But have a look yourself and in the meantime join me for this Episode Close-Up of the series premiere, fittingly titled Launch.
©SpoilerTV | ABC
1961: Cold War, propaganda battle, race to space. And for a chosen few it’s the year in which they will change the history of mankind by venturing off to space. A group of government and NASA officials is very aware of the positive publicity that can be made not only with the first astronauts but also their picture perfect families. Therefore they commission a LIFE magazine article to bring these all-American-yet-slightly-more-glamorous families into the homes of the ordinary people. But first they have to get the wives to participate in their little publicity stunt. Episode one sees the wives agreeing to be featured in LIFE, being forced into bonding with each other for publicities sake, and having to deal with previously unheard of difficult situations that actually bring them together as a group of friends and support system.

The pilot opens to the, well, launch of the rocket that sent the first American into space. Original media footage is combined with shots of the fictionalized wives and children anxiously witnessing the take-off in front of the TV screen. One woman, addressed as Mrs Shepard, is singled out and asked by a once again fictional reporter for LIFE, how she feels in this moment seeing her husband leave earth. She doesn’t answer, but her emotions are painted on her face, which is shown in close-up. The opening already reveals what looks like it will become a characteristic feature of the show: real and fictional news coverage is cleverly montaged into the plot, to provide a historical sense of authenticity, at times suspense (like when we see the astronauts at the command post trying to reach Alan Shepard in space later in the episode), and nostalgia. 

©SpoilerTV | ABC
This keenness on covering time can also be seen in the time the show tries to cover in just one hour. After the launch in 1961, the viewers are taken back another 2 years in time, to where the man-to-space program was initially put together. As we end up back in 1961 when the hour ends, this leaves a lot of historical and interpersonal ground to be covered in just 42 minutes without commercials, which is, spoken mildly, ambitious at least. We’ll have to see how the show will cope with trying to put so much time in so little time.

The problem this brings with it for the actual Astronauts Wives Club is reduced opportunity to actually bond on screen. The women meet in 1959 at a cocktail party organized by NASA, where they are more or less forced into club membership by participating in the article for LIFE magazine. This leads Louise to ask who has the more difficult job, her or her husband who’s being sent to space.

I'm about to be forced into bridge and bake-sales with a bunch of wives. Hard to say who’s facing the bigger challenge.

The viewers get to see a lot of the initial skepticism the women feel, since they are forced to suddenly spend a lot of time with a group of people they don’t know and because they have to play nice with their competitors for a once in a lifetime opportunity. At the end of the episode in 1961 we see the group of women spontaneously dropping by each other’s houses and dancing freely together. The bond between them seems to have grown. Yet scenes of female bonding to show how they got there are sadly far and few in between. Let’s hope the show spends more time on the titular club and the relationships within in future episodes.

©SpoilerTV | ABC
The opportunity is definitely there and there’s also possibility to delve deeper into the individual characters of the women. This show has a strong female main cast that definitely will be able to carry the show, even though the producers were asked by ABC to also focus on the actual astronauts in a prominent way. With this decision a lot of the lack of time to develop interpersonal relationships on screen can be explained, but it shouldn’t make the show runners shy away from developing strong female characters. The premiere strongly featured Dominique McElligott (known for Hell on Wheels) as Louise Shepard, whose husband Alan was the first American to be shot to space during Launch. Most of the episode sees her as a reserved woman trying to put on a strong face in a possibly deadly situation. Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck) plays Rene Carpenter, a self-confident woman that likes to be the center of attention, but can also be a good friend as we get to see when she saves shy Annie Glenn (Azure Parsons; True Detective) from a pushy reporter. Trudy Cooper (Odette Annable; Dr House) is a modern young woman that did not put up with her husband’s cheating and is filing for divorce. How much of a strong character she’ll turn out to be we have yet to see, since, despite her principles, she stays with her husband to give him a shot at being an astronaut. Erin Cummings (Masters of Sex) as Marge Slayton and Zoe Boyle (Downton Abbey’s Lavinia Swire) as Jo Schirra also appear in the premiere, but have yet to get any substantial plot lines. 

©SpoilerTV | ABC
What really makes this the perfect summer show is the look of it. Set in sunny Houston all shots have a pastelly-orange tint to them, that creates an atmosphere of constant warmth and beach parties, while also providing a feeling of sepia-style past. Dresses and outfits of the time also provide the typical period drama charm. A nice plot but also visual feature of the show is the stark opposition between the glamorous life NASA and LIFE magazine would like the astronauts’ wives to lead and their everyday lives in which the women have real problems that go beyond what shiny dress to wear to the next cocktail event. Fancy outfits and the company of President Kennedy are switched for toned-down practical attire while cooking dinner for the children or calling the neglecting husband on base.

©TVBox Promos | ABC
After just one episode it is hard to say if The Astronauts Wives Club is going to be the show to rock my socks, but it certainly comes at the perfect time of the year. The sunny look and period drama vibe hold a certain appeal of their own, though it would be lovely to see some strong female characters come out of this as well. After all the race-to-space should only function as a setting, since the title of the show and the novel it is based on suggest a focus on the tight-knit group of women. It also remains to be seen if the show can move on from the superficial glimpses at plotlines that are due to the fast pace the creators decided on. While glamorous cocktail dresses and 1960s cabriolets are nice to look at, the only real appeal and device to get viewers hooked on Astronauts Wives are going to be the relationships between the women, possibly their husbands, and the outside world. We therefore have a promising set-up, that with some tweaking in future episodes could become a show to keep viewers off the beach and in front of their television sets. For now, enjoy your summer in the sixties!

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