This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
The Flight Attendant begins relatably...ish.
It’s that thing most people have experienced at least once or twice or 47 times in our lives, where you have a blissful night out that’s so euphoric you keep throwing back another drink, then “just one more,” and next thing you know it’s morning and you sit awake in a jolt, absolutely confused.
After you gather your bearings, you’re either like, “Phew…” because things are fine or, “Yikes...” because you have a sudden flash of what happened. But, you know, at least you didn’t wake up next to a man whose throat was slashed while at a hotel in Bangkok.
That is what happened to Cassie Bowden in The Flight Attendant, a kooky, trashy, needlessly confusing, and yet irresistibly fun soap-thriller-black-dramedy that is available now on HBO Max.
It is extreme binge season, in every sense of that phrase. It is the holidays! Hello, food and booze and seasonal depression dressed up with a bit of pandemic anxiety and doom. It is also the peak time for watching endless hours of television. It’s starting to get colder. It’s dark outside and in our hearts at, like, 4 p.m. now. Too many idiots couldn’t wear a piece of fabric on their faces or skip a party for a few months so now we’re all going to be trapped inside again. And so... TV!
Our best friend, television, as if it knew we would need it now more than ever, is rescuing our will to live with a run of buzzy, diverting, and, in almost every case, unexpected new options in the last few weeks. But none has hit the “I don’t know if this is good, per se, and I don’t really understand what’s going on, but I’m really enjoying it anyway” sweet spot more squarely than The Flight Attendant.
Big Bang Theory star—and, whatever you might think of the long-running sitcom-turned-cynic’s punching bag, the show’s criminally underrated secret weapon—Kaley Cuoco plays the titular flight attendant, who lands herself in the aforementioned mess after consuming a bathtub’s worth of vodka on a steamy date with a first-class passenger who hit on her in the air (Michiel Huisman).
She is, understandably, horrified to discover that she had spent the night post-coital next to a man who had been very clearly murdered and is covered in blood, and she has no recollection of what happened. More, there’s the rapid realization that it very much looks like she, the person who woke up next to him in the morning, did it.
In a panic, she calls her confused best friend and lawyer, Annie (a perfect Zosia Mamet), and asks a few hysterical questions about Amanda Knox and Thai extradition laws, then cleans up the crime scene and flees. It’s 2020, so no one can just wipe up a little blood and sneak out of a dead man’s hotel room unnoticed, so of course she lands on the FBI’s suspect list immediately.
Certain that she didn’t do it but also aware of how guilty she looks, she weathers an obvious breakdown while also trying to investigate what happened to him, enlisting her friends in her alcohol-fueled downward spiral and channeling the Scooby gang with their bumbling antics as they uncover an increasingly hard-to-follow tangle of shady dealings and corruption. Vulture has cleverly curated this aspect of the show in a post titled, “All of the Terrible Decisions Kaley Cuoco Makes in The Flight Attendant.”
The series is refreshingly goofy, but colored with a melancholy that makes it richer than purely escapist trash TV. It’s about grief, paranoia, alcoholism, self-sabotage, and the delusion that things are OK. It’s about announcing things like “what’s wrong with being messy?” and desperately hoping someone will validate you. It’s something of a ghost romance, which is to say it’s kind of trashy and soapy in a silly way, a fragile and sudsy balancing act that Cuoco nails.
Comparisons are inevitable to the other recent twisty murder mystery that tickled the zeitgeist, HBO’s The Undoing. So imagine that series, but if Nicole Kidman had downed nips of Tito’s as a coping mechanism instead of going on inexplicable miles-long midnight walks. Oh, and if the show actually knew what it was.
It’s a confidence of tone that makes The Flight Attendant work, whereas The Undoing culminated in a social media laughing stock for its ludicrous finale.
Both Cuoco’s Cassie and Kidman’s Grace are their own gravediggers, making an already compromising situation worse for themselves. But they’re also... zombies? This is an inelegant metaphor, but what I’m saying is that they have a tendency to get themselves into more trouble with law enforcement but somehow, in spite of themselves, triumph out.
It takes more than one episode for the series to really take flight, pardon the pun—actually, don’t. I stand by it. But it’s interesting that HBO Max didn’t release the entire season at once. The first three episodes came out last week, with two more that just premiered.
While “bingeing” has become the industry buzzword, it's been the weekly rollout format that has proven especially successful in the pandemic in generating slow-burn interest—and then keeping it—in series like Amazon’s The Boys, Disney+’s The Mandalorian, Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere, Netflix’s The Great British Baking Show, and HBO’s aforementioned The Undoing.
It’s been funny—which in this case is a euphemism for “exasperating”—to see the last weeks of good TV be accessorized by circuitous discourse about what good TV is, or should be.
Is Amazon’s transcendent Small Axe a TV series or a movie series? Is The Undoing prestige or trash TV? Is The Crown documentary or fiction? (The extent to which that last one, especially, reeks as if stupidity had been left in a vat of raw meat baking in the sun for three days, is really sending me.)
I’m tired of it all. But The Flight Attendant is harmless fun. That, at least, we should be able to agree on.