'The Flight Attendant': TV Review

The Flight Attendant - Kaley Cuoco-Publicity still - H 2020
Light, fun and disposable.

Kaley Cuoco stars as a jet-setting party girl who gets into international trouble in HBO Max's comic-thriller series.

Summer has come late (or perhaps early) to HBO Max with the arrival of the lively new thriller/dramedy The Flight Attendant.

A fast-moving mystery anchored by Kaley Cuoco's versatile lead performance, 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. The Flight Attendant seems happy to be enjoyed and disposed of. It has a confidence of identity that I appreciated.

Adapted from Chris Bohjalian's novel by Steve Yockey (Supernatural), the series tells the story of Cassie Bowden (Cuoco), who flies international routes for Imperial Atlantic, alongside a saucy crew including Rosie Perez's Megan and Griffin Matthews' Shane. On a red-eye to Bangkok, Cassie meets and flirts with a scruffy-but-rich stranger (Michiel Huisman), which leads to a wild night in Thailand. When she emerges from a blackout next to a bloody corpse, Cassie has to figure out what happened to her, aided by her nervy attorney pal Annie (Zosia Mamet).

Meanwhile, the FBI (led by agents played by Merle Dandridge and Nolan Gerard Funk) is investigating whether or not she's involved in murder or a corporate conspiracy or something. And maybe she is, because Cassie's a semi-functional alcoholic with large gaps in her recollections and a tendency to make bad situations worse.

From a protagonist plagued by unreliable memories surrounding a violent murder to the impossibly stern law enforcement figures to the backdrop of utter economic comfort, The Flight Attendant bears similarities to HBO's The Undoing. But whereas The Undoing is, well, undone by its pervasive self-importance and its miscalculation that limited light plus anxious A-listers equals quality, The Flight Attendant is bright, glossy and positively buoyant at times.

Susanna Fogel (The Spy Who Dumped Me), director of two of the four episodes sent to critics, seems to take her aesthetic cues from Hitchcock at his most playful — but even more from swinging Hitchcock knockoffs of the mid- to late-'60s, like Bunny Lake Is Missing or the original Thomas Crown Affair. Momentum in these brisk chapters (none over 48 minutes) is built through stylish split-screens and a propulsive, piano-driven score by Blake Neely. And while there's some chaste sex and the aftermath of horrible violence, none of it is excessively intense; the result calls to mind the shows of USA's Blue Sky period, something like White Collar or Burn Notice.

To be clear, The Flight Attendant is not wholly without depth. It's just not a somber or showy depth. Cassie's boozing is treated as an amusing character trait until we begin to see how compulsive it is. There's some emotional heft to her relationship with her concerned brother, played with likable exasperation by T.R. Knight. And Yockey and Fogel have found a good way to visualize the missed synapses in Cassie's brain, fugue states that give Huisman an expanded role in an unlikely love story.

An executive producer as well as star, Cuoco has chosen a smart vehicle for her first TV project after her long, consistently underrated run on The Big Bang Theory. A not-fully-reformed party girl, Cassie isn't a huge leap from previous Cuoco roles, but the part lets the actress set a tone for the entire series — occasionally broadly funny and, when necessary, unapologetically frazzled. You know she isn't a Hitchcock Blonde because Cuoco looks like she's having a good time playing a character who, in a different interpretation, could have come off as insufferably flighty and self-destructive.

This is a star turn for Cuoco, which doesn't mean that the supporting cast isn't showcased admirably. The show offers a template for how to use the fast-talking energy and punchline precision that made Mamet such a reliable scene-stealer on Girls. It also provides an oddly effective (given what happens in the premiere) leading-man part for Huisman. The FBI side of the story is generally perfunctory, but Dandridge has a monologue dressing down her partner for his preppy privilege that will have some viewers cheering. And Bebe Neuwirth pops up in the fourth episode, almost single-handedly giving the series a burst of steely gravity.

Through the first half of its eight-episode season, The Flight Attendant has dropped just enough twists and misdirects — nothing especially mind-blowing — that I'm curious about how that night in Bangkok really went down. In a moment where TV and the world are dominated by a certain darkness, I look forward to following this nimble mystery to its end. And then probably forgetting it entirely.

Cast: Kaley Cuoco, Michiel Huisman, Colin Woodell, Rosie Perez, Zosia Mamet, Michelle Gomez, Merle Dandridge, Griffin Matthews, Nolan Gerard Funk, T.R. Knight

Creator: Steve Yockey, from the book by Chris Bohjalian

Premieres Thursday, Nov. 26, on HBO Max.