Adapted from Chris Bohjalian’s 2018 novel of the same name, Steve Yockey’s series centers on the titular high-flier, Cassie (Cuoco), a hard-partying “good time girl” whose job, in addition to paying her rent, allows her to drink, dance, and bed-hop across the globe. It’s clear, though perhaps not to our heroine, that her life choices have begun to wear on her friends and loved ones, primarily: her brother Davey (T.R. Knight, excellent), his husband, and their daughters; her fellow flight attendants, including Marie (Rosie Perez), who has her own drama playing out after work hours; and her best friend Annie (Zosia Mamet), an aggressively competent criminal attorney. (Handy friend to have.) While on a flight to Bangkok, she meets charming cypher Alex (Michael Huisman, eminently watchable and expertly opaque), a rich guy who soon becomes a rich dead body. Confronted with that gruesome scene and her own hangover simultaneously, Cassie makes just about the worst decisions imaginable, then keeps on making them. And that would be a problem, even if she could remember the night before, which she can’t, or if a mysterious woman (the great Michelle Gomez) wasn’t hot on her trail, which she is.
The cleverest trick “The Flight Attendant” pulls is this: the plot, while enjoyably twisty, isn’t the main attraction. It’s Cassie herself. Whether Cuoco, an executive producer on the series alongside Greg Berlanti and others, decided to deliberately play off her sitcom-star image, this writer cannot say, but the tension between Cassie’s daffy, messy-ol’-me persona, which would be perfectly at home in a sitcom, and the reality of her life and impact her choices makes for a fascinating starting point for a character study. Cuoco doesn’t waste the opportunity. It’s as though Cassie herself is playing a role, but in the wrong genre, and she knows it’s not working but can’t bring herself to throw in the towel. The result is a performance equal parts frenetic and deliberate, a character it’s easy to love but who will also have audiences fairly shouting at the screen in frustration, and a level of staggering vulnerability that Cuoco somehow manages to make obvious to everyone but Cassie herself. It’s been a strange year, but one rich with great star turns on television, and Cuoco’s is among the best.
As the title and the above paragraph both suggest, “The Flight Attendant” is all about the flight attendant, and no other character comes close to her level of dynamic shading. That’s not the fault of the actors, who are uniformly strong—it’s a hell of a flex to cast Bebe Neuwirth and give her a single scene, at least in the four episodes provided for review—and it’s not really to the detriment of the series, either. While critics only screened the first half of this miniseries, the performances are potent enough that no one feels underdeveloped, simply less significant. The exceptions are Knight, a terrific actor whose scenes with Cuoco are among the show’s strongest, and Perez, whose character benefits both from a cloud of mysterious plot questions and from being played by Rosie Perez. Were this series more of an ensemble drama, it’s likely their turns would be nearly as noteworthy, but “The Flight Attendant” owes both a debt; without their specificity and skill, it’s likely that the whole affair would go lopsided.