Did We Underestimate Kaley Cuoco’s Post ‘Big Bang Theory’ Success?

The end of a long-running TV show or movie franchise must feel bittersweet for actors. On one hand, they’ve usually negotiated quite the residual or kickback deal by the time the project ends, so they don’t really have to worry much about securing future successful projects. On the other, actors usually want to, you know, act. They want to prove that they’re not simply one-trick wonders who lucked into an enduring role at the right time and in the right place. Instead, they hope to prove their range and make daring choices. It’s a (fortunate) conundrum that we’ve seen many casts (Harry Potter, Twilight, Friends, and Seinfeld, among others) grapple with to varying degrees of success. Then there’s The Big Bang Theory, which ended in 2019 after twelve seasons.

Despite the Jim Parson-led show’s enduring nature (and someone must have loved the thing), this wasn’t a quality show by any stretch. The formulaic arcs and well-worn tropes stood in abundance, so much so that so-called “real” nerds, at best, strongly disliked the series. In the middle of it all stood Kaley Cuoco, who portrayed Penny, the stereotypical “dumb blonde” neighbor, to lucrative effect. And following the show’s end, Cuoco stood at a crossroads. Could she step away from the Penny box?

The odds were stacked against Cuoco. Her position when BBT ended was similar to that of Jennifer Aniston (who’s still best known as Rachel from Friends), or even Katherine Heigl (Grey’s Anatomy, which is obviously now in motion without her), both of whom succeeded in movie-romcom-land. Yet that route largely dried up years ago. If romcoms exist now, they’re streaming affairs. Aaand she also needed to overcome winning two Razzie awards (for Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Road Chip and The Wedding Ringer) that she “won” during her BBT tenure. It’s all good though; Kaley’s doing just fine without romcoms, and she’s not punching above her weight in an Oscar quest.

So far, she’s succeeded mightily as the voice of animated Harley Quinn, the DC-Universe-turned-HBO-Max animated series about the Joker’s ex-girlfriend striking out on her own and experiencing delicious personal growth. That show found new life after two seasons on DC Universe as an HBO Max Season 3 pickup, and she’s launching The Flight Attendant (which had a planned release date of November 26, but HBO Max went ahead and released the first episode for free on November 18). Both are highly entertaining series (we are very fond of Harley Quinn here at Uproxx, and we’ll review The Flight Attendant before more episodes release). Is it surprising, though, that Cuoco’s career appears to actually be reaching new heights, when it’s usually pretty tough to move on so quickly after a long-term role ends (and with two Razzies)?

Yes, it’s unexpected, especially with Kaley veering far away from Penny. She landed two high-profile projects that aren’t exactly for the “girl next door,” which is what she played for twelve seasons already. Instead, she went profane and nerdy and darkly comedic. Time will tell if The Flight Attendant fares well, after the rest of the season surfaces. What is fairly telling, though, is that I don’t really think that many people (not even the biggest comic book nerds out there) expected the Harley Quinn TV series to be, you know, better and more successful than Birds Of Prey, the Harley emancipation movie starring Oscar-nominated actress Margot Robbie that struck many of the wrong notes. Of course, there are a lot of reasons why that movie fared only decently at the box office and with critics, whereas Harley Quinn has been a resounding success on both ends.

It’s fair to say that Kaley’s Harley did not succeed through not sheer luck for the actress who voices her. She has, after all, executive produced the series since signing onto the project, so it’s safe to assume that she has a voice in where Harley goes. And Kaley’s Harley has shown a ton of character growth over two seasons while still maintaining her sweetly anarchic spirit. It’s kinda crazy how one role in an animated series has done a lot to distance Kaley from being stereotyped inside the BBT box for good.

What I appreciate most about the current state of Kaley Cuoco’s career is the chutzpah factor. She’s not punching above her weight, but instead, she’s damn savvy at picking roles that work with her strengths. These roles are punchy and profane, and she is seriously convincing at freaking out in The Flight Attendant. We’ll talk about that more soon, but it’s clear that Kaley’s doing a heck of a lot better after Big Bang Theory than people expected. I’m looking forward to seeing how audiences receive The Flight Attendant and what more will come for these daring career moves for an actress who probably never needed to act again at all. Kaley Cuoco’s doing something very simple and admirable with her new projects: she’s entertaining the hell out of people. Some “serious” actors forget do forget… that’s what showbiz is all about, so yep, keep your eyes on Kaley Cuoco. She’s (surprisingly) going places.

HBO Max’s ‘The Flight Attendant’ will drop future episodes on November 26.