The Flight Attendant” (HBO Max) might not be the ideal binge show. Propelled by the piano and percussion of Blake Neely’s score, the eight-episode first season (which stands alone but also sets up threads for the future) chronicles titular hot mess Cassie (Kaley Cuoco) as she gets dragged into a worldwide caper that starts with a murder in her Bangkok hotel room. It rarely slows down for a reflective moment, even on those trans-oceanic flights, so you might want to take a deep breath between episodes.
Yet creator Steve Yockey’s series, based on the 2018 novel by Chris Bohjalian, doesn’t go past the invisible line and become “too much.” It has a sweeping, ambitious plot with new layers regularly added. And it’s almost farcical in tone, as it lovingly hits the genre’s beats, while still keeping the stakes real. “The Flight Attendant’s” light but immersive quirkiness at times calls to mind “A Simple Favor” and “Knives Out.”
But its biggest strength is the actors. Cuoco, playing a character who might be cuckoo out of the gates, deserves a lot of the credit for keeping things relatively grounded. Having become a bazillionaire after 12 (!) seasons as Penny on “The Big Bang Theory,” she now gets to venture beyond sitcoms, and what a breakthrough role this is.
Cassie is a high-functioning alcoholic whose POV bounces between what’s in front of her, the memories that seep back from the romantic night where her lover Alex (Michiel Huisman, “The Haunting of Hill House”) ends up murdered, and flashbacks to a childhood that she’s gradually realizing wasn’t so wonderful. Plus, Alex is her guide as she pieces together the case and goes on these dream walkabouts.
My favorite among the supporting cast is Zosia Mamet as Ani, Cassie’s lawyer best friend. Mamet’s perpetual smirk makes me think there’s more under the surface, which is perfect for this show. And Ani’s relationship with hottie tech genius Max (Deniz Akdeniz) is cute and intriguingly gender-swapped; at first he seems like her boy toy before we realize he has layers.
Rosie Perez is on board as fellow flight attendant Megan, who has her own B-plot. And “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s” Michelle Gomez gets to use her Scottish accent and do more outright bad-guy acting as Miranda, the first suspect (other than Cassie herself) in Alex’s death; since that’s revealed in episode two, we know there are more revelations ahead.
The quips from Yockey and his writers are often standard millennial stuff – some of it clever, some flat – but “Attendant” never drifts from being a character piece, so everything is on point. For instance, someone asks Cassie, upon witnessing her prolific drinking, “How are you still alive?” The show is never far from the plot either, but it sometimes sets it aside, confident that it will still be there when needed. The mystery, in and of itself, is slow to unravel, but that’s not the detriment I would’ve assumed.
Cassie’s pursuit of answers makes up for the initial shortage of answers. She’s a mess, but she’s never unlikeable or ridiculous, and Cuoco nails every emotion she’s asked to play. Our unlikely heroine is blindsided by having her lover killed and being a suspect. At the same time, Cassie (Audrey Grace Marshall in the flashbacks) realizes that her late father was horrible to her gay older brother, Davey (T.R. Knight as an adult, Owen Asztalos in the flashbacks). This fractured sibling relationship is even more touching than the romance between Cassie and (her memory and extrapolation of) Alex; both stand as relationships that are rarely chronicled.
More down-the-middle is the FBI’s pursuit of the case, which consists of the young agent (Nolan Gerard Funk’s Van) setting laser sights on Cassie and the more experienced agent (Merle Dandridge’s Kim) using her brain. But they serve to illustrate the case’s scope and give breathers from Cassie’s adventures. Plus, I always appreciate a show where the investigator doesn’t channel Tommy Lee Jones from “The Fugitive” and not care if our hero committed the crime.
On paper, it seems like “The Flight Attendant” is doing too much. It’s certainly asking more from Cuoco than most shows – particularly short-form murder mysteries – ask of their lead. Yet (to use the wrong transportation metaphor) it never runs off the rails. I might even be up for a Season 2, but please, give me (and Cassie) some time to recover.