It would be easy to mistake HBO Max’s new series The Flight Attendant for a comedy. Unlike many streaming shows which have a penchant for bloated episodes, each installment of The Flight Attendant clocks in at approximately 45 minutes long. The series stars Kaley Cuoco who, as one of the three leads on The Big Bang Theory, headlined the biggest comedy of the last decade. Even the title reminds me of that old Saturday Night Live flight attendant skit. “What part didn’t you understand? The buh or the bye?”
But instead the HBO Max original, based on Chris Bohjalian’s 2018 novel of the same name, is a taut, crisp whodunit, darkly comedic and wildly suspenseful. The eight-episode series is also a star turn for Cuoco, who shows off a much broader range than she ever had the opportunity to on her long-running CBS comedy. A bubbling, popcorn thriller, the cliff-hanger ending to each episode entices you to keep going; it’s HBO Max’s best reason yet for subscribing to the streaming platform.
Booksmart scribe Susanna Fogel directs and executive produces the first two episodes, laying the groundwork for a strong, female-led story where Cuoco stars as Cassie Bowden, the aforementioned title character, who jet sets from international destination to international destination. When she’s not in the sky for Imperial Airlines, she’s flying high as a party girl who drinks to the point of blacking out, is fond of one-night stands, has a gold lamé dress at the ready in her carry-on luggage, and sustains herself on a breakfast of Diet Coke and pickles. She’s a train wreck, but a train wreck who gets to work on time, is kind to children and animals, and loved by her friends.
On a flight to Bangkok, she meets the dashing Alex Sokolov (Michiel Huisman), or “3C” as the crew refers to him, in first class. They flirt and attempt the mile-high club before he invites her out for, that’s right, one night in Bangkok. Drinking, dancing and lots (and lots) of sex ensue. Since it happens 11 minutes into the pilot and before the opening credits, I’m not ruining too much to tell you the romantic, whirlwind romance comes to a screeching halt when Cassie wakes up next to a very dead Alex. You don’t want to be framed for murder in general. You particularly don’t want to be framed for it in Bangkok.
Cassie knows she’s innocent. “I didn’t kill you. I am not that kind of drunk,” she tells Alex, who appears to her frequently in hallucinations. Now she must fill in the blanks of her alcohol-infused night and figure out who did kill him. Aided by her best friend Annie (Zosia Mamet)—who happens to be a lawyer—and ghost Alex, she tries to piece together that hazy night. As for 3C, Huisman is the sexiest dead lover since Patrick Swayze in Ghost. He’s charming and bemused trying to help Cassie unravel the truth as her memories come into focus. “You cleaned up the crime scene,” he admonishes. And Mamet’s droll delivery is a spot-on delight—her back and forth with Cuoco is one of the series’ many highlights.
Cassie’s fractured childhood also weaves in and out of her memory; her father giving her a can of beer to drink when she was just a child is juxtaposed against her night of drinking with Alex. Meanwhile, Cassie’s brother Davey (T.R. Knight)—who is married, a dad and as responsible as Cassie is not—has memories of their childhood that clash with hers. In the best scene in the four episodes made available for review, Davey’s visit to New York with his family brings years of childhood traumas to the forefront, and we soon understand Cassie’s party girl demeanor to be a protective façade.
At work, Cassie’s friend Megan (Rosie Perez) is on her flight crew and slightly bemused/jealous/suspicious of Cassie’s ongoing shenanigans. She tells the FBI investigators that Cassie flirted with 3C. “Your gossip isn’t going to match up with the story I told them,” Cassie laments. But it is soon revealed that Megan, desperate for a little excitement in her own life, has some secrets of her own. Having a whole other, seemingly separate mystery might have been a little distracting or annoying if it was anyone else but Perez in that role; as she has been for her entire career, Perez is a joy to watch and she lights up the screen.
The cast is such a strong ensemble that at times you can see the creative team struggling to give them all enough time and material; it can makes things like the contentious relationship between the two FBI agents (Nolan Gerard Funk and Merle Dandridge) seem like an afterthought. However, the entire story truly rests in Cuoco’s capable hands. Her knack for comic relief is securely intact, but she also easily dives into the depths of Cassie’s terror and uncertainty. Her journey is our journey. Her terror is our terror. She may be an unreliable narrator, but she’s a highly entertaining one.
Bottom line? This is a series poised to take off.
The series premiere of The Flight Attendant is currently streaming for free on HBO Max. The first three episodes will air for subscribers on HBO Max Thursday, November 26th, with two episode every Thursday until the series finale on December 17th.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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