The Flight Attendant Assessment: Kaley Cuoco cleverly wears HBO Max Thriller
I'm a sucker for both dark comedies and crime novels, so admittedly HBO's new limited series The combat companion is right in my wheelhouse. Based on the novel by Chris Bohjalianfollows the series Cassie Bowden (Kaley Cuoco), a barely functioning alcoholic who uses her position on the flight crew of a large airliner as a convenient excuse to be absolutely smashed in some of the most beautiful cities in the world. She meets a handsome stranger named Alex (Michiel Huisman) on a flight to Bangkok and spends a damp, passionate evening with him, only to wake up the next morning next to his murdered corpse, not remembering what happened. (I hate when that happens.)
Instead of calling the police, Cassie panics and the goddamn it gets out and gets on her flight back to the US and does her best to pretend everything is fine. However, thanks to her increasingly erratic behavior, she quickly tops the FBI's list of suspects as she takes on herself to solve the mystery of who Alex was and why someone wanted him dead. "Waking up next to a corpse" is an exaggerated premise, but after watching the first four episodes, The Flight Attendant excels with clever writing, a gripping puzzle and a magnetically chaotic performance by Kaley Cuoco.
First, let's know that unlike many alleged "dark comedies", The Flight Attendant is actually very funny and Cuoco is undoubtedly his best asset. Cuoco is a television comedy veteran, so it should come as no great surprise that she can wear a show like this. And anyone who's seen the excellent deconstruction of R-rated superheroes Harley Quinn knows that Cuoco can skilfully switch between manic, crazy and sensitive with nimble, frenetic energy. She uses this skill perfectly to turn Cassie into an entertaining train wreck that is also very dear to our hearts.
Image via HBO max
Cassie is A Mess ™, and The Flight Attendant is doing a great job of bringing that point home in its opening montage as she enjoys the life of a young, attractive woman who has a job that gives her the freedom to be on the celebrate all over the world. Her clutter becomes an increasing problem as the puzzle unfolds (in fact, this is the main reason she is involved in a gruesome murder), and we see flashes of some insidious childhood memories that will no doubt explain why Cassie is such a wreck is. It's mostly fun at first – Cassie's drunken antics are adorably embarrassing and she doesn't really harm anyone but herself. But as her situation gets worse and worse, the glamorous veneer of her jet setting lifestyle begins to melt, revealing an extremely lonely woman struggling with depression and abandonment, and a deep-seated guilt festering inside her long before she did next time woke up to a dead man. Her strained relationship with her older brother Davey (T.R. Knight) lead to some particularly daunting scenes, including a painful sequence in which she shows up drunk on a family outing with Davey's young daughters and tries catastrophically to be the "funny aunt". It never gets as dark as for example Bojack rider, but The Flight Attendant interrupts Cassie's comedic debauchery with the reality of alcoholism in a way that keeps you investing in her (hopeful) recovery.
The scenes between Cassie and Alex are some of the best moments on the show. Huisman plays Cassie's fucking one night stand Alex in a warm, good mood, and although Alex is murdered in the first ten minutes of the first episode, he remains a main character in thanks to a clever narrative device that keeps Cassie talking to his mind over and over again her mind trying to solve the puzzle. Through these imaginary conversations and flashbacks of their short evening together, their entire relationship develops into a bittersweet quasi-romance. Cassie's initial shock and panic gradually infect with real sadness about Alex's death as she begins to pull memories of him out of the alcoholic fog that obscures her memory of that night, and their playfully comical interactions gradually become more tragic, ever the more they bind themselves to his spirit. Their post-mortem relationship gets more complicated as Cassie reveals more details about Alex's life, raising doubts as to whether Alex was a victim or a villain, and whether Cassie is truly innocent of his murder.
Image via HBO max
Another highlight is Blake NeelyThe score that is great fun. A lot of very jazzy piano pieces lead us through the series, dancing between playful and threatening, but never fully embracing them. The music knows mystery is fun to watch and it takes that fact into account, especially during the wonderfully trippy opening sequence. The score helps make The Flight Attendant feel like a noir, which technically it does, even though it's not filmed like one.
A dent in The Flight Attendant's charmingly appealing flight plan is the heavy dependence of the plot on magical background characters. Cassie happens to be Ani's best friend (Zosia Mamet), a smart, tough lawyer who conveniently keeps Cassie out of federal custody so the story can move on. Meanwhile, Ani happens to have friends who owe her favors in literally every hazardous area Cassie stumbles into – one quick phone call and Cassie is able to keep both the FBI and Alex's sinister parents one step ahead who literally nearly murdered her after being caught on Alex.
Ani even has a friend who can pull tapes from any security camera on the New York subway system, which is fine, sure. And Ani happens to be with Max (Deniz Akdeniz), an incredibly great computer hacker who comes in out of nowhere to help Cassie uncover more of the mystery behind Alex's murder. Stories are based on comfort, happy accidents, and pure happiness because they are stories and need things that can unfold in exciting and surprising ways. But Ani's constant Deus Ex Machina is exhausting and effectively undermines Cassie's role in solving her own mystery. HBO Max only put the first four episodes up for review (there are 8 total) so I can't rate this review with 100% certainty, but the fact that it was a regular device for half the story doesn't satisfy me with confidence it will stop happening.
Image via HBO max
Another hiccup is there Rosie Perez. Before I go any further I want to make it clear that Rosie Perez is great and as Cassie's curious associate, Megan does a great job at The Flight Attendant. The problem is the B conspiracy in which Megan is engaged in industrial espionage at the behest of two vaguely sinister Japanese businessmen. I'm sure this is linked in some way to the main secret, but at the end of Episode 4 it just serves as a boring distraction from Cassie's infinitely more interesting ordeal. It's like every time they go to Dorne game of Thronesand like those scenes in Dorne, I worry that Megan's B-plot won't matter much in the end.
Those complaints aside, The Flight Attendant is a refreshing treat for mystery fans looking for a new twist on an established setup and for people who just have fun watching TV. Irresistibly observable, Cuoco devotes the same energy to clownshness and real pathos to make Cassie a compelling heroine. And her quick, sizzling chemistry with Huisman as her bizarre romance results in some of the most unique television scenes I've seen lately. I'm going to resist using a pun like "book your ticket" here and just tell you to watch the Dang show when it premieres on HBO Max on November 26th.
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About the author
(560 articles published)
Tom Reimann is a writer and comedian and sort of Associate Editor at Collider. He has written for Cracked.com, Mad Magazine, BunnyEars.com, and Some More News, and is a co-founder of the podcast network Gamefully Unemployed.
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