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“The Right Stuff” on Disney+

Thanks to the various companies that the entertainment industry octopus known as The Walt Disney Company owns (Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm, 20th Century Fox, ABC, ESPN, Freeform, FX, National Geographic), it’s no surprise to see that the company’s subscription streaming service, Disney+, has grown to a whopping 60.5 million subscribers (as of Aug. 2020)—less than industry leader Netflix, but far more than rivals Hulu, HBO Max and CBS All Access.

Until now, however, the original content of Disney+ has skewed strictly juvenile. Now Disney+ is finally starting to exploit some of those other content providers in its tentacles for something other than reruns. (Old episodes of “Boy Meets World,” “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends” and “Secrets of the Zoo” are fine and all, but …) Disney recently partnered with National Geographic, for example, to give Tom Wolfe’s best-selling nonfiction novel The Right Stuff a docudrama miniseries update.

The Right Stuff was, most famously, adapted as a hit film in 1983, and Disney+’s “The Right Stuff” purports to be based on both the book and the film. Both sources, being so familiar, cast a long shadow on this new production. At least to start off with, most viewers will find themselves playing “compare and contrast” between the movie’s A-list cast and the series’ largely unknown substitutes. (Patrick J. Adams tags in for Ed Harris as John Glenn, Jake McDorman subs for Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, Colin O’Donoghue takes over for Dennis Quaid as Gordo Cooper.) Oddly, Sam Shepard’s memorable Chuck Yeager (he won an Academy Award for the role) gets ejected from the project entirely. The thrust (so to speak) of the book and the movie was the rivalry between Yeager’s hotshot old-school flyboys, NASA’s wet-behind-the-ears “astronaut” recruits (Cooper, Grissom and Slayton) and golden boy John Glenn’s ultimate “Mercury Seven” supergroup. Instead, “The Right Stuff” slow-burns the dichotomy between the buttoned-down, smartly political Glenn and the philandering party boy Shepard. Which one will get to be the first man in space? McDorman, last seen as Captain Metropolis in HBO’s “Watchmen,” stands out best—possibly because his character gets to wrestle with a lot of inner demons.

Series creator-writer Mark Lafferty has got some experience with dramas about history and technology, having logged time on WGN’s “Manhattan” and AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire.” He hits a few of the highlights of NASA’s early, failure-filled days. But most of the episodes are spent just introducing audiences to the various, would-be astronauts—many of whom will be relegated to the background.

This period in modern history has been well covered (from HBO’s excellent “From the Earth to the Moon” to ABC’s soapy “Astronaut Wives Club), so the question is this: Does “The Right Stuff” bring enough to the table for folks already well-versed in the history of the mid-century American space race? At eight hours, the show is amiably nostalgic, but feels long on character and short on drama. At the moment, though, it’s the most grown-up thing we’ll get on Disney+ until Marvel’s “WandaVision” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” show up. So we might as well sit back and enjoy the ride. [ ]