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Who Puts the Right into “The Right Stuff”?

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I’m not generally a fan of reboots. I had no need for an updated version of Total Recall, and I’ll be just fine if I never again have to watch Bruce Wayne’s parents die so that he can grow up to become Batman. My feeling is: If you’re going to return to familiar material, at least come at it in a fresh way—like the second Battlestar Galactica, or like each new rover that NASA sends to Mars.

Fortunately, the TV adaptation of The Right Stuff (whose first two episodes were just released on Disney+) is more Curiosity rover than Total Recall 2012. As the title tells you, the new series draws on Tom Wolfe’s 1979 beloved book of the same name, which is still one of the best accounts of the dawn of the space age. The book, in turn, begat a 1983 film adaptation, which has its own devoted following. But a lot has changed in the 37 years since then.

In its latest incarnation, The Right Stuff is structured as an 8-episode streaming season. Its episodic structure and vastly increased running time allow the series probe into details of history and character that simply could not fit into a feature film. The cultural context is also much different than it was in 1979 or 1983. Back then, the Space Shuttle program was starting up, promising a rebirth of NASA’s adventurous spirit. Today, NASA shares headlines and public adulation with private startups, most notably Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

The Right Stuff plays out quite differently as a result, and its creators seem well aware of that. They seem aware, too, that watching streaming video at home while waiting out a pandemic yields a vastly different experience than curling up with Tom Wolfe’s gonzo prose or chomping over-buttered popcorn