tv review

The Flight Attendant Is a Goofy-Sad Escapist Caper for Our Times

Kaley Cuoco’s lead performance in The Flight Attendant is a pitch-perfect combination of high-energy franticness and real emotional insight. Photo: Courtesy of HBO Max

There was a moment midway through the fourth episode of The Flight Attendant, a new high jinks–driven thriller on HBO Max, when I realized I had zero idea what was happening. Not only that, I realized that although I’d generally thought I was following the plot, I had in fact lost track of it at least a full episode earlier. There I’d been for the last hour, happily bopping along with the show’s high-sheen twists and semi-surrealist surprises, with little to no clue that I’d completely failed to follow what was an apparently important new development in the story. Did it matter? Not really. Was I still happy to keep watching? I was!

The Flight Attendant stars Kaley Cuoco as Cassie, the titular flight attendant, who has been enjoying her life as the literally and metaphorically ungrounded person in her friend and family group. She’s a bit distracted, she runs late, she enjoys partying and keeping things light, and she’s got a seriously unexamined alcohol problem. It suits her to live a life where she can get it on with a hot passenger from first class, spend one night with him in an exotic location, and then presumably never see him again. Pretty quickly into the pilot, though, Cassie’s attachment-free setup collapses. She sleeps with an attractive man she met on her flight (Michiel Huisman), gets blackout drunk with him in Bangkok, and then wakes up the next morning to find herself in bed with his hideously bloody corpse.

Cassie then proceeds to make a series of decisions that range from “Wow, that’s pretty bad” to “You have got to be kidding me,” the kinds of decisions that quickly get her out of the hotel room but inevitably become disasters later. And then, predictably and comfortingly, everything snowballs exactly the way you assume it must. Cassie is associated with a murder she did not commit, and she’s in a world of trouble. Her friends and co-workers get dragged into it, too, and everything escalates at a rapid, gloriously snappy pace. The Flight Attendant is edited with sly, slick split-screens, which make it feel like a murder mystery by way of Pillow Talk, or maybe a fun Soderberghian heist. It’s odd to call a thriller a romp, but that’s about where The Flight Attendant lands, and I certainly did not mind it.

The whole production is buoyed by Cuoco’s performance, which is a pitch-perfect combination of high-energy franticness and real emotional insight. She rides along with the show’s occasionally bumpy tonal reversals, pulling off both its campy excesses and its sudden swerves into remembered childhood trauma.

Part of Cuoco’s challenge is that The Flight Attendant forces Cassie to experience occasional breaks from reality, moments where her brain flashes back to the hotel room. She has lengthy, sometimes frustrated conversations with the dead man, who becomes an embodiment of her own memory, but also an imaginary friend who tries to help her solve his murder. (You could probably add a Bryan Fuller–esque surrealist vision of life after death to the list of The Flight Attendant’s influences.) Cuoco navigates those interludes with surprising deftness. They force her to keep the energy of the show going, to maintain its light comedy feel, but also to register Cassie’s legitimate fear about losing her grip on what’s real and what’s not. It’s impressive how well it works.

Most of the side characters are more one-dimensional, although also done with relish. Rosie Perez is delightful as Cassie’s best flight-attendant friend, a delight that continues even though by episode four she was smack in the center of the conspiracy side plot that I had utterly failed to grasp. Zosia Mamet plays Cassie’s friend and lawyer, in a performance that seems out of step with all the mania surrounding her, and yet adds a pleasantly sardonic note to the chorus of flighty oddness. Even Michiel Huisman, as the still-talking dead guy, has nice chemistry with Cuoco’s bouncy frenzy.

So even though by episode four I may have had almost no sense of what anything had to do with anything else, the feel of it worked anyhow. There’s a clear, strong handle on the dramatic escalation, even if the mechanics of it barely seemed worth trying to appreciate. What I’m less clear about, but will be very interested to see more of, is what comes next. (HBO Max drops the first three episodes on Thanksgiving, with the rest of the season’s eight episodes rolling out weekly after that.) The fourth episode was the last provided to critics, and although it was plenty to get me invested in the series, it was also enough to make me curious about how The Flight Attendant plans to deal with the fallout that Cassie is obviously steering toward.

Cassie has a serious alcohol problem, and it’s to the show’s credit that The Flight Attendant isn’t ignoring what could easily have been a troubling but underexplored subtext. With each episode, it incorporates more and more of the stuff Cassie has been desperately trying to shove aside, and it feels clear that part of how The Flight Attendant will turn all this wrongness around is for Cassie to have a major reckoning with herself. I want it to happen, but I’m the tiniest bit nervous about that crash. So much of what’s enjoyable about the first episodes is the series’s ridiculous high-wire act, and my hope is that it will find a way to navigate Cassie’s eventual epiphany without sacrificing the show’s silly, over-the-top caper feel.

From what I’ve seen, though, The Flight Attendant fulfills an escapist TV need that will hit the spot for many in this dark holiday season. What says “Thanksgiving 2020 entertainment” better than a show about international air travel, snazzy high jinks, and important self-examination, but also Kaley Cuoco panicking while flirting with a hot dead guy?

Flight Attendant Is a Goofy-Sad Escapist Caper for Our Times