Passengers, be advised: 'Flight Attendant' is a turbulent ride
Momentum, like chemistry, is an elusive and essential quality in any good TV show. Lord knows we can never get a refund on the many hours we've spent waiting for a fairly good show with a smart premise and a decent cast to find its giddy-up. Many never do.
But too much momentum can also be a problem. Watching the first few hours of HBO Max's frantically engaging, darkly humored thriller "The Flight Attendant" (the first three episodes of which begin streaming Thursday), one begins to take on the exhaustion that ought to be felt by its lead character -- an alcoholic, party-hearty international flight attendant named Cassie Bowden, played by "Big Bang Theory" alum Kaley Cuoco.
Never one for jet-lag, we meet Cassie as she snaps awake on a New York subway after an all-night bender in the clubs and realizes she's running late for her next shift -- a flight to Bangkok.
Don't be fooled by the jet-set, high-heeled glamorpuss who elegantly sashays through Terminal D an hour or so later with her tiny roller bag and gets to her departure gate right on time: Cassie is a total mess, swilling an infinite supply of tiny bottles of vodka (even on the job) and giving a first-class passenger, Alex Sokolov ("Game of Thrones's" Michiel Huisman), some extra-special service in the forward lavatory. Bad girl! Dangerous! (That's the message, anyhow.)
While the other flight attendants (including Rosie Perez as Cassie's closest colleague, Megan Briscoe) feign their disapproval, it's a fait accompli that Cassie will accept Alex's offer of a night on the town in Bangkok, ending up in his deluxe hotel suite. After yet another blackout binge, Cassie wakes up next to Alex to find that his throat has been slit wide open.
His death is not a spoiler; it's a premise. Very much like Jane Fonda in Sidney Lumet's 1986 noir film "The Morning After," a panicked Cassie unwisely tries to tidy up the crime scene, getting rid of bloody towels and broken glass and high-tailing it back to the airport for her next flight, to Seoul, and then back home. Viewers mourning the chance to see more of Huisman's handsome mug needn't worry: He's still a co-star, only now he's a phantom companion in Cassie's guilty, flashbacking conscience, interrupting her with thoughts on his own murder as she's grilled by a pair of FBI agents (Merle Dandridge and Nolan Gerard Funk), who are waiting for her when the return flight lands in New York.
"The Flight Attendant" (based on Chris Bohjalian's 2018 bestseller) shifts between two moods: On the one hand, it's a highly watchable caper, as Cassie enlists the help of her power-attorney BFF Annie Mouradian (Zosia Mamet from "Girls," a welcome and hiply sardonic presence) to help her navigate a legal nightmare that could very well turn her into the world's next Amanda Knox. On the other hand, "The Flight Attendant" is a rather disturbing tale of an alcoholic on a downward spiral, in desperate need of the sort of help that's about folding chairs and coffee urns in community-center meeting rooms, not about the larger international espionage angles that occupy most of the plot.
Reconciling these two stories is a real trick; the four episodes made available for this review (out of eight) certainly achieve the story's nonstop anxiety level, but one gets the feeling that the whole thing would come apart without Cuoco's impressive grip on the character: a woman who is out of control, expertly played by an actress who demonstrates such precision -- even when her character can't walk a straight line and the show teeters between being funny and horrifying. Men get all sorts of credit for playing this level of functional drunk, while female characters who hit the booze this hard tend to only get our disapproval.
All of which is to say: I can't decide if it's a sexist response, on my part, to care more about Cassie's well-being than about the increasingly tangled shenanigans going on around her. Against Annie's rock-solid legal advice, Cassie sets about looking for clues to Alex's murder, as pieces of their night together begin to come back to her. It's also vaguely annoying that she is made to suffer from a one-night stand by having a man, no matter how attractive, live on inside her head, constantly talking and interrupting her train of thought. One keeps hoping she'll somehow break free of him -- and his criminal connections, whatever they turn out to be.
Then again, she did run away from a murder scene, and that's on her. That's also "The Flight Attendant's" main attraction; it soars as a stylish adventure with a strong cast and a rollicking pace. Unrelenting, for sure, and somehow these are the shows where I always find myself wishing the character could get one whole episode to just calm down. Whatever's in store for Cassie, the prevailing desire is to see her rescue herself.
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"The Flight Attendant"
The show begins streaming Thursday with Episodes 1-3 on HBO Max. More episodes will be released weekly through Dec. 17.