The Flight Attendant. Available now on HBO Max.
Perpetually besotted flight attendant Cassie Bowden is used to waking up in a vodka haze next to men she doesn’t know, or men she does know and wishes she didn’t. When one charmless member of her crew comes around hoping for a second helping, she tries to beg off: “I was very drunk.” Replies the crewman, puzzled at the rebuff: “When aren’t you drunk?”
Yet she has no clue how far out of control her life has careened until one morning when the body next to hers has a cut throat and her hands are covered in blood.
“I am not that kind of drunk!” she gasps to herself while frantically mopping up the gore. “I’m a public-nudity, yelling-in-the-subway kind of drunk.” But the conundrum of The Flight Attendant is, how does a blackout-drunk know what she does when she’s blacked out?
Maybe that should be, the central conundrum, because The Flight Attendant is many things besides a whodunnit. It’s a blackly hilarious comedy, a grim character study, a slow unraveling of a troubling past, a dazzling coming-out party for comedienne Kaley Cuoco as a lead actress and, yeah, a vexatiously fascinating murder mystery. You won’t be able to take your eyes off of it.
In The Flight Attendant, Cuoco stars as Cassie, a character who at first glance somewhat resembles the frustrated actress she played for 12 years on The Big Bang Theory. But Penny, the Big Bang character, was trying to escape the promiscuous bimbomania of her Hollywood-wannabe life and let her inner sweetness shine through. Cassie is the reverse, using random drunken sex to suppress some vague but sinister episode in her distant past.
Yet in The Flight Attendant‘s early going, the outcome seems much the same: boinking passengers in the first-class bathroom, swiping their vodka, wisecracking (nobody delivers a punchline like Cuoco)—she’s more like a renegade sorority girl than a happy-hour Lizzie Borden. Yet there’s that corpse… .
Before turning metabolically challenged, financier Alex Sokolov (Michiel Huisman, Game of Thrones), was scion of a shady Wall Street family. In death, he’s rather chatty and magnetic—his ghost (really a sort of fragment of Cassie’s psyche that helps her uncover blacked-out memories, but who’s counting?) hangs around, offering ideas about what might have happened and why. And not all his suggestions exonerate Cassie. As the frequency and profundity of her drunken blackouts becomes more apparent, they seem less antic than apocalyptic.
The Flight Attendant is another example of how difficult it is to distinguish between television and film. From the logistical standpoint of a viewer, it seems clearly TV, with eight episodes and airing on the HBO Max streaming service. (The pilot episode is already available to anyone who wants to watch, but on Thanksgiving Day, when the next three episodes are released, the show turns subscription-only.)
But in production values, it’s big-time Hollywood. The directors—there are four of them, all with distinguished suspense-drama resumes—use split-screen photography to drive home the increasingly frenetic pace of Cassie’s life. And the photography is sumptuous, the footage of the glamorous cities to which she flies (including London, Bangkok and Hong Kong) often giving way to a darker cast.
Cuoco gets excellent support from the rest of the cast, particularly Zosia Mamet (Tales of the City) as her Tourette-ish attorney and Rosie Perez (Bounty Hunters) as a flight-attendant buddy with her own secrets. But Flight Attendant is really all about Cuoco. She’s in practically every frame, exuding professional power and confidence even when her shattered character is going to pieces. She’s also got an executive producer credit, suggesting she’ll have power to shape her projects. Cuoco is no rookie—she’s been in show business for nearly three decades and was reportedly pulling down $1 million an episode for The Big Bang Theory. But it sure feels like a star is being born.