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'The Flight Attendant' Is A Fizzy, Dark And Funny Mystery

Kaley Cuoco plays the flight attendant in <em>The Flight Attendant</em>, a darkly funny thriller from HBO MAX.
Phil Caruso
Kaley Cuoco plays the flight attendant in The Flight Attendant, a darkly funny thriller from HBO MAX.

There is a whole genre of comedy-thriller that you might call the Long Night story. Our central character goes out and does something foolish, or perhaps just stumbles into the wrong place at the wrong time, and suddenly, everything is a mess. Maybe the police are chasing them, maybe criminals are; maybe it's just going to be a long time before they emerge, squinting and blinking, into the sun, probably looking a mess, maybe still wearing the Long Night outfit.

At the beginning of The Flight Attendant, based on Chris Bohjalian's novel, Cassie has had a Long Night. She is a flight attendant (you're with me so far!), and she's played by Kaley Cuoco, who just came off 12 seasons on the blockbuster sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Cassie is a heavy drinker, an indiscriminate hookupper, and a woman with a general tendency to skid into work on a waft of booze breath and mouthwash after spending her nights singing karaoke or visiting strip clubs or generally enjoying the hospitality of the great cities of the world. But following this particular night, she wakes up with a dead body. (This happens ten minutes into the first of eight episodes; it is more premise than spoiler.) From here, her Long Night becomes a general Rough Time, full of intrigue, mystery, confusion, fear, recriminations, and a desperate effort to piece together what just happened — since, as luck would have it, she blacked out.

Cuoco is a deft comic actress. As I wrote ten years ago now, back on The Big Bang Theory, it took a little while for the writing and the show's perspective to begin to catch up with her talent. Penny gradually transformed from the object of a couple of nerds' desire to the closest thing to an audience surrogate: the person observing all these dudes with an affectionate but baffled remove. The Flight Attendant is the first live-action project out of her production company (which has also co-produced the animated Harley Quinn, where Cuoco voices the lead). She might not have been someone else's choice for the messed-up mess that is Cassie, but since Cuoco optioned the book in 2017 before it was published, it seems that she was her own choice. And based on the first four episodes of The Flight Attendant that were made available for critics, she was right.

Right from its Saul-Bass-ish opening credits, the show has a Catch Me If You Can, wacky-caper feel some of the time, as Cassie sneaks in here and sneaks out of there, picking up shredded papers or following scant leads, having what we will just call ... interior conversations with herself about what might be going on. (It's a clever conceit; let's leave it at that.)

But Cassie also has real, human, important relationships and a complicated history. Her friend and lawyer, Annie, is played with intelligence and bone-dry humor by Zosia Mamet, as a loyal ally who would really like Cassie to stop getting herself into terrible situations. But the bond that really complicates the character is the one she has with her brother Davey. Played by T.R. Knight as a nervous, loving, deeply angry man who's exhausted by his sister's bottomless need and unamused by her vision of herself as fun, Davey has at one point one of those arguments with Cassie — those arguments that happen in weird places like standing in the street, that find people saying things they can't believe they're saying. We will learn that she did not land, as it were, in her current life for no reason.

Now, unfortunately, this is a show that requires a slight regression to the un-fun mechanics of reviewing and viewing. It's nerve-racking trying to write about something, especially a mystery, of which the network has only shown you half. We have all seen the promising episode or episodes that gradually devolve into a disappointing mess. Moreover, there is an unnecessarily complicated release schedule for the episodes on HBO MAX that is likely to lead a lot of people to just wait and binge it anyway. For the curious: The first three episodes dropped on HBO MAX on November 26 (Thursday). The following Friday, two more; then two more a week later, and then the finale a week after that. So rather than dropping them in a binge or releasing them weekly, they went with a hybrid 3-2-2-1 model on a Thursday and three Fridays that just ... seems like it's making things more difficult than they need to be.

But here is a story: When I finished the first four episodes and realized I did not have the rest, I wrote to the nice publicity folks at HBO MAX — twice -- to ask whether they would consider offering more. More screeners, I explained, really help you offer a more meaningful review, and not having seen the back half of something really makes it hard to fully recommend it. I wanted to recommend the show based on what I'd seen; seeing the rest would really improve the piece. I was told that unfortunately, the last four weren't quite ready.

What, I wondered, was going to happen to the fellow flight attendant played by the wonderful Rosie Perez, whose story had been on a slow simmer but clearly had more to come, given that they went to the trouble of going out and getting the wonderful Rosie Perez? What of Cassie's interior conversations? What of the person who just ... well, you gotta get to the end of the fourth episode; that wouldn't be fair. How could I ... how could I properly write about it?

What I had said about the problems with limited screeners was true. What I said about having been burned before by things I recommended that fell apart after the parts of them I'd seen was extremely true. I checked back on their press site to see whether they'd put out any more episodes ... just about every day. Just in case they had. You never know. And if I'm honest, I think that while my professional obligations did drive me to want a more complete picture of the show before I wrote about it, I think that I also was just impatient. I wanted to watch the rest, because I was enjoying it, and like any small child, I did not want to wait. I even considered reading the novel to find out what happens, but then wondered how I would feel if the show were different, and why would I spoil myself by reading the source material?, and seriously, I got pretty into this show.

The Flight Attendant is funny and dark and surprising, and it successfully walks the knife edge of making a central character both a rootable protagonist and kind of a garbage person some of the time (because of the way she treats people, not because of the partying). Cuoco is to be commended for seeing herself in this character when perhaps other people might not have, and for going in, smudgy eye makeup and swearing and all. The show is fun, it really is, and my annoyance with having been unable to binge it is my best evidence.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.