by Breanna Beers
“You don’t have a rocket problem. You have a people problem.”
“The papers like these guys. And people read the papers.”
“People will want to know how this story ends. And people vote.”
And what’s gonna make all our problems go away? What do votes mean, Bob?”
The second episode of Disney+ and National Geographic’s “The Right Stuff” begins to deliver on the trailer’s promise of addressing celebrity, but stilted writing combines with unclear framing to ultimately send a mixed message.
As the press descends on the Mercury Seven, they suddenly find themselves thrust into the
limelight. Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman) mumbles through press conferences and is hostile to reporters who approach him individually, reflecting his one-sentence NASA entry essay: “I am a man who likes his privacy.” His awkwardness in front of the camera would almost be endearing if he wasn’t such a jerk away from it.
Meanwhile, reporters help the Coopers move into their new home and trail Gordon Cooper’s
(Colin O’Donoghue) daughter to school, asking questions about her home life. Desperate to keep his separation from his wife a secret, Cooper punches a photographer on his front lawn. All the other astronauts are equally uncomfortable with the cameras.
All, that is, except John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams). Glenn’s portrait as the newspapers’ darling is filled out with his perfect family, perfect smile, and perfect one-liners: “The future is always coming.”
“The nation’s eyes may be on us, but we will reach the stars on your shoulders.” “The only way through is to smile.”
This is where the episode’s message starts to muddle. Glenn is framed as practically perfect in
every way, not only by the press and by his peers, but by the narrative itself. We are given no reason to believe his Instagram-worthy life contains any trace of artifice. Instead, he’s portrayed as the beneficent mentor collaborating with NASA marketing spokesman John “Shorty” Powers (Danny Strong) on behalf of Cooper and the other astronauts. He’s so likeable he becomes hard to like.
The narrative is ambiguous on how to interpret his talent for fame. It presents Glenn’s repeated jumping into the spotlight as saving the other team members from potential embarrassment rather than interrupting, interfering or attention-seeking. In fact, the show goes out of its way to half-heartedly apologize for Glenn’s apparent love of the spotlight. In the first episode, when a coworker accuses him of being hungry for glory, Glenn corrects him: “It’s not about glory. It’s about history.” In episode two, he initially rejects the publicity agent who approaches him at a PR event, shaking his head and saying, “I’m not a movie star.”
However, this attempt to paint Glenn as a humble hero awkwardly backfires when he calls the
agent later, not for his own sake, but on behalf of his fellow astronauts. After repeatedly commenting that each of their individual public presences affects the image of the entire team, he collaborates with Shorty and the agent to bring his peers up to his own level. It seems like the show wants us to read this as benevolent, but to me, the wry glances between Glenn and Shorty feel smugly patronizing.
Glenn’s one redeeming quality is that he is the only astronaut who appears to understand his
moment in history. He knows exactly why they’re here and what it means. His recognition that the role of an astronaut is not only technical but cultural and political as well is the very reason he’s so good at fulfilling that role.
However, this presentation is still perplexing, given that this series was billed as a critique of
celebrity, not a celebration of it. It’s not just that Glenn is acclaimed; it’s that the other men are disdained for not promoting the same gilded image. Our choices are between Glenn, the picture-perfect star, and Shepard, the epitome of masculine anxiety.
This is still the outset of the series, though, so it shouldn’t be surprising if the messaging is open-ended. Maybe this will become a commentary not on why celebrity is lauded or lambasted, but on why it is necessary. What happens when we need heroes? We make them. At this point, I’m willing to give the show enough credit to keep watching.
One scene almost broke that for me, though. Trudy Cooper (Eloise Mumford) and Annie Glenn
(Nora Zehetner) have the privilege of sharing some of the worst dialogue I’ve seen from this script so far.
The scene is clearly meant to inject some much-needed feminism into the episode, which ought to come as a relief given the masculine bravado that has dominated so far.
The problem is that what should have been a moment of honesty between two women feels like
the most forced scene in the history of television. Trudy compliments Annie on her handling of reporters, but Annie shrugs: “I’ve had practice.”
“That must have been tough for you.”
“Nobody minds a quiet woman.”
“It seems like you have things to say, though.”
“Yes. Sometimes I wouldn’t mind a quiet man for a change.”
Nothing is less feminist than women whose only topic of conversation is all the ways they’ve
been oppressed by men. “Nobody minds a quiet woman” is a catchy line, but it is not a conversational one. These characters—and this episode’s desperate need for a break from all the artificial machismo—would have been better served by honest dialogue than manufactured one-liners. It’s just one more example of writing for the camera, rather than for the characters, a problem that afflicts the entire episode.
Overall, this episode is plagued by its urgent desire to say something, but it’s hindered by its
inability to settle on what exactly it’s really trying to say. Instead of being nuanced, it’s simply confused.
The good news is that it’s only episode two. Maybe it feels like a lot of unfinished sentences
because the punctuation is coming farther down the line. There’s only one way to find out.
Breanna Beers is a senior Molecular Biology major and the Editor-in-Chief of Cedars. She loves exercising curiosity, hiking new trails, and citrus tea.