The ingredients that make up “The Flight Attendant,” HBO Max’s highly entertaining, stealthily thoughtful new thriller, should all feel familiar to anyone who loves television, movies, and/or a good page-turner. It’s Hitchcock and hijinks, or “New Girl” by way of “The Lost Weekend;” imagine a single, alcoholic Lucy Ricardo trying to flee Thailand after waking in a fancy hotel room next to the bloody, murdered corpse of her most recent hook-up and you’re in the right neighborhood. But like the best of all such genre-melding stories, it’s a lot more complicated than that, thanks in no small part to a career-best performance from Kaley Cuoco. When an actor walks that sort of tightrope — trauma, but make it funny; it’s a thriller, but you’re bad at being in a thriller; et cetera — the results can be either underwhelming or dazzling, and it’s rarely anywhere in between. In the case of “The Flight Attendant,” it’s definitely the latter.
Adapted from Chris Bohjalian’s 2018 novel of the same name, Steve Yockey’s series centers on the titular high-flier, Cassie (Cuoco), a hard-partying “good time girl” whose job, in addition to paying her rent, allows her to drink, dance, and bed-hop across the globe. It’s clear, though perhaps not to our heroine, that her life choices have begun to wear on her friends and loved ones, primarily: her brother Davey (T.R. Knight, excellent), his husband, and their daughters; her fellow flight attendants, including Marie (Rosie Perez), who has her own drama playing out after work hours; and her best friend Annie (Zosia Mamet), an aggressively competent criminal attorney. (Handy friend to have.) While on a flight to Bangkok, she meets charming cypher Alex (Michael Huisman, eminently watchable and expertly opaque), a rich guy who soon becomes a rich dead body. Confronted with that gruesome scene and her own hangover simultaneously, Cassie makes just about the worst decisions imaginable, then keeps on making them. And that would be a problem, even if she could remember the night before, which she can’t, or if a mysterious woman (the great Michelle Gomez) wasn’t hot on her trail, which she is.
The cleverest trick “The Flight Attendant” pulls is this: the plot, while enjoyably twisty, isn’t the main attraction. It’s Cassie herself. Whether Cuoco, an executive producer on the series alongside Greg Berlanti and others, decided to deliberately play off her sitcom-star image, this writer cannot say, but the tension between Cassie’s daffy, messy-ol’-me persona, which would be perfectly at home in a sitcom, and the reality of her life and impact her choices makes for a fascinating starting point for a character study. Cuoco doesn’t waste the opportunity. It’s as though Cassie herself is playing a role, but in the wrong genre, and she knows it’s not working but can’t bring herself to throw in the towel. The result is a performance equal parts frenetic and deliberate, a character it’s easy to love but who will also have audiences fairly shouting at the screen in frustration, and a level of staggering vulnerability that Cuoco somehow manages to make obvious to everyone but Cassie herself. It’s been a strange year, but one rich with great star turns on television, and Cuoco’s is among the best.
As the title and the above paragraph both suggest, “The Flight Attendant” is all about the flight attendant, and no other character comes close to her level of dynamic shading. That’s not the fault of the actors, who are uniformly strong — it’s a hell of a flex to cast Bebe Neuwirth and give her a single scene, at least in the four episodes provided for review — and it’s not really to the detriment of the series, either. While critics only screened the first half of this miniseries, the performances are potent enough that no one feels underdeveloped, simply less significant. The exceptions are Knight, a terrific actor whose scenes with Cuoco are among the show’s strongest, and Perez, whose character benefits both from a cloud of mysterious plot questions and from being played by Rosie Perez. Were this series more of an ensemble drama, it’s likely their turns would be nearly as noteworthy, but “The Flight Attendant” owes both a debt; without their specificity and skill, it’s likely that the whole affair would go lopsided.
Mercifully, that’s not the case, and rather than watching Cassie wander amidst a crowd of cardboard cutouts, we simply follow her down a nightmare rabbit hole. Here’s where “The Flight Attendant” proves particularly surprising: Not content to merely anchor a popcorn-friendly plot to a remarkable central performance, Yockey and company also anchor it to Cassie’s papier-mâché mental state. To say too much about the show’s visual language or its most interesting narrative swings is to diminish some of the appeal, but suffice it to say that neither the trippy Hitchcock-inspired opening titles nor the irresistible, anxiety-including score (from frequent Berlanti collaborator Blake Neely) is the least bit out of place. Cassie is an unreliable narrator, but not because she’s out to deceive the audience. We’re in her mind, and it’s her own mind that she’s most intent on deceiving. It’s also a real mess in there.
While the TV-lover in me would love to gobble this series down whole — HBO Max will release the series in small batches over the next several weeks — it’s likely that “The Flight Attendant” will only benefit from a more drawn-out schedule. In the days between installments, viewers will have time to wrestle with the chaos of Cassie’s story before zooming in on the chaos of her everyday life, and the thriller that’s secretly a character drama about addiction and its destructive aura deserve that extra time to marinate. But a thriller also often lives and dies by its finale. If “The Flight Attendant” doesn’t come in for a smooth landing (no apologies for that pun) it’s possible that this writer’s delight in the early episodes will diminish, but the potency of its interior drama and Cuoco’s work make that outcome unlikely. What matters isn’t if or how Lucy and Ethel manage to solve their chocolate conveyor belt problem, it’s how they react when all hell breaks loose. It’s a privilege to watch Cuoco stand alone as the bon-boss come flying down the track, and it might even be funny if it weren’t so damn tragic.
Four episodes screened for review.