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Disney+'s The Right Stuff turns the American space race into a schlocky, gimmick-y soap opera no one asked for

  • "If you wanted the Mercury Seven saga told like an earnest soap opera — mildly binge-y, focusing on the principals’ personal melodramas — then you’re in for a treat," says Tim Grierson of the Apple TV+ series from National Geographic, based on Tom Wolfe's 1979 book. "I’m just not convinced that approach does the story many favors...Rather than being a more balanced look at some deified American heroes — presenting them as flawed horndogs treated like gods by an adoring, naive public — The Right Stuff tends to flatten its characters into simplistically 'complicated' types." Grierson adds that The Right Stuff "engages in the storytelling gimmicks of the binge era, stringing us along with episode-ending cliffhangers or revelations that are expected to keep us hooked until the next installment...Problem is, the show flirts with the building blocks of good writing — plumbing the psychological depths of its characters, creating relatable conflicts between its two leads’ contrasting personalities — but does so in the driest ways imaginable, serving up lots of incidents and events without being particularly compelling. A whole lot of 'stuff' happens in The Right Stuff, but I can’t say I ever entirely engaged with it."


    • What the new Right Stuff is missing are the qualities it can probably never have: currency and context: Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, after all, "was researched and released barely 20 years after the space program started; when the movie came out, it lent an authentic and patriotic flashback to a moment audiences could vividly and personally recall," says Hank Stuever. "Now 60 years have passed since the selection of the Mercury Seven, who have all died. Wolfe is gone, too. Something about their story has floated safely out of the reach of those who would re-create it. It belongs to history now, which leaves the producers of The Right Stuff in a strange holding pattern. Have they discovered something new or are they just dressing up a Wikipedia entry? Nothing here is all that wrong, but that doesn’t mean it’s right."
    • The Right Stuff ultimately suffers from doing a familiar story in an all too familiar way: "American pop culture is overflowing with stories about righteous men taking risks for their country and messing up their home lives along the way," says Caroline Framke. "We are not hurting for reenactments of how the United States got into the space race and the global implications thereof. This Right Stuff does a fine job painting by numbers, but without deviating from a script we’ve seen onscreen a thousand times before, it’s unlikely to make an impression all its own."
    • The more consciously dramatic the writing, the bigger the action, the less convincing the scene: "Even the domestic business between the fliers and their wives can feel made to order, inorganic," says Robert Lloyd. "But every now and again, The Right Stuff takes a breath and lets life roll on a little. Its best moments are small and quiet and have little or nothing to do with the space race (or the race to be the space race ace)."
    • Objecting to Hollywood remakes is a pretty futile endeavor: There's enough room for more than one Right Stuff adaptation, says Brian Lowry, adding: "Expanded into an eight-hour series, The Right Stuff doesn't feel the need for speed. What it loses in momentum, however, this Disney+ series gains in its characterizations, offering a satisfying voyage back into the stories of the men at the center of the Mercury 7 space program, as well as the women that loved and/or endured them."
    • Episode 1 keeps nodding to Philip Kaufman movie, and it's not a flattering comparison -- subsequent episodes leave Tom Wolfe's storytelling behind: "The bland interchangeability of 57 percent of the main astronauts haunts The Right Stuff, which has a bright, flat shininess and no room for texture," says Daniel Fienberg. "Now is this a pointed commentary on the squeaky-clean, edges-sanded-off image that NASA, in league with Life magazine (represented here by Josh Cooke's Loudon Wainwright Jr.), wanted to project? Conceivably, yes. Yet the whole purpose of Wolfe's book was to turn these manufactured idols back into real men, and all traces of Wolfe's puckish, iconoclastic tone is absent here — perhaps scrubbed away in a transition from production at NatGeo to Disney+, where the powers that be will already surely be scandalized by scenes of infidelity and the occasional exposed bare back. Wolfe was taking these spacemen out of their perfect 1950s boxes, and Disney+ is plunking them right back in."
    • The Right Stuff TV show is definitely not a masterpiece of its form: "Nor is it particularly interested in interrogating different brands of heroism," says Alan Sepinwall. "And it doesn’t care at all about Chuck Yeager, who was the breakout character of previous versions (Sam Shepard was the film’s lone acting Oscar nominee) and is not so much as mentioned, let alone seen, in the series. No, this Right Stuff is not trying to push the outer edge of the envelope, or make it to the top of the pyramid. After translating a handful of Wolfe’s scenes for the first episode, the show is content to be a dutiful, mostly competent, infrequently lively historical workplace drama. If you don’t know the 1983 movie (more than worth the rental fee on the service of your choice), or haven’t seen From the Earth to the Moon or Apollo 13, or a half-dozen other great scripted or unscripted accounts of the space race, then it’s… fine? It has some solid, if unremarkable, performances, and occasional moments that capture those heady, dangerous days when seven men competed to be the first to strap himself on top of a giant bomb and hopefully survive the trip. But it lacks the courage or charisma of the men (and, at times, women) whose stories it’s telling."
    • The Right Stuff is heavy on the personal drama and light on the action, which makes it feel tedious at times: "I kept hoping that The Right Stuff was building up to something that would leave me eager for the next episode," says Brooke Bajgrowicz. "But while it was engaging at times, I was never hooked. It's missing that special zing. It does, however, offer an interesting, well-crafted setup just waiting to be expanded upon — and I am hopeful that the final episodes will set the series up for a more compelling Season 2. Episode-to-episode, The Right Stuff feels like its offering up a lot of the same stuff: Men dealing with newfound celebrity status while sorting out their personal lives. But their storylines have yet to reach their climax, and their wives — while not the central focus — also have further personal struggles to explore."
    • The Right Stuff becomes more absorbing as it gets comfortable in its characters’ company: "The less attachment you have to the incarnations that came before, the better, because the Disney+ series frames this narrative differently," says Jen Chaney, adding that "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."
    • After a slew of space dramas, The Right Stuff feels like an also-ran: "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," says Danette Chavez. "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."
    • Patrick J. Adams says the Mercury 7 astronauts were essentially the first reality stars: “They had to figure out how to sell this to the American public, while at the same time pulling off this extraordinarily insane and dangerous task of getting to space," he says, adding: “Suddenly these guys were unable to do the job that they were hired to do. The thing that everybody was excited for them to do, they couldn't because they were having to do interviews every day, and then take pictures, and then be running around the country going to factories on a press tour.”
    • Adams was looking to take a break after Suits, but then The Right Stuff came along: I just went, ‘This is what I’ve been waiting for,'" Adams recalls, “and suddenly, everything in my body woke up again, and all the systems went on, and all the switches flipped, and I was like, ‘If I can be a part of this, I would kill to do it.'”
    • See The Right Stuff cast side-by-side with the real-life astronauts they played in the series
    • Showrunner Mark Lafferty believes there's a direct connection between his depiction of postwar American idealism and the country’s current turmoil and unrest—despite appearances to the contrary: “It seems like a simpler time. It seems quaint. And I think it can seem to some people to be corny, to be honest,” says Lafferty. “But it’s important to remind ourselves constantly, as a society, that we cannot take progress for granted. It’s something you have to work at, something a society needs to work at. And individuals are super important in that process.”

    TOPICS: The Right Stuff, Disney+, National Geographic, Mark Lafferty, Patrick J. Adams

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