Last week, I laid out the case that Kaley Cuoco, who stood at a crossroads at the 2019 end of The Big Bang Theory‘s twelve season run, is swiftly proving that many of us underestimated her talents. She’s already distancing herself from her stereotypical “dumb blonde” neighbor act with two roles in projects that she’s also executive produced (and therefore has a say in what goes down and how). The first role would be the deliciously profane voice of animated Harley Quinn (recently renewed for a third season on HBO Max), and the second project’s one of the first original series (albeit a limited one) on the same streaming service. Both series are savvy choices that go a long way to convince me that Kaley’s well-aware of her strengths, and she’s not afraid to use them to her greatest advantage.
HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant does play up those assets, namely Kaley’s comedic timing and flair for communicating “frazzled” but not “flustered.” It’s an important distinction to enjoying her character here, in what’s a pretty simple setup. Kaley portrays (you guessed it) an airline stewardess (Cassie) with an international jet-setting lifestyle. She’s a boozy mess, probably even a functional alcoholic (so many tiny vodka bottles), never growing too close to (almost) anyone. She falls into bed in various countries with various handsome men. During the course of one particularly fateful and ill-advised encounter, Cassie’s life (along with chunks of her sanity) careens right off a cliff.
In short, she blacks out and wakes up next to the bloody corpse of a one-night stand. Does she call the cops? Nope. Cassie does a terrible job cleaning up after herself, which means that she spends the next several episodes attempting to convince U.S. federal agents that she did not kill this fine American man. There are other things going on, of course, but there’s also a simplicity to this madcap quandary that I can appreciate.
That’s one level of how one can enjoy this show. It’s dark stuff, yes, and traumatic as well. Somehow, it’s also very funny, which is down to the absurdity of the situation, along with Kaley’s reactions to each piece of fresh hell that Cassie’s enduring. This isn’t a particularly smart series (nor does it take itself too seriously), but it is a clever one and a free-falling flight that careens through obstacles with such momentum that it’s easy to look past any plot holes. Instead, one can simply relax and witness Cassie’s not-so-slow descent into losing-her-sh*t-land while piecing together the details of her night.
It’s also possible to opt into a deeper level of watching this show, though that isn’t necessary. As in, there are multiple ways to weigh Cassie’s dilemma, which allows the audience to dive into the relevance of flashbacks that she experiences, sometimes years or decades into the past. One can mull over why this character set up a lifestyle for herself that allows her to rarely form a meaningful connection. Or one can consider how unavoidably messy Cassie’s inner state is compared to her glossy outward appearance. Then there’s the blackout factor, which presents questions about whether someone who’s accustomed to doing “silly” drunk things can possibly make the leap to murderer.
No obvious answers materialize for those considerations, at least, not in the first half of the season that’s been screened for critics. Instead, clues appear, and many of them arrive in surreal circumstances, so the show really does a fine job of veering away from predictability traps. It’s a whirlwind ride, too, with polished production values gliding through exotic locales with the well-timed click of high-heels through an airport. All of the action appears to flow so effortlessly that it’s easy to surrender to the flow, and although this show revolves around a present trauma, it’s almost relaxing to see Cassie frenetically attempt to clean up a compounding disaster. Maybe that’s partially because our own world has grown so absurd and out-of-our-control. It’s rather nice to watch a stressful situation play out in a surprisingly funny way and with the confidence that, somehow, a pilot shall guide this mess to a landing.
This is, through and through, Kaley Cuoco’s show, and she is very clearly having a ball with her character. Yet she is aided by some steely supporting players, mostly the ladies. Zosia Mamet gets to step outside the best friend box and play an attorney who isn’t afraid to slide all sorts of game pieces around. Rosie Perez plays a sketchy flight attendant colleague, who’s really more of a frenemy. And Michelle Gomez slides in and out of the picture as a possibly evil influence (after most recently playing Madam Satan in Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina). All three women spark different reactions and emotions within Cassie, while she tries to pick up the pieces and figure out exactly how her life has spiraled so far out of control that she’s ended up in this horrific position.
The Flight Attendant is a bloody affair that’s spiked with pitch-black humor. You’ll laugh at the scene where Cassie wakes up next to a virtual stranger’s body, and you won’t feel bad about doing so. Yes, that’s a weird statement to make in a show that frames itself around a brutal killing, but mostly, this adventure is about watching Kaley Cuoco stretch her legs down the aisles of leading-lady land. It’s also, at times, a chillingly captivating tale that charms without a heavy-handed touch. And it’s a fine choice to binge some hours away with multiple episodes dropping weekly. Take the trip, and place your trays in an upright position while you prepare for takeoff.
HBO Max’s ‘The Flight Attendant’ will run three debut episodes on November 26.