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TV actors who remain tethered to longtime roles often struggle to avoid becoming typecast, so it's always a treat to see the twists and turns that their careers take. In the immediate wake of her twelve-season run on TV's most popular comedy in the past decade, The Big Bang Theory, Kaley Cuoco dropped a ton of F-bombs as the voice of Harley Quinn, and it was awesome. Now, she's set to debut her first post-Penny live-action role with HBO Max's darkly comedic murder-mystery The Flight Attendant, and for better or worse – mostly better, it seems – Cuoco's new series is going to be one of the buzziest new shows of the year.
Taking advantage of the holiday weekend, in a fractured year when streaming audiences have itched for quality new content, The Flight Attendant will debut its first three episodes on HBO Max on Thanksgiving day. (In fact, the series premiere is currently available to stream on YouTube without an HBO Max subscription.) So audiences don't even have to be TV critics to arrive at early assessments for Kaley Cuoco's new show. But for those who want to see what the professionals think, let's take a look.
Basically, The Flight Attendant centers on Kaley Cuoco' Cassie Bowden, whose titular airline position allows her to party all around the globe without having to pay for travel. She spends one fateful night on the town with an attractive and wealthy gentleman, but only one of them wakes up still alive, and the alcohol-dependent Cassie cannot for the life of her remember what happened throughout the night. Even though the idea of waking up next to a corpse might sound tragic or dour, The Hollywood Reporter's review of The Flight Attendant showcases how breezy the tone actually is under the guidance of showrunner Steve Yockey (a playwright who was previously a writer and producer on Supernatural).
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.
While that review made The Flight Attendant sound like forgettable fluff, not all viewers will see things that way, considering Kaley Cuoco's Cassie is trapped in the middle of an impossible situation that seems to only keep getting worse for her. But as viewers will see as the episodes go by, that impossible situation is actually part of the fun, and a good majority of Flight Attendant reviews out there give Cuoco the lion's share of the credit for zigging and zagging along with the tonal shifts. Here's what Vulture's review had to say:
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. 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.
Not that Kaley Cuoco is carrying this entire show on solely her own two shoulders. Game of Thrones and Hill House vet Michiel Huisman is pretty perfect as Cassie's date-gone-south, and he continues appearing throughout the season as part of Cassie's mental coping mechanisms. Cassie's work crew is made up of the great Rosie Perez (who's much calmer here than in her fellow HBO Max project Search Party) and Dear White People vet Griffin Matthews, while Girls' Zosia Mamet portrays Cassie's lawyer and default BFF Annie. The ensemble gets kudos in Paste's review, which also namechecks the FBI agents who make themselves familiar with Kaley Cuoco's potential murderer.
The cast is such a strong ensemble that at times you can see the creative team struggling to give them all enough time and material; it can makes things like the contentious relationship between the two FBI agents (Nolan Gerard Funk and Merle Dandridge) seem like an afterthought. However, the entire story truly rests in Cuoco’s capable hands. Her knack for comic relief is securely intact, but she also easily dives into the depths of Cassie’s terror and uncertainty. Her journey is our journey. Her terror is our terror. She may be an unreliable narrator, but she’s a highly entertaining one.
As Cassie, Kaley Cuoco plays an often manic and panicked alcoholic whose only coping mechanism is the same destructive habit that led to her precarious situation. The show does a good job at maximizing that balance, first giving Cassie ample behavioral leeway, while eventually closing the room in around her and her boozy problem as the season goes on. In its review, which also mentions Grey's Anatomy vet T.R. Knight's inclusion, Vanity Fair summed up the show's alcohol usage accordingly:
As amusingly improbable and slick as the show is, The Flight Attendant digs deep when necessary. That comes through especially in how the story depicts Cassie’s relationship to drinking, which becomes a subject of more self-reflection for her by midseason when her brother, Davey (T.R. Knight), comes to visit New York with his family. Without getting needlessly gritty, The Flight Attendant punctuates Cassie’s good times with dysfunctional details: sneaking shots at work, glugging mouthwash to mask the scent of alcohol, lying regularly about just how many drinks she’s had. It makes for a strong counterpoint to the somewhat ridiculous world of crime that she’s wandered into; the plot points don’t have to be believable if the character feels like a real person.
To be sure, while the majority of The Flight Attendant's reviews were on the highly positive side, there were a few outlier critics that were not as appreciative of what the show will deliver to HBO Max subscribers. For instance, EW's review champions the cast and performances, but shoots down the show's storyline, saying it "never achieves liftoff" and that the creative team has chosen a plan that opts for "madcappery over meaning." But you'd be hard to find a harsher take on the show than that, at least without diving down into various Twitter rabbit holes, that is.
The Flight Attendant makes its three-episode debut on HBO Max on Thursday, November 26, at 3:01 a.m. ET, so be sure to fill up on Kaley Cuoco's performances after filling up on turkey and stuffing. While waiting for future episodes, keep track of everything on the way by hitting up our 2020 Fall TV premiere schedule and our Winter and Spring 2021 TV guide.