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'Astronaut Wives Club' lifts off with a light payload

Review: ABC series 'The Astronaut Wives Club' is a period soap opera about home life during the space race

"The Astronaut Wives Club," which premieres Thursday on ABC, is a fact-based period soap opera that sets itself down at the intersection of "Mad Men" and "Desperate Housewives." And though there are no great claims to be made for it as drama or history, it is not the worst way to spend an idle hour on a summer night.

Created by "Gossip Girl" co-creator Stephanie Savage from Lily Koppel's 2013 book, it returns us once again to those thrilling days of midcentury yesteryear, when space flight was new and news, men were husbands and women were wives, and to be clean cut was accounted an act of patriotism.

"It's not like you ladies have a lot of bad habits or big secrets," says Max Kaplan (Luke Kirby), a Life magazine reporter detailed to cover the home life of the Project Mercury astronauts, the first crop of Americans to go into space. The looks the women exchange tell a different story.

The series begins with a crash course in the space race, presented with period clips in an approximation of period style. Soon we are at a party where our principals meet, not without friction.

"Gordo has no competition," says Trudy Cooper (Odette Annable) of her husband (Bret Harrison) and his chances to be the first man up.

"I'm afraid you're quite mistaken," counters Louise Shepard (Dominique McElligott), married to Alan (Desmond Harrington). Meow!

But what starts as competition or coldness soon enough will turn to mutual support. Still, they are a variety pack, with better and worse marriages and older and newer ideas.

"You don't have to put up with him running around," Trudy tells Louise, whose husband is the most incorrigibly unfaithful among a group of men who need little prompting to party. "Being a modern wife means challenging your husband to be better." Trudy, who is a pilot herself, wonders heretically whether one day she might go to space.

"I'm Scott's wife not his employee," says glamorous, outspoken Rene Carpenter (Yvonne Strahovski) when it's suggested that it's her "job" to support husband (Wilson Bethel).

"Honey, every girl works for a living." says Marge Slayton (Erin Cummings), who is married to Deke (Kenneth Mitchell) and has been around a little more than she likes to say.

"Excuse me," replies Rene. "I'm a mother of four, and I went to college."

That most everything here feels a little forced is not surprising given how much business the show has to get through and how many characters it has to marshal — seven wives for seven pilots, with Evan Handler's man from NASA joining Kirby's man from Life as the guardians of their image.

There is the usual array of vintage detail and research-bearing dialogue. The women visit each other on launch mornings, bringing food gleaned from old cookbooks: Double-Decker Tuna Loaf, Tater Tot Surprise, Cheese Porcupine, Ham Loaf, Jell-O. Rene Carpenter, ever the nonconformist, brings "a new dish; it's called Chinese chicken salad. It's got cashews."

For all that it strives at times to push a big theme, it remains best taken as colorful light entertainment. There are some nice performances — the cast also includes JoAnna Garcia Swisher as Betty Grissom, Azure Parsons as Annie Glenn and Zoe Boyle as Jo Schirra — and moments (especially among the Carpenters and the Shepards and the Coopers), increasingly as the show goes on, when the marriages seem complicatedly real.

Space may be the final frontier, but love remains a mystery.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'The Astronaut Wives Club'

Where: ABC

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language)

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