Review - The Flight Attendant (HBO Max)

Kaley Cuoco is The Flight Attendant. She's first presented as charming and glamorous, with an exciting job where she gets to exchange witty banter with her co-workers and passengers. On a flight to Bangkok she meets Alex Sokolov (Michael Huisman) and proceeds to spend a romantic night on the town with him. But when she wakes up in the morning he's lying dead beside her, covered in blood. From that moment on Cassie operates on instinct and nerve, first running away from Alex's corpse and the whole situation but later deciding her best bet is to figure out what actually happened. As she tries to solve the mystery we learn more about her and the mess that lies beneath the surface of her seemingly carefree and fun-loving persona. She's got secrets, and she's not the only one. Over eight propulsive episodes, almost every character in Cassie's orbit is responsible for twists and turns, a few of which are predictable but in no way detract from the entertainment of the show. The Flight Attendant strikes a rare balance in tone - a dangerous crime thriller with a comedic edge. Most importantly, it comes to a satisfying resolution at the end of its eight episodes (never a guarantee for a series that deals in suspense).

Thoughts from Your Pop Culture Concierge

I will attempt to explain HBO Max later in this post, but I'll start by saying this is the first original series I've watched from this streamer and it is definitely setting a high bar for content. I was familiar with Kaley Cuoco from The Big Bang Theory, a true ensemble comedy that still revolved primarily around Jim Parsons. In The Flight Attendant Cuoco is the center of ever-escalating plot development and she leads the series with ease. Her portrayal of Cassie is funny and vulnerable, often infuriating and self-absorbed, but always magnetically watchable. Cuoco is also an executive producer on the show, joining performers like Reese Witherspoon (Big Little Lies, Little Fires Everywhere) and Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project, The Late Show) who are creating their own opportunities to play complex and interesting women. And I will tell you I am HERE FOR IT.

The Flight Attendant shares DNA with a lot of things I love

Everything from the uber-cool opening credits/score to the increasing nightmarish situations in which Cassie finds herself owes a great debt to Alfred Hitchcock. There's a dash of North by Northwest (wrong place, wrong time) crossed with a splash of Marnie (flashbacks of unspecified childhood trauma haunting present-day proceedings). But I'm most reminded of Foul Play, an all-time favorite where similar to Cassie, Goldie Hawn's Gloria connects with a mystery man and finds herself ensnared in a murder that turns out to be much much more. Both The Flight Attendant and Foul Play find a way to create a real sense of danger and yet make us laugh. The Flight Attendant is definitely darker and more violent, but well-leavened with sharp, humorous dialogue in each episode.(Note - Foul Play, which was released in 1978 MOSTLY holds up, although there's some racism and ableism that went right over my head when I was younger. And on my most recent watching I was stunned at how Chevy Chase's "flirtation" with Goldie Hawn's character reads like sexual harassment today. I had to pretty much ignore him in order to enjoy the film - Dudley Moore and Burgess Meredith still slay, though.) And like The Fugitive our protagonist finds herself in a situation where she has to prove her innocence of a terrible crime. Overall it's unusual to find a show that so seamlessly integrates several genres (mystery, romance, comedy, drama) and that's a big part of why this is one of my favorite shows from the year.

The show does cool things to advance the story

The most important device the show uses to give us insight into Cassie's perspective is the scene of the crime. For the rest of the show, as Cassie is working out what happens, she finds herself projected into the suite where Alex was killed. Most of the time she's speaking to "Alex" himself, talking through the mystery and exorcising some of her own demons too. It could be an annoying gimmick but it's actually really effective, not least because Cuoco and Huisman have great chemistry and it's great they found a way to have the leading man play a supporting role to the heroine, even after he dies.

The Flight Attendant also makes really cool visual choices, using split screens. In one example, Cassie is searching an apartment, and the view divides and divides again to simultaneously show each room she rummages through. It's a neat trick to give us a sense of movement and momentum without losing valuable time. This is also put to great use when Cassie travels - it affords a lot more beautiful scenic shots of Bangkok, Rome and New York than we normally get in establishing moments to set these scenes.

Cassie is the center of the show but there are tons of interesting characters

Through the eight episodes Cassie finds a way to alienate (and usually make amends with) just about everyone on the show. Particularly important are Rosie Perez's fellow flight attendant Megan (who calls Cassie her best friend), Zosia Mamet's Ani (Cassie's actual best friend), Michelle Gomez's Miranda (who's role is best left unspoiled) and T.R. Knight's Davey (Cassie's increasingly exasperated brother). Everyone on the show gets sucked into the vortex of hurricane Cassie. But almost everyone gets more than a few plot developments and character growth of their own, while still serving the main storyline. It's an impressive balancing act, giving characters something to do that doesn't solely revolve around Cassie.

None of this would work as well if the mystery wasn't solid, but it is. I confess I'll have to rewatch to fully understand what was going on with Alex and how that led to his murder. I understand it ENOUGH but at this exact moment I couldn't fully explain it. Having said that, the more important mystery is finding out if/how Cassie will get herself out of trouble, and I was thoroughly invested in finding out from minute one.

From what I've read, The Flight Attendant was intended as a one-time limited series, and the plot is mostly tied up so you won't be left on a cliffhanger if indeed this is all we get. But there's definitely an opening for a second season, so stay tuned to see if that happens. I would definitely sign up for another round with this team.

So what's the deal with HBO Max?

Ugh I honestly don't totally know. I subscribe to HBO through cable, so I automatically got access to HBO Max which is a streaming service I can watch on my smart tv or my tablet or whatever. You don't have to have HBO in your cable package (or even have cable at all) to get HBO Max. You just have to download the app and subscribe to the service. As far as I understand, everything that is available on HBO can be seen on demand on HBO Max. BUT there is content created specifically for HBO Max that you can't watch on HBO via your cable subscription. Why is this the business model?  I don't know. But if The Flight Attendant is indicative of the quality of programming created for HBO Max I think it would be a good investment for you. There are no free trial subscriptions that I can see, and the monthly rate is $14.99/month. However right now they are offering a deal to get six months for $69.99 if you prepay. And you might have seen the big news that Warner Brothers will release all its 2021 theatrical productions to the big screen and HBO Max. This is apparently a Big Deal, which many are describing as a harbinger of doom for actual movie theaters. If you're interested in reading more, here is a good article explaining it all.

An HBO Max Original Series

8 episodes

E1: 45m

E2: 48m

E3: 48m

E4: 42m

E5: 43m

E6: 43m

E7: 43m

E8: 47m

359 minutes or 6 hours total

TV MA (Content warnings for violence, psychological abuse and alcohol abuse - Cassie drinks A LOT)