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HBO Max's The Flight Attendant soars as a stylish adventure with a strong cast and a rollicking pace

  • The Kaley Cuoco-led thriller based on Chris Bohjalian’s 2018 bestseller "shifts between two moods: On the one hand, it’s a highly watchable caper, as Cassie enlists the help of her power-attorney BFF, Annie Mouradian (Zosia Mamet from Girls, a welcome and hiply sardonic presence), to help her navigate a legal nightmare that could very well turn her into the world’s next Amanda Knox," says Hank Stuever. "On the other hand, The Flight Attendant is a rather disturbing tale of an alcoholic on a downward spiral, in desperate need of the sort of help that’s about folding chairs and coffee urns in community-center meeting rooms, not about the larger international espionage angles that occupy most of the plot. Reconciling these two stories is a real trick; the four episodes made available for this review (out of eight) certainly achieve the story’s nonstop anxiety level, but one gets the feeling that the whole thing would come apart without Cuoco’s impressive grip on the character: a woman who is out of control, expertly played by an actress who demonstrates such precision — even when her character can’t walk a straight line and the show teeters between being funny and horrifying. Men get all sorts of credit for playing this level of functional drunk, while female characters who hit the booze this hard tend to only get our disapproval."


    • The Flight Attendant is reminiscent of USA's blue sky shows: "At its core The Flight Attendant is a standard whodunnit, one embellished by a crackling cast and snappy dialogue (Mamet in particular has a way of letting a stinging observation trail off that leaves judgment hanging in the air)," says Danette Chavez. "Such was the appeal of blue sky shows like Psych (which is back in TV movie form), White Collar, and Monk. You usually didn’t require Shawn Spencer’s or Adrian Monk’s preternatural perception to find the culprit, but the winding journey was a fun ride all the same. But whether primarily a comedy or a drama, the blue sky shows always found moments of pathos. The Flight Attendant follows suit, buoyantly courting danger while never becoming too perilous, and giving its characters moments to shine. It’s an engrossing, somewhat weightless throwback, but one that hearkens back to USA’s 'Characters Welcome' motto rather than Alfred Hitchcock Presents."
    • The whole production is buoyed by Kaley Cuoco’s performance: "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," says Kathryn VanArendonk. "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."
    • The Flight Attendant is twisty, emotional, shocking, and wildly entertaining: "The show balances moments of surreal horror and pitch-black comedy with incredible aplomb, showcasing a wonderfully diverse cast who brings their A-game to every scene," says Jessica Mason, adding that Cuoco "is perfectly cast as Cassie and she’s powerful, funny, messy, and compelling all at once. She makes you immediately care about Cassie, and even though the character is extremely broken and makes bad choices, Cuoco never gets too over-the-top or morose. But she’s not the only stellar performer or character. Everyone is great and the show continually finds time to comment on and be inclusive of race, gender, sexuality, and class."
    • It's 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," says Amy Amatangelo. "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."
    • The Flight Attendant is the TV equivalent of a beach read, pure and simple: "Only what it accomplishes is actually not so simple; most shows of this type tend to get weighed down by the clumsiness of broadcast storytelling or the pretensions of cable prestige," says Daniel Fienberg. The Flight Attendant seems happy to be enjoyed and disposed of. It has a confidence of identity that I appreciated."
    • The Flight Attendant is a bloody affair that’s spiked with pitch-black humor that is clearly Kaley Cuoco's show: "You’ll laugh at the scene where Cassie wakes up next to a virtual stranger’s body, and you won’t feel bad about doing so," says Kimberly Ricci. "Yes, that’s a weird statement to make in a show that frames itself around a brutal killing, but mostly, this adventure is about watching Kaley Cuoco stretch her legs down the aisles of leading-lady land. It’s also, at times, a chillingly captivating tale that charms without a heavy-handed touch. And it’s a fine choice to binge some hours away with multiple episodes dropping weekly. Take the trip, and place your trays in an upright position while you prepare for takeoff."
    • It’s a thriller, and it’s a drama, but it’s also almost a comedy: "If you like Netflix’s Dead to Me, I’m thinking you’ll probably like The Flight Attendant, which premieres Thursday on HBO Max," says Matthew Gilbert. "It’s a lot of fun, if you’re willing to go along for a ride that doesn’t always track but almost always entertains. It’s a thriller, and it’s a drama, but it’s also almost a comedy, with a brisk pace and a playful tone. It takes itself seriously, but only to a point."
    • The Flight Attendant presents us with a delightfully post-network Kaley Cuoco: "And in her irritating flightiness, her self-obsessed disorganization, Cassie does feel pretty real," says Sonia Saraiya. "She’s fun to watch, but a little tragic, too: Cuoco amps up all of her sitcom-honed physical comedy to make Cassie into that messy acquaintance who you love to run into at parties and otherwise do your best to avoid. It’s not that she’s ill-intentioned, but there’s a lot going on there—and if you’re not on an airplane, she’s remarkably unreliable, chasing the next good time before the current one has even ended. Maybe that’s the most brilliant twist in Cuoco’s performance as Cassie: She’s playing a character who isn’t put together or impressive, but rather just this side of annoying—and somehow you end up rooting for her anyway."
    • Kaley Cuoco is in a different position here than she was on past shows -- she's a big star now: "No one is objectifying her in lieu of giving her good material; she’s owning Cassie’s sexuality as a key part of the character," says Alan Sepinwall. "And she’s the very clear, and often very funny, protagonist of this darkly comic mystery story, which begins when Cassie wakes up from a night of blackout drinking to find Alex’s bloody corpse in the hotel bed next to her." He adds: "Cuoco is sharp and likable throughout, two necessary ingredients for playing a character who makes a scene wherever she goes. ... And the exasperation she inspires in friends and family (including T.R. Knight as her disapproving brother Davey) generates wonderful sparks between Cuoco and Girls alum Mamet, who gets to play a comic symphony of disapproval as high-powered lawyer Annie watches her pal make one terrible choice after another."
    • The Flight Attendant feels like reading a page-turner you’d pick up in an airport: "Arguably the splashiest entry to HBO Max’s original programming slate yet, The Flight Attendant is a fizzy cocktail of a show that goes down easy — which, for a nascent streaming network trying to keep its audience’s attention, might be just right," says Caroline Framke. "With slick directing from Susanna Fogel, a jazzy score from Blake Neely, and sporadic flashes to Cassie’s terrified subconscious, the show quickly becomes a surreal noir with a solid screwball performance at its center. It’s just swapped the traditional hardboiled, probably alcoholic detective for a scatterbrained, probably alcoholic flight attendant. Pulpy and surreal, watching The Flight Attendant feels like reading a page-turner you’d pick up in an airport for a flight and accidentally tear through in the first couple hours."
    • It’s a story that’s practically made for the episodic world of television, but it’s Cuoco’s performance that truly sells the show: "It was always a running joke that The Big Bang Theory‘s Penny was a messy party girl, but CBS only showed the network version of that trope," says Kayla Cobb. "In The Flight Attendant Cuoco completely lets loose — and the result is an absolute joy to watch. Cuoco commits to Cassie’s constantly terrible ideas fully, flinging herself from cleaning up a crime scene to having a panic attack in an airplane bathroom. Every one of Cassie’s decisions is dumber than the last, yet Cuoco sells her unending desperation so well you can’t help feeling sorry for her, just as you’re screaming for her to stop."
    • The Flight Attendant is mindless fun, a quality often in too-short supply in the world of premium TV
    • Did we underestimate Kaley Cuoco's post-Big Bang Theory success?: "The odds were stacked against Cuoco. Her position when BBT ended was similar to that of Jennifer Aniston (who’s still best known as Rachel from Friends), or even Katherine Heigl (Grey’s Anatomy, which is obviously now in motion without her), both of whom succeeded in movie-romcom-land," says Kimberly Ricci. "Yet that route largely dried up years ago. If romcoms exist now, they’re streaming affairs. Aaand she also needed to overcome winning two Razzie awards (for Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Road Chip and The Wedding Ringer) that she 'won' during her BBT tenure. It’s all good though; Kaley’s doing just fine without romcoms, and she’s not punching above her weight in an Oscar quest. So far, she’s succeeded mightily as the voice of animated Harley Quinn, the DC-Universe-turned-HBO-Max animated series about the Joker’s ex-girlfriend striking out on her own and experiencing delicious personal growth. That show found new life after two seasons on DC Universe as an HBO Max Season 3 pickup, and she’s launching The Flight Attendant... Both are highly entertaining series ....Is it surprising, though, that Cuoco’s career appears to actually be reaching new heights, when it’s usually pretty tough to move on so quickly after a long-term role ends (and with two Razzies)?"
    • Creator Steve Yockey wanted The Flight Attendant to have a sensation like Pop Rocks: “The goal is to make something that’s like Pop Rocks," he says. "That’s this explosion of flavor that turns into something else when you put it in your mouth—this unexpected thing. Listen, I love important television as much as the next guy. I’ll line up for the latest dramatic and serious show that will rock me to my core. But there are other ways to get to peoples’ cores.”
    • Kaley Cuoco says The Flight Attendant isn't her way of escaping her Big Bang Theory past: "A lot of people said to me, ‘Oh, you’re obviously trying to get away from the character of Penny and find something darker,’” says Cuoco, who optioned the rights to The Flight Attendant three years ago and also serves as an executive producer. “I really wasn’t. I was super happy playing Penny and was just looking for what the next project would be after Big Bang. When I saw the cover of The Flight Attendant, I got this interesting chill up my spine and thought, Oh, my God, I want to know more.”
    • Cuoco is glad she snapped up the rights to The Flight Attendant before Reese Witherspoon: "I've been with the same team of nearly 20 people — agents, managers, attorneys, publicists — since I was about 15. During the last few years of Big Bang, they were all telling me, 'You might want to start thinking about the next step,'" says Cuoco. "They knew I wasn't planning, so it was one of my managers who told me to look out for an article or a book that I liked. One night, I was swiping through upcoming books on Amazon and saw The Flight Attendant. I read one sentence and called my attorney: 'Have you heard of this book? And, if you have, did Reese Witherspoon get the rights?' I was assuming she probably did. (Laughs.) I had not even read the book yet, and all of a sudden I have the rights — I guess I'll just walk into (soon-to-retire Warner Bros. Television Group chairman) Peter Roth's office with it and say, 'Hey, let's make this.'"

    TOPICS: The Flight Attendant, HBO Max, Chris Bohjalian, Kaley Cuoco, Steve Yockey