In an era obsessed with fame, it seems appropriate that our lens onto the past often pays special attention to the rigors of stardom. Looking back at the formation of the pioneering Mercury Seven astronauts in the late 1950s, “The Right Stuff” — a new Disney+ series based on the 1983 movie and 1979 Tom Wolfe book — focuses on how becoming overnight celebs changed the men’s lives. After they were introduced to the public, at a press event worthy of the unveiling of a new “Dancing With the Stars” cast, they and their families fell under intense scrutiny. Suddenly the public wanted to know every detail of their days, to buy the same hair products they used, to put them up on a pedestal, and, maybe at some point later on, knock them down.
In the first episodes of the eight-episode season, which premieres Friday, the men — Gordon Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue), in particular — struggle with the differences between their realities and the happy front that NASA needs them to put on as the prototypical American astronauts. The adulterous Cooper and his wife are separated, but he begs to move back in with her and their kids to face the paparazzi, now forever perched at their front door. Meanwhile, the cocky Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman) tells the ambitious John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams) that while he thoroughly dislikes him, he’ll put on a show of collegiality for the cameras. They’ve all made it into the top seven spots after a reality-show-like competition that has brought out plenty of ego peacocking.
It’s all interesting enough, as the astronauts aren’t just promoting the space program to Americans; they’re also trolling for the funding it so desperately needs. The pressure to beat the Russians in space falls largely on their shoulders, which Glenn takes most seriously of all. And behind all these political and public image machinations at NASA, the production design of “The Right Stuff,” with its tube TV sets, cigarettes, skinny ties, and buzzcuts, is a plus, as it so effectively captures a time before the mid-1960s colors and styles kicked in. On the surface, “The Right Stuff” shares the nostalgic flair of “Mad Men,” where white men in black jackets drink brown booze.
Alas, when it comes to digging into the specific characters embedded in this vividly created world, something “Mad Men” did with such nuance, “The Right Stuff” doesn’t go far enough. It isn’t until the fourth episode (critics were given five to preview) that the show offers at least a semi-intimate look into the men behind the images, as Wolfe did. That’s when we go home with Shepard and meet his abusive father and see how his family takes in his niece, after his sister-in-law dies. It’s an offbeat glimpse into his world, and it offers the kinds of character contradictions and glitches missing elsewhere. Otherwise, the astronauts have little grain or complexity, beyond one or two single traits; they’re network-deep portrayals — at least those who register. Aside from Shepard, Glenn, and Cooper, the astronauts in “The Right Stuff” are nearly indistinguishable from one another. Perhaps they, as well as most of the astronauts’ wives and girlfriends, who are stubbornly vague figures, will develop more across the season.
The performances are limited by the script’s lack of character depth. The actors just don’t have a lot to work with. On the one hand, the show doesn’t go into detail about the physical challenges of going into space; on the other hand, it doesn’t go into the psychological difficulties either. Adams stands out a bit as Glenn, perhaps because his flaws are quieter than those of some of the others. His willingness to carry the weight of the space program’s survival manages to be both admirable and, at least to the men, too ambitious and power-grabby. It’s the kind of wrinkle that gives a story some texture.
THE RIGHT STUFF
Starring: Jake McDorman, Patrick J. Adams, Michael Trotter, Colin O’Donoghue, Nora Zehetner, Aaron Staton, James Lafferty, Shannon Lucio, Micah Stock, Eloise Mumford, Patrick Fischler, Danny Strong
On: Disney+. Premieres Friday.