We've all been there. A night of drunken partying. Flirting heavily with a guy we've just met. Waking up with a throbbing headache and blood on your hands. Oh, and a dead body in your bed. Such are the circumstances for Cassie Bowden (Kaley Cuoco), the titular flight attendant of The Flight Attendant, who flirts with the devastatingly handsome man reading Crime and Punishment in seat 3C (Game of Thrones' Michiel Huisman) only to see it blow up in her face.
HBO Max posted the first episode of its 8-hour miniseries online a week early, so this dead-body business won't come as a complete spoiler. What happens after Cassie wakes up beside a corpse is the stuff of many a TV murder mystery, packed with suspicious strangers, red herrings, and the main character making a series of increasingly stupid decisions. Who killed the man in Cassie's bed? What dark secrets did he hide? What dark secrets is she hiding? And will the Feds ever believe it wasn't her?
The Flight Attendant comes from executive producers Sarah Schechter and the prolific Greg Berlanti, who were executive producers on You, the Lifetime series that migrated to Netflix and won itself a fervent audience for its ability to wring dark humor and compelling plot twists out of a rather disturbing stalker premise. Like You, The Flight Attendant was originally a book, in this case a novel by Chris Bohjalian that was optioned by Kaley Cuoco and her Yes, Norman production company.
It's Cuoco's first major star vehicle since The Big Bang Theory ended (or the first one where you can see her face, anyway; she voices the title character in the animated Harley Quinn series), and it certainly gives her a lot to play. Not only is she at the center of a murder conspiracy where she has to frantically clear her name, but Cassie has a drinking problem, some kind of shrouded family past that gets slowly unpacked through flashbacks, and a highly quirky plot device where she ends up interacting with the dead guy in her head as she tries to unpack his murder.
It is, as they say, a lot. And that's not even getting into the numerous avenues that the side characters present. There's the great Rosie Perez playing Megan, Cassie's fellow flight attendant and work friend who seems to live vicariously through Cassie's boozy, floozy adventures, all while keeping secrets of her own. There's Cassie's best pal Annie (Zosia Mamet), a hard-nosed mob lawyer who uses her connections to help Cassie out. There's T.R. Knight as Cassie's decidedly more well-adjusted gay brother. There's The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina's fantastic Michelle Gomez as the mysterious Miranda Kroft. And there are the FBI agents, played by Merle Dandridge and Nolan Gerard Funk, who are doggedly pursuing Cassie as a suspect and doing their very best to replicate Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit from Gone Girl.
For the most part — Perez and Mamet, especially, but also Shane Evans playing another of Cassie's flight-attendant pals — these characters work in their own little moments. This kind of multi-pronged attention to characters outside of the main protagonist can be a real virtue for a show. Lord knows Lost showed what a series can do by expanding its mystery to ever more characters on an ever-widening canvass. The Flight Attendant isn't Lost, nor does it want to be, but halfway through its eight episodes (critics were shown the first four), these characters begin to feel more like detours meant to pad out the plot.
Meanwhile, there's Cuoco at the center, playing the harried, raccoon-eyed, often drunk Cassie. She's the kind of flawed, often maddening protagonist we've grown to expect in the 21st century, and the clues to some kind of buried childhood trauma are certainly intriguing, even as Cuoco swims upstream to make these scenes work. As an actress, Cuoco's vibe has always felt like a kind of B-team Christina Applegate, and the more worked-over Cassie's supposed to seem as a character, the less we buy it. She works better in the more comedic scenes, playing off of the incredulity of her friends, even as the plot assigns her ludicrous tasks like attending the funeral of the guy she's suspected of killing.
The desire to be the next You-style streaming sensation is palpable, with every silly and strange plot twist and stylistic choice seeming destined to draw "WTF am I watching LOL" tweets. And showrunners Steve Yockey, Marcie Ulin, and Meredith Lavender do indeed parcel out just enough plot-advancing information to make you want to stick around to see where this is all going, so, as with many "Why am I still watching this?" shows, the joke is ultimately on us. Somebody killed that guy in Cassie's bed. Something messed up happened in her childhood. Rosie Perez is up to something. And lord knows what Chekhov would say about brandishing a two-time Tony Award-winning actress in the first half of the season.
Still, it's hard to watch The Flight Attendant and not wish the show wouldn't grind its gears so much as it tries to hotfoot from suspense, to humor, to deep strangeness and back again. It's dumb. And it's fun. If only it spent more time being both at the same time.
The first three episodes of The Flight Attendant drop on HBO Max November 26th.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.