tv review

The Right Stuff Has the Halfway Decent Stuff

The Mercury Seven according to National Geographic and Disney+. Photo: Courtesy of Disney+

For at least the first hour of The Right Stuff, you may feel like you’re watching something you’ve seen before. There’s an obvious reason for that: this Nat Geo production, whose first two episodes debut today on Disney+, is based on Tom Wolfe’s best-selling 1979 book and the Academy Award–winning 1983 motion picture it inspired. But this streaming version, which also follows the formation of the Mercury Seven, the first team of U.S. astronauts trained to fly NASA spacecrafts, evokes other films and television shows, too.

Some early scenes in episode one depict future Mercury man Gordon Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue) engaging in dicey flight exercises that call to mind the movie The Right Stuff — but also, because of the way they’re shot, Top Gun. That comparison is reinforced by the first glimpses of Jake McDorman as overconfident astronaut Alan Shepard, who, in this context, when caught in profile with his military haircut and aviator sunglasses, could easily pass for Tom Cruise. “He’s one of the best pilots the Navy ever saw,” says Bob Gilruth (Patrick Fischler), a NASA engineer heading up the Mercury recruitment effort, of Shepard. “Also one of the most reckless.” Why, you might even say he’s a … maverick.

Given the time period in which it’s set, the drinking and skirt-chasing some of the astronauts engage in, and the amount of testosterone that fills every room where these NASA heroes gather, there’s certainly a heavy Mad Men aura here. The fact that several cast members — Aaron Staton, Danny Strong, Fischler — appeared in that AMC series emphasizes the connection. The way the series fleshes out its female characters much more fully than the movie also clarifies that the mission of The Right Stuff overlaps a bit with another show that had a Mad Men-in-space vibe, the short-lived Astronaut Wives Club.

In other words, especially in its first couple of episodes, The Right Stuff hits a lot of overly familiar beats, beats that may feel that much more redundant given all the space-focused TV that’s been crowding our platforms lately. But the series becomes more absorbing as it gets comfortable in its characters’ company. By episode five, the last of the installments provided to critics in advance, a sense of investment kicks in and so does more pronounced tension, as the flight order for the missions is determined. Even though most of the audience will already know which guy gets to go first, second, and third, the lead-up to the announcement still manages to feel unpredictable.

As developed for television by Mark Lafferty, who previously was a producer and writer on Halt and Catch Fire, this Right Stuff borrows from the movie here and there. As in the film, for example, there is a scene where the astronauts see the space capsule for the first time and wonder why it has no windows. But other details are either altered or stripped out of the series altogether, including the entire story line involving Chuck Yeager, the pilot that may have had the rightest stuff of all but stayed on the ground instead of pursuing a NASA career. As cool as Yeager was in the movie, thanks in large part to Sam Shepard’s performance, his experience was extraneous to the Mercury 7 experience. It makes total sense to cut it out.

If that comment strikes you as heresy, well, this Right Stuff might not be for you. The less attachment you have to the incarnations that came before, the better, because the Disney+ series frames this narrative differently. The central thread that runs through its initial episodes involves the rivalry between Shepard and John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams of Suits), two men portrayed as arrogant in different ways. When either of these guys walk into a room, their puffed-up chests enter first, but with Glenn, his confidence is based in self-righteousness. Unlike the other Mercury Seven members, he doesn’t drink, he’s uninterested in women other than his wife, and he’s a devout Christian. His goodness is a virtue but also something he wears as a cloak of superiority, and it creates a wall that often separates him from his fellow astronauts.

Shepard, on the other hand, is a drinker and a flirter and someone who prefers to keep his private life — meaning his marriage and status as a father of two daughters — to himself. He’s completely certain of his own greatness but, as played by McDorman, still a vulnerable man capable of showing gentleness and compassion. While the conflict between Shepard and Glenn largely informs the series, The Right Stuff also focuses extensively on the personal life of Cooper, who is trying to rebuild his marriage to Trudy (Eloise Mumford) following an extramarital affair and despite a significant drinking problem. With these three men in the foreground, the rest of the Mercury Seven fade into the background and, at least in the first half of the eight episodes, aren’t nearly as well-developed. It’s a problem, but one that hopefully can be corrected as the series goes forward.

If this wasn’t already apparent, while The Right Stuff delves into the pressures of the space race and the grueling nature of the training the astronauts endure, it’s primarily interested in relationships and family dynamics. It’s also interested in showing that these iconic astronauts were not just icons, they were men: flawed, deeply imperfect men.

That’s the most refreshing aspect of this series. In America, we’re accustomed to talking about astronauts in the same hushed and reverent tones reserved for our troops and veterans. Without disregarding their achievements, this version of The Right Stuff punctures that patina of heroism and focuses as much on their less admirable qualities as it does on their likability. It’s a glossy, traditionally presented piece of entertainment that tries to chip away at some of our traditional notions about the space program. It may not fully take off right away, but there’s enough potential here to suggest that a commitment to this dramatized version of a well-known saga will result in some rewards.

The Right Stuff Has the Halfway Decent Stuff