"Seven military families becoming American royalty, that's the Mercury story."
After a year's delay, Thursday night marked the premiere of one of the only shows in recent memory to take place in Houston that doesn't feature animal cops or apocalyptic angels. Considering that the show was delayed for rewrites, Astronaut Wives Club is best enjoyed without any Mad Men-like expectations—its the kind of fluffy, soapy summer show that can be enjoyed for its style and its portrayal of Houston at the city's most glamorous moment in time.
The first episode opens on Louise Shepherd, who sits silent watching on television as her husband Alan becomes the first America man in space. Flashback two years earlier, and Louise is interrupting Alan getting cozy with his secretary to tell him NASA called, ushering in the news that he is one of seven men chosen for the space program. At NASA's celebration of the announcement, Louise meets the six other astrowives who represent the competition to help their husband become the first man in space.
There's Rene Carpenter, the perky blonde who wears a lot of pink; Annie Glenn, whose stutter leaves her husband John to do the talking for her; sweet Betty Grissom, who didn't even have champagne at her wedding; worldly Marge Slayton; ambitious Trudy Cooper, who has space aspirations of her own; and Jo Schirra, who counts "The Navy Wife" as her Bible.
After NASA's PR director convinces the wives to participate in a publicity campaign, noting that it could help their husbands' careers, the wives show up in pastel shirtdresses to shoot the cover of Life magazine, accept for Rene, who shows up late in a flowery Christian Dior sheath dress. She may be perky, but she sure ain't dumb, that Rene. Let the astro games begin.
When Trudy overhears Alan Shepherd planning to cheat on Louise, she engineers a plan to have the wives surprise their husbands in Florida. When they arrive at the hotel, Trudy's plan backfires slightly as her husband Gordo is showing his ass (metaphorically) wearing a suit in the pool, but her plan to embarrass Louise hits the mark, as Louise catches Alan with his arms wrapped around yet another woman.
"Louise is too damn smart to get divorced," says Marge the next morning, when Trudy shares her own secret: she filed for divorce from Gordo after he cheated on her, and that they are back together purely for his job. It's an interesting juxtaposition between the cast's two most ambitious women: Louise is more traditional, asking her husband not to "humiliate" her in public; while Trudy takes a more modern stance, in private at least. Meanwhile a reporter ambushes Annie Glenn and threatens to write a hit piece if she won't give him a comment, before being rescued by Rene.
Next, the women watch together from the beach as a rocket explodes into flames, freaking out everyone except cool, composed Louise. Poor Louise, so controlled, so cold, so unhappy. No wonder she's only seen in tones of white, black and grey while everyone else is in color.
As historians know, it's Alan Sheperd who is picked to be the first man in space, although their celebration is cut short after Yuri Gagarin and the Russians beat them to space. When its time for the launch, Louise turns away the other astrowives who have shown up to support her with casseroles and booze, only to hang on to the Life reporter when NASA loses contact with Shepherd for a few agonizing moments after the launch. Pressed for a comment, her first words are, "Alan can never know I was scared. No one can."
By the end of the episode, the Shepherds are celebrities, and Louise has had a change of heart about the Club as NASA gears up to put a man on the moon. And of course, an impromptu dance party. Because seriously, I guess it's not possibly to have a showw about a group of women without a dance party montage.
But there are still secrets to be uncovered: What's the story behind Marge's time in Japan, and her trunk full of kimonos and mementos marked with the name of another soldier? And what are the rest of the wives hiding behind their sunny smiles? Does Rene always match her outfit to her dessert?
Best Outfit: Rene's Christian Dior (see above), with honorable mention going to Trudy's green party dress (left)
Best 60s Sexism: NASA gives the astronauts a rainbow array of sports cars and sticks the wives with identical station wagons in "toilet bowl" white, per Marge.
What did you think of the premiere? Are you going to stick around through the summer?