The Right Stuff is based on Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book of the same name, as well as the Oscar-winning 1983 film that was also based on the book. The series is about the beginnings of the U.S. space program, which started when NASA was formed in 1959. If you only know the first American space travelers from grainy black-and-white and color footage from the early ’60s, then this series — as well as the book and film — should give a viewer a more well-rounded view of the “Mercury 7.” But will the series cover ground the film didn’t?
THE RIGHT STUFF: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: Two men lying awake in a dorm room. “May 5, 1961 Cape Canaveral, Florida.”
The Gist: Under pressure by the advancement of the Soviet space program, NASA officials Bob Gilruth (Patrick Fischler) and Chris Kraft (Eric Ladin) were charged with finding test pilots that could be trained to be astronauts on the Mercury project, the country’s first attempts at manned space flight.
We see the lives of a few of the final seven that would be picked for Mercury. John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams), perhaps the most famous of those names, is a tea-totaler who is loyal to his wife and has broken the sound barrier; he knows that he’ll be put out to pasture at 38, but knows there’s another frontier to explore. Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman), one of the best test pilots in the Navy’s history, is the opposite; he’s daring in the air and on the ground, womanizing and drinking at every turn. He also knows just how good he is. When Glenn asks him if he thinks he’s going to make the final seven, Shepard says, “No. I’ll be the first in space.”
Then there’s the case of Gordon Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue); he’s an ace Air Force test pilot that has just lost his wingman, and is having family problems. When he’s selected to be among the 100-plus pilots to be considered for Mercury, he goes to his estranged wife and appeals to her to come back home with their kids, to show NASA that his family life is stable.
The first episode shows these three pilots and others, including Wally Schirra (Aaron Staton), Gus Grissom (Michael Trotter), Scott Carpenter (James Lafferty) and Deke Slayton (Micah Stock), go through the one week of training and evaluation before being selected for the Mercury program.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Given its pedigree, the only thing we can say here is that it reminds us of the 1983 movie of The Right Stuff.
Our Take: Whenever I mentioned that I was reviewing The Right Stuff, I got the same reaction, “You mean the movie?” When I would say no, that this is a new series on Disney+ made under the Nat Geo nameplate, they ask the same question, “Why did they remake the movie?” To be honest, I wasn’t sure. And I’m still not sure after watching the first episode.
We’re guessing that the series is going to spend less time than the movie exploring the Mercury 7’s roots — there’s no Chuck Yeager in this version — and more time just going through what it took to get them to the first launch. The big rivalry is going to be the buttoned-down Glenn and the maverick Shepard; that’s pretty much telegraphed in the first scenes, as they await to see who will go in the first capsule to go into low orbit around the earth. Glenn opines on how silly it is that they’re eating filet mignon for breakfast, while Shepard just tells him that “we don’t have to be friends.”
That pretty much tells us who showrunner Mark Lafferty and EP Will Staples will focus on. They’re the two best pilots, polar opposite in personality, jockeying to be the first American in space. Other stories, like Gordon Cooper’s, will likely be visited as the series goes on, but we’re not sure what the point of showing them is, other than telling the audience that these mostly lookalike white male test pilots were full of piss and vinegar, and they’re not the crew-cut-bearing heroes that the media portrayed them as at the time.
But all of that could be seen in the film. What we’ve got here is something that’s trying to be Mad Men in space (it even has that show’s Aaron Staton donning the skinny lapels again), but with leaden dialogue and broadly-painted portrayals of these real-life heroes. If the show was actual fiction instead of a fictionalized account of such a famous group, it might have been successful. But it plays the Mercury program as if it was just another nostalgia topic, making the participants into archetypes rather than the people they were.
To be honest, it was disheartening that there didn’t seem to be any depth to the first episode, not even any navel-gazing about why we were so obsessed with the space race then or how we pushed our technology to its limits with the program. It felt like a bunch of monologues in search of a plot, which is strange, because the plot didn’t need to be invented out of whole cloth.
Sex and Skin: Shepard wakes up next to a naked (under the sheets, at least) young woman; he’s told her all about his work, but doesn’t mention his name.
Parting Shot: The Mercury 7 are introduced in a press conference.
Sleeper Star: We’ll give this to Nora Zehetner, who plays John Glenn’s wife Annie. She’ll be one of the many actors playing the astronauts’ wives, many of whom sacrificed plenty so their husbands can do such dangerous work, who will just be seen as supportive housewives instead of the complex people they were.
Most Pilot-y Line: “Test pilots have a particularly bad habit,” Bob Gilruth says to young Jackson Pace (Glynn Lunney), who compiled the original list of test pilots, many of which are crossed off the list. “A lot of them die.” Yeesh.
Our Call: SKIP IT. You’re better off reading up on the Mercury 7 via Wolf’s original book, or even watching the 1983 film version of The Right Stuff. This series plays like a quickly-written nostalgia trip and nothing more.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.
Stream The Right Stuff On Disney+
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