Bringing up the rear in the space-drama race is Disney+’s The Right Stuff, the latest great-looking production about the rigors of space exploration to also attempt a more intimate portraiture of the men tasked with creating a new mold for heroes. Showrunner Mark Lafferty (late of Tales From The Loop) oversees this adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book of the same name, and it is as handsomely made as any joint venture that includes National Geographic—which sold both the hard sci-fi and more speculative fiction of Mars—could be. No expense or detail seems to have been spared in recreating the mid-century, middle-class interiors of the homes of these pilots turned astronauts, or in establishing a command center for key early NASA figures.
Of course, much of that could also be said for Apple TV+’s For All Mankind, which starts off in the same time period and features several of the same characters (or approximations). It even shares the “Mad Men meets the space race” premise early on, as well as a cast member in Eric Ladin (who plays a different flight director in the Apple TV+ show). But For All Mankind was designed to veer quickly from that jumping-off point and reimagine the space program as an engine for social change—change it’s intent to see through by jumping forward a decade or two in its timeline. The Right Stuff remains grounded in the early days of human spaceflight, when, despite having broken the sound barrier, only a relative few could imagine—let alone achieve—escape velocity.
The premiere episode, “Sierra Hotel,” begins in 1961, just hours before a launch, then jumps back two years to 1959, as NASA’s Bob Gilruth (Patrick Fischler) and Chris Kraft (Ladin) begin the search for the men who would be known as the Mercury 7. Immediately after rattling off of the habits and perils of test pilots to an eager-but-green subordinate (Jackson Pace as future Apollo-Soyuz Test Project manager Glynn Lunney), Gilruth lays out what’s at stake: If Russia lands on the moon first, then the U.S. may have already lost the Cold War. The moment is accompanied by stirring music from series composer Adam Taylor, but it also rings with good old American exceptionalism. The scripts from Lafferty and his fellow writers, including Will Staples, Lizzie Mickery and Vinnie Wilhelm, engage with this notion without ever really considering how exclusionary it could be. There is a joke about how the seven men who pass muster all look alike, but it doesn’t set up any discussion of how white and male NASA would remain for its first few decades of operation.
But neither is The Right Stuff mere hagiography; some of the series’ most compelling moments come from its exploration of just how flawed the men who were expected to be national (if not global) heroes actually were. John Glenn, recently seen as a quippy, good-hearted astronaut in Hidden Figures, is shown actively cultivating that image. Played with serious teacher’s pet energy by Patrick J. Adams, Glenn is one of the frontrunners for the Mercury program—and he knows it. Proximity to his goal of being the first man in space only makes Glenn work harder, which makes it that much more difficult for any of the other guys in the program to bond with him. Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman, reminding us why he should be leading a series) is similarly driven, but indulges in all that Glenn eschews, including drinking, extramarital affairs, and smoking. Glenn and Shepard rub each other the wrong way from the get-go, a conflict that goes beyond the competition. Their rivalry provides fuel for the show, particularly in the fifth episode, which is when Glenn and Shepard stop circling each other and have it out.
The third most developed character is Leroy “Gordo” Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue), who feigns a happy family life in order to remain in contention, then finds himself wanting to make that illusion real. But the rest of the Mercury Seven—Michael Trotter as Gus Grissom, James Lafferty as Scott Carpenter, Aaron Staton as Wally Schirra, and Micah Stock as Deke Slayton —often fade into the background. Trotter’s Grissom comes closest to breaking from this pack; his gravelly voice hints at the extraordinary things he’s seen and endured. In the five episodes made available for review, though, Carpenter, Schirra, and Slayton are mostly placeholders; they exist to echo or dispute Glenn and Shepard’s sentiments, or make a rowdy night even rowdier. They lack distinct personalities of their own, agreeable though Lafferty, Schirra, and Stock may be. To the show’s credit, it does find promising storylines for characters that are often on the periphery of these stories: the astronaut wives like Trudy Cooper (Eloise Mumford), who is a licensed pilot like her real-life counterpart, but with even more high-flying ambitions.
Lafferty has helped craft stories of innovation and bygone eras on Manhattan and Halt And Catch Fire, but this solo mission (under the auspices of co-executive producers Will Staples and Leonardo DiCaprio) isn’t a success yet. While following the general outline of Wolfe’s book, Lafferty’s series can’t manage to recreate the text’s assured maneuvering between admiration and irreverence. Five episodes in, The Right Stuff doesn’t have a clear trajectory; it’s not an extension of Philip Kaufman’s film adaptation from 1983, nor does it fall in line with prestige TV shows. Any comparison to Mad Men doesn’t hold up, either, because The Right Stuff never goes looking in dark places for very long—not to mention that most of the sex scenes consist entirely of a shirtless Shepard rolling over to sigh contentedly about the sex he just had (though that does place the show more at home with the rest of the Disney+ slate.)
The setting and performances make for a solid period drama, but after the premieres of The First and For All Mankind, as well as the releases of First Man and Ad Astra, The Right Stuff looks more like an imitator than the originator, despite its groundbreaking source material. When The Right Stuff was published in 1979, heroism seemed in short supply, particularly among this country’s leaders. Readers might have been content to look back at undisputed heroes, but Wolfe made sure to present as complete a picture as possible. By including their shortcomings, the late author kept the Mercury 7 grounded. The Right Stuff seems to have taken that a little too close to heart, not realizing that its story can be human and extraordinary.