Public Morals: A Fine Line

There’s a lot on the line for Edward Burns, with his new TNT show Public Morals. Indeed, his show, because he created, wrote and directed it. Assembled a bunch of terrific actors to go back to the 1960s with him, found a network to back it up, and even got Steven Spielberg involved (as executive producer, which, we all know, means he’s not very involved at all, but still: Steven Spielberg).

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The Business of Comfort
It’s fair to say TNT has lost the game against USA. It’s hard to say exactly why, but TNT does seem to have an affection for easygoing, middle of the road product. People should be able to watch their series and stay comfortable in their seats, while USA isn’t afraid to put you right on the edge of it. Public Morals certainly falls in the former category, but that doesn’t disqualify it; staying comfortably in your seat can be a nice thing.

Breathe
The show’s got a resemblance to TNT’s short-lived, quickly-aired Mob City, but that’s just because of the time period, men in suits, hats, and Robert Knepper (Prison Break, Heroes), as well as Burns himself. All in all, it looks great. No funny business with sepia tones or abysmal lighting, like The Astronaut Wives Club and especially Aquarius. The series is perfectly lit, dressed and designed, with a director on board who knows what he’s doing and takes his time, which enables the show to breathe.

The Gap
Edward Burns (Saving Private Ryan, 15 Minutes, Confidence) came up about the same time Ben Affleck went down. He counted as the perfect Affleck substitute, the pretty boy leading man everybody was looking for. But while Hollywood was way too occupied trying to fit Affleck the square into a round shape, Burns was never called back. He could’ve easily filled the gap left by the pumped up image of Affleck, but it just never happened.
He may not have wanted to, decided to sharpen his craft as writer and director. And now there’s Public Morals, the accumulation of all of his talents.

The Business of Management
The series deals with a New York police department, starring next to Burns and Knepper, Michael Rapaport, Wass Stevens and a young actor who’s going to go far, Patrick Murney. Why? Just a hunch. Prostitution, gambling and alcohol are prohibited. The cops aren’t cops, they’re managers. Donald Trump would be proud. They’re keeping the peace, turning blind eyes, until that peace is broken: a body washes up on the shore with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background.

Tasty Dish
That body’s Timothy Hutton (Leverage, Kidnapped, American Crime). Burns has got ‘a few ideas’ who could be behind it. It seems this murder is what sets everything in motion. It’s at the very end of the episode, so what have we been watching for an hour? If the first interesting thing happens right before fading to black, everything that came before must’ve been pretty boring, right? Not right. Public Morals might not serve up an explosive dish, but it’s a tasty one.

Lyndon Smith
There are other storylines woven through Burns’ work and private life, too, but it’s way too soon to tell where they’re all headed. One thing that must be mentioned, though: Lyndon Smith (Parenthood, Extant, 90210) is playing a minor part, and you don’t want to miss her in anything she’s in. She’s the Girl with the Most Amazing Jaw Dropping Hypnotizing Eyes on Television.

The Astronaut Wives Club: Retroattitude

The third episode of Mad (Wo)Men & Shuttle Talk has a few surprises, but a real draw, something to make viewers come back for more, the flame in which us moths are happy to crash into, that thing is still missing.

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Sing
Well, will you look at that. Wife Sweetiepie can sing – beautifully. Like many people who stutter, she doesn’t stutter while controlling her breath while singing. She’s my favorite Astronaut Wife, maybe because she doesn’t say much. That might just be the reason the relationship with her husband is so good. All the other women struggle with their marriages and their hubbies’ alcoholic, cheating, unreachable behaviour*.
* Take your pick.

Pray
The next one getting a (dangerous) ticket into space, is Blondie/Betty Draper Twin’s husband. Things go into Sixties touchy-feely territory when Blondie is asked whether or not she’s going to pray (for a safe flight). She tells the reporters that’s private – and it should stay that way. That doesn’t mean her sort of revelation explodes into a publicity nightmare.
The Astronaut Wives Club tackles these sensitive issues very well. The 1960s weren’t all flower power, Woodstock and pot; there were a lot of taboos and social etiquettes you had to deal with. One wrong comment, one crack in the picture perfect image you so carefully try to maintain, and you’re front page news – but not in a good way.

Scare
The problem is, these issues feel very authentic – and I’m sure they are – but looking on from a world that’s 50 years older, the stakes don’t seem high enough. In the show, they also don’t present huge challenges for the people involved; Blondie takes a step back from the limelight and watches her husband’s launch on her own. There’s a little – somewhat predictable already – scare of ‘where is he’ and ‘will he be home on time for supper’, until everything turns out to be hunky-dory.

J.J.
As we’ve seen, the Wives are part of a big NASA publicity campaign, and they’ve got a writer amongst them – more of an embedded journalist, actually – to write stories about them. He’s been this quiet presence in the background, but in ‘Retroattitude’ he makes a very risky move. I didn’t realise until this show, but the Sixties must’ve been a big influence for J.J. Abrams to create his distinguished glasses- and hairstyle. Anyway, writer boy takes a liking to one of the Wives – Wife Frustrated Incorporated, of all women – and doesn’t just flirt; he makes it known, scaring her off.

Gordo
At the same time, asshole Gordo Cooper is not such an asshole after all, we learn. He gets plenty of female attention – apparently there’s a whole bunch of women solely there to ‘score an astronaut’ – but he only has eyes for and conversation topics about his wife, the Stuckup (Odette Annable). As the benjamin of the men, he also wants to prove himself, so he fake-sleeps with other women. When he admits it all to his beloved Stuckup, we see a softer, insecure side of him and I totally understand now why they cast Bret Harrison.

Knockoff
Is it enough, that’s the big question; enough to keep the viewers viewing? I’m afraid this series, albeit a nice light period drama, can’t permit itself to keep going like this. It needs spicing up. If The Astronaut Wives Club wants to stay close to its big (articulate, intellectual, mesmerising) brother Mad Men, and not be handed off as some sort of Sixties knockoff, the gloves/mittens have to come off.

The Astronaut Wives Club: Protocol

Although the show about 7 women keeping up appearances while their husbands are off preparing for their missions into space has its moments, at times the series does suffer from the ‘sitting duck principle’.

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Bubble
Every week there’s a launch, one of the men’s inside the rocket, his wife is watching and there’s always the question whether he survives or not. A simple, clear and clever concept. Meanwhile, the women are dealing with a writer who’s on their (but actually NASA’s) side, the vultures of the press and private dicks, poking around to see if there’s something juicy to report.
The astronaut wives are thrown together into a bubble, but that’s too sweet a word. It’s more like prison. The pressure and different personalities make for good drama; backstabbing, fighting, as well as camaraderie, but the show has to watch out for the ‘sitting duck principle’.

The Sitting Duck Principle
Writing your characters into a situation where they don’t have a decent amount of control is one thing, but they can’t linger there for too long a time. At this point, the wives are sitting at home, while the big bad world keeps poking through the windows. It’s all reacting what they do, instead of actually acting; initiating something themselves, getting their power back.
An important rule of screenwriting is: whatever happens to your character, make sure the character has brought it onto himself. Don’t let him block all the punches, make him punch, too. Sure, the wives have all willingly chosen for the spotlight, so in that sense the reporters are their own fault, but it’s time now for one of the wives to punch one of their lights out.

Camaraderie
One of the highlights of the second episode – ‘Protocol’ – was the camaraderie, between the women and men, when Wife Sweetiepie (Azure Parsons), who has a stutter, got into a pickle. The way the other wives (The Joan, The Stuckup, Wife Frustrated Incorporated, The Smoker, The Betty Draper Twin and The Amy Adams Lookalike) and her husband stood up for her was very beautiful.

Evil Bret
Another thing that stood out, was Gordon Cooper, played by Bret Harrison. He and Odette Annable have come a long way since Breaking In (the great but too goofy for primetime comedy series); in The Astronaut Wives Club they’re even married now, but their relationship still is no picknick. Gordon, or ‘Gordo’, is actually kind of an asshole. Harrison’s obviously tired of getting typecast as the sympathetic pretty boy all the time. One side effect of it is that Annable doesn’t look happy – at all. Hence the nickname The Stuckup (I’ll let you figure out to whom the other nicknames belong to).

Desperate Sixties Housewives in Space

ABC jumps right into the gap, left by the departure of Don Draper from our television screens. For anyone missing the sixties already, take a look at The Astronaut Wives Club.

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Chitchat around a Teapot
They could’ve picked a different name, because it’s got DULL written all over it, no matter if it completely covers what the show is about; a title seldom makes you, but in some cases it can break you. Who’s going to tune in for chitchat around a teapot – because that’s the association you get when you put wives and club together, especially when the story takes place in the 1960s.
Having gotten that off my chest, The Astronaut Wives Club does deserve a look, despite flying very much under the radar. It’s June and you know what that means. TNT, USA, Syfy, FX, they’ve all come out of hiding and are busy bombarding the world with new drama. ABC’s sympathetic show about women, standing by their space traveling men, easily gets snowed under.

Launch
Although the focus of the show lies on the women – while their husbands do all the exciting, space rocket stuff -, it’s much less boring than you might expect. In the pilot, called ‘Launch’, it becomes clear we’re dealing with an ensemble cast, but what a great cast it is. It takes skill to get the show on the road and introduce all the characters, but it happens in a very nicely paced, organic fashion. Besides, who doesn’t love Odette Annable (House MD, Breaking In, Banshee)? Or what about Bret Harrison (Breaking In, The Loop, V, Reaper) and Evan Handler (Necessary Roughness, and of course Charlie Runkle on Californication)?

The Joan
Other cast members include JoAnna Garcia Swisher (Once Upon a Time), Yvonne Strahovski (24: Live Another Day, Dexter, Chuck), Dominique McElligott (Hell on Wheels), Azure Parsons (Salem) and Zoe Boyle (Sons of Anarchy, Downton Abbey). The show takes place in the sixties and the production value is great. It could be a Mad Men spinoff show, if you look at it through your eyelashes. And that’s where The Joan comes in – because every show needs a Joan Holloway. In this case, it’s Erin Cummings (Spartacus, Pan Am, Made in Jersey and… yes, Mad Men). She’s terrific as Marge Slayton, the alpha female, if you will.
As far as the pilot goes, The Astronaut Wives Club lacks the intellectual depth of The Don Draper Show, but it does capture the time period beautifully. It also proves you don’t need silly image filters, just because the story happens to take place 50 years ago (I’m looking at you, Aquarius).

The Concept
The concept of the series is actually quite brilliant. All of their husbands are in training to become astronauts, but it’s the sixties; rockets occasionally blow up after take-off. Every launch is both very exciting – ‘my husband was picked to go outer space!’ – and terrifying, because of its Russian roulette aspect.
All in all, it’d be a shame if this show doesn’t find an audience, because it’s awesome.