In the second episode of ABC’s summer drama, “The Astronaut Wives Club,” Gus Grissom (Joel Johnstone) and his wife, Betty (JoAnna Garcia Swisher), pause in their mad dash from their Cocoa Beach hotel to the 1961 Project Mercury space mission upon which Gus is about to embark. What stops them? A little black boy reading a comic book about outer space. Gus interrupts the boy to offer him an autograph. The boy accepts. His mother, a maid at the hotel, scolds the boy, Zavier (Akili McDowell), presumably for being noticed, then explains apologetically that she had no choice but to bring him to work that day.
“You’ll make a fine astronaut someday,” Gus says, signing his name to a napkin the maid has proffered. “Me, sir?” “Yeah. You keep up that homework, especially the math. You’ll get there.” Betty beams proudly at her husband’s progressive, pre-civil rights movement racial politics, while the boy’s mother expresses her concern. “I’m not too keen on the idea of launching him into space,” she says, suggesting it’s too dangerous a prospect. As Betty’s face clouds with worry over her own husband, the maid apologizes for being too outspoken. “I didn’t mean anything by it,” she says.
It could’ve been an interesting exchange if it rang at all true. But the likelihood that one of America’s first astronauts would approach a black boy stowed away in the cleaning quarters to offer him his autograph doesn’t jibe at all with the realities of racial separatism and prejudice in 1961. Desegregation wouldn’t be signed into law for another three years, and the first African American astronaut to launch into space, Guion Bluford, wouldn’t do so until 1983. The Indiana-born Grissoms wouldn’t have just been progressive, spending this much (unsolicited) time encouraging the maid and her son to reach for the stars. They’d be practically saintly.
“The Astronaut Wives Club” isn’t as concerned with historical accuracy as it is emotional resonance. It uses as its source material a Lily Koppel’s 2013 biography of the same name, which focused on the wives’ quashed ambitions, devotion to their husbands, conflictedness over their men’s infidelity and grief as the missions became more deadly over time. The show is at its best when it lingers on a wife’s face as she catches her husband, yet again, in the arms of a bikini-clad astronaut groupie, or when she blanches in front of a television, waiting on news of her husband’s safe landing.
It’s completely out of its depth, however, when it tries to address race. We see Zavier again in the third episode, helping another wife, Rene Carpenter (Yvonne Strahovski), with her bags. As she loads a car with her kids and their luggage, she invites him to watch her husband Scott’s (Wilson Bethel) launch with them on the beach. “I can’t,” Zavier says, stating the obvious. “All the beaches are segregated.” You don’t say!
Rene frowns before saying, “Oh. I’m sorry,” and we’re not meant to believe that segregation has slipped Rene’s mind, but rather that it hasn’t occurred to her at all before that moment. Possible, but highly unlikely. And either way, whether the segregation that proved deadly for so many black Americans during the decades preceding the 1960s was a pesky technicality that slipped her mind or whether it was a reality that receded in her mind because of its unpleasantness, her benevolent ignorance doesn’t do the character or the overall storytelling any favors.
Today’s post- “Mad Men” TV landscape has placed a great deal of pressure on the period drama to acknowledge the racial climate of the time. “Mad Men” didn’t always excel at tackling race, as many critics noted during its run, but it did strive to give at least one or two of its black characters interiority. Here, Zavier exists for no other reason than to establish that Gus, Betty and Rene are “good” and “fair-minded” people who are “ahead of their time.” That much had already been established by their decisions to pursue lives of celestial research for God and country.
If the treatment of race in “The Astronaut Wives Club” does nothing else, it reminds us of network TV’s lingering reluctance in 2015 to present an honest account of the 1960s’ bitterest racial truths — or to put African American characters and experiences at the center of period shows. This couldn’t come at a worse time, given how rife today’s realities have become with echoes of that era’s racial trauma.
Earlier this year, Brevard County, Fla., where Cocoa Beach is located, debated whether to revisit its annual tradition of prominently featuring a Confederate flag-themed display at the county’s main library — a library where fictional black Zavier would’ve certainly been denied entry in 1961.
The county decided to keep it.