“These are ordinary people, Bob. And for some reason, people are captivated by their ordinariness,” says a PR rep to a NASA official in the second episode of “The Right Stuff.”
If only that were the case.
National Geographic’s new historical drama, centered on the origins of America’s space program and the race to launch man into the stars, includes everything you would hope to find in a worthwhile mid-century period piece — storytelling that complicates the historical narrative of American innovation, acknowledgement of global ideological conflict, etc. — yet it fails to deliver an experience grander than the sum of its parts, leaving an aftertaste of profound ordinariness.
“The Right Stuff” follows the journey of the Mercury Seven — the seven pilots selected by NASA to fly the nation’s first spacecraft — as they’re catapulted into national celebritydom. The nascent space agency and their seven future astronauts, spearheaded by two conflicting personalities in pilots John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams) and Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman), are tasked with navigating a uniquely turbulent Cold War setting as well as equally turbulent home lives that encroach on their monumental ambitions.
Glenn — a storied veteran with a killer smile and a spot on every popular magazine’s front page — further enchants God-fearing, Soviet-hating America, but his lust for glory clashes with the threat of old age and irrelevance. Shepard — a daredevil pilot with an eye for alcohol, women, and everything fast — complements Glenn’s character with drive and know-how, but his reckless approach to life looms over his confidence and the image of stability. Where “The Right Stuff” succeeds is portraying these highly personal struggles within the context of national legacy and international rivalry, but the show’s storytelling fails to elevate itself beyond the setting, trapped by a drabness that hedges on cliche.
Capturing the remarkable ethos of late-’50s-to-early-’60s America is no small task, and “The Right Stuff” steps up to the challenge with moderate success. While perhaps burdened by overt exclamations of the Russian threat, subtle yet carefully crafted moments of storytelling endow the show with an immersive quality. Comparisons between politicians and Hollywood actors reveal the showmanship of progress. Exasperated phone calls between bureaucrats reveal the personal interests underlying the web of funding and paperwork sustaining NASA. In this world, supporting the anti-socialist agenda, and the act of proving it, is everything.
Perhaps the most intriguing reference comes in a speech Shepard delivers while on a publicity tour. The pilot promises to “kick the snot out of the Soviets, for freedom,” before remembering to add “for God, also.” What exactly is America going to space for? Who shares in its success? “The Right Stuff” takes on these big questions brilliantly, letting them manifest in the idiosyncrasies of each character: America’s divine exceptionalism finds a name in John Glenn, it’s chauvinism and inner turmoil in Alan Shepard.
Yet this sophisticated weave of personal and national identities is diminished by moments of startling bluntness, and attention on the overt lingers. A conversation between wives of astronauts in the second episode about sacrifices made for their husbands’ careers reveals the expectation that women take a backseat in society. While an important moment that speaks to the complex mid-century social atmosphere, it almost feels like a form of tokenizing — a gratuitous sequence copied and pasted from some other source on the voices of women in the ’50s and ’60s, injected into the script out of a desire to cover bases rather than genuinely address the subject. That conversation is treated more as a bridge the show must cross before returning to the astronauts themselves, who remain perpetually indifferent to the scenes that precede them.
The triumphs of “The Right Stuff” are reduced by this attitude of filling in gaps rather than exploring details rich with potential. There’s a friction between the emphasis on the grand and the lackluster visuals, for example. Despite making such a big deal out of the intensity of it all — the vastness of space, the magnitude of the mission’s consequences, the intricacy of the astronauts’ emotions — the show is furnished with rather unexciting color palettes and set pieces. Between the bare-bones office spaces, the standard-issue suits, and the reliance on a color spectrum of gray to khaki, the show feels more like an exercise in throat-clearing than anything else.
The dullness, diffuse and unshakable, is accentuated by a script that doesn’t know how to state anything but the obvious. One pilot, searching for words to describe the opportunity in front of him, settles on “It’s space, Trudy. It’s space.” A compelling explanation, I know. Rather than utilizing such components of television as coloring or dialogue to enhance the story, “The Right Stuff” fails to add depth or texture with anything beyond material that could be found in a textbook.
“The Right Stuff” checks off all the boxes. But as the NASA officials who selected the Mercury Seven suggest, becoming one of the first ever astronauts and shouldering the weight of the American Cold War effort requires more than just checking off the boxes. Launching a rocket, or a hit new TV show for that matter, requires an intangible, an X factor, a certain amount of “the right stuff.” And so far, despite the name, the show is running low on it.