The Right Stuff (2020)

2 out of 5

Developed by: Mark Lafferty

Having not read the source book, or not seen the previous movie adaptation, I can’t evaluate The Right Stuff in comparison; how well it sticks to the original material, or how it may have added to or updated its filmic predecessor, I cannot say. So all I can do is consider the 8-part, Disney+ / NatGeo show based on its own merits, which really forefronts the main question affecting the rating: why does this series exist?

The Right Stuff TV-chronicles the lead up to America’s first manned space flight, staying close to “The Mercury Seven” group of astronauts who are elected (out of a massive batch of pilots) to be the face of this very politically-motivated scientific pursuit, and closest to Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman) – first man in space – and John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams) – the oldest and, at the time, most publicly recognized member of the team. We start with a flash forward, in fact, right before the first attempted space flight, to cue us in to a rivalry and dislike between the two men, then pedal back so we can watch the first few moments of NASA coming together; the selection of the team; their training; etc.

Sticking with the question of ‘why,’ I wondered, at the start – why this flash-forward? This is often used in movies / shows to set up a curiosity that we can then flash-back to explain, and so here, our team of writers are obviously using it to hopefully drum up some instant interest in behind-the-scenes squabbles. Which meant that the squabble between two ho hum square-jawed dudes – one the affair-havin’ “rebel,” and one the Jesus-lovin’ would-be father figure – was likely going to be mined for a lot of dramatic tension. And though I’m sure this tension existed in real life, and that there were / are a lot of important aspects of that to explore in this story, having that spotlighted as what we’re eventually going to build back up to (via the flash-forward / flash-back structure) pretty much immediately washed down hopes for the potential scope of The Right Stuff.

And for the eight episodes thereafter, which are absolutely competently acted, and solidly written to exist as standalone slices – touching on the occasionally turbulent private lives of these fellas, on the media circus that had to pop up around them, on the glad-handing that had to happen to keep the project going, and on the astronauts’ wives – those hopes were kept quite in check. The show does its job, undeniably, but this is a tale that had the possibility to explore those touched on elements with some depth, and instead, we were constantly reminded that we’re watching a show on Disney+: there was never really any sense that things could be left in a questioning state. It’s a “these guys were flawed heroes in a flawed system, but still heroes and American patriots and whutnot, consarnit” message; just as the movie came out in the 80s and the book at the tail end of the 70s, the show feels aimed at a very white, very insular demographic of a different time – the kind of show that parents would like, tickling their memories of perhaps events as they occurred.

To be fair, I understand that going more in depth on NASA’s beginnings – beyond fifteen minutes in the first episode – or the media dealings that turned these dudes in to, essentially, reality TV stars, would make having character arcs – i.e. that Shephard / Glenn rivalry – difficult, and would be a lot to cover for a show. But as it is presented, The Right Stuff 2020 is just so milquetoast as to be offensive, painting history with a brightly colored brush during an era when we shouldn’t have to / shouldn’t be doing that any longer. The kind of easy-going way it tries to address prickly subjects – primarily the way these guys and the system shat on their wives as either political chess-pieces or throwaway arm candy – can work for, say, Marvel blockbusters in which action is the primary draw, and “commentary” is a bonus, but in a show with a historical, fact-based bent, it doesn’t cut it.

If I wasn’t hit with that thought right up front, of what this show’s point was, and then reminded with each story-shallow, unchallenging episode that followed, I could be more in favor of the good performances, and commendably distracting pacing, and solid direction. Alas, that’s a heavy thought to hang over 8-hours of TV.