The Flight Attendant lands on HBO Max this week with a look and feel that fairly screams Hitchcock homage—initially, at least. Chris Bohjalian’s novel of the same name might be the source material for Steve Yockey’s adaptation, but it’s far from the only inspiration. Strangers meet on a train, er, plane, a beautiful blond slowly loses her grip on reality, and there’s an unreliable narrator at the center of a possible international conspiracy. But as this lively pastiche unfolds, it recalls a different type of thriller altogether, the kind of blue sky series that made USA Network the (ultimately temporary) home of the breezy watch.
Kaley Cuoco continues her impressive post-Big Bang Theory run as Cassie Bowden, a New York City-based flight attendant for Imperial Airlines, who travels to exotic locations and is usually lucky enough to work first class on those trips overseas. She’s introduced with a zippy montage (set to Sofi Tukker’s “Good Time Girl”), dancing and drinking all night before waking and swearing on the subway. Cassie stumbles home to find a guy from a previous hook-up in her bed, and little memory of inviting him over. Her older brother, Davey (T.R. Knight), who’s been on the phone with Cassie the whole time, overhears the confusion but keeps his disapproval to himself—for now. Cassie manages to get to work on time, but her “24/7 party” lifestyle is already looking more Days Of Wine And Roses.
Cassie’s dubious ability to keep it together is further brought into question by the end of the premiere. On a fateful flight to Bangkok, she meets handsome businessman Alex Sokolov (Michiel Huisman), who offers to be Cassie’s guide to the Thai city as her co-workers Meghan (Rosie Perez) and Shane (Griffin Matthews) look on with a twinge of envy. She chooses to keep the rendezvous a secret, but after downing countless drinks, the night becomes a mystery to even Cassie. When she wakes up next to Alex’s dead body the following morning, she has about as much of an understanding of how that happened as the viewer.
As Cassie embarks on a journey to piece together the events of that night—and her role in them—The Flight Attendant teeters between paranoid thriller and millennial-based comedy. Cassie dresses like Julie Christie in Don’t Look Know as she wanders the streets of Rome and back home in Manhattan, where she’s stalked by a nefarious figure (Michelle Gomez, who’s always slightly nefarious) while trying to figure out who Alex is and who would want him dead. But in the premiere, Cassie calls her best friend, Annie (a delightfully nervy Zosia Mamet), from the crime scene to ask her about Amanda Knox, then is taken aback when Annie asks why she’s in Bangkok. Turns out, Cassie, Annie, and their friends activated the “Find My Friends” app on a recent trip, and Cassie is the only one who forgot to turn it off. There are several other signs that Cassie is “that friend,” the one who’s a lot of fun… until she’s not. A frequent character in your friend group’s most outlandish anecdotes, but no one you’d call on in an emergency. Just as you think you have Cassie pegged, Yockey and his writers, including Kara Lee Corthon, Ticona S. Joy, and Ryan Jennifer Jones, hint at her untapped depths and a traumatic past.
The Flight Attendant ably juggles those more intimate storylines, including the fraying relationship between siblings Cassie and Davey, with broader, comedic ones and the overarching mystery plot in its first four episodes. There are some sharp turns in tone, from ludicrous to nerve-racking to mournful, then back to silly when Cassie ends up borrowing socks from Shane because she flung her shoes at her would-be attacker on the train. The third episode features a trip to a memorial that rivals Search Party for most awkward intrusion on a private gathering. Fogel keeps a handle on the mercurial narrative, resting when Cassie rests (albeit rarely), and traipsing across the city as Cassie tries to figure out who’s behind the murders (yes, eventually they become plural). But it’s Cuoco’s incredible expressiveness—her face, voice, and physicality—that holds it all together. She charms and is charmed by Huisman’s Alex, who begins to come to life only after he’s dead. Cuoco’s just as enjoyable when playing off Perez, whose Meghan is compelling enough for a mystery of her own.
With such a lead performance, The Flight Attendant is always more invested in Cassie’s reactions to her predicaments than in establishing a truly engrossing mystery. At its core The Flight Attendant is a standard whodunnit, one embellished by a crackling cast and snappy dialogue (Mamet in particular has a way of letting a stinging observation trail off that leaves judgment hanging in the air). Such was the appeal of blue sky shows like Psych (which is back in TV movie form), White Collar, and Monk. You usually didn’t require Shawn Spencer’s or Adrian Monk’s preternatural perception to find the culprit, but the winding journey was a fun ride all the same. But whether primarily a comedy or a drama, the blue sky shows always found moments of pathos. The Flight Attendant follows suit, buoyantly courting danger while never becoming too perilous, and giving its characters moments to shine. It’s an engrossing, somewhat weightless throwback, but one that hearkens back to USA’s “Characters Welcome” motto rather than Alfred Hitchcock Presents.