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A frothy, frantic delight of a show, this darkly comic eight-episode murder mystery about a hard-drinking stewardess caught up in a Bangkok killing is pandemic escapism at its finest. Even before party-animal and black-out drunk Cassie (a deliciously scatty Kaley Cuoco) wakes to find wealthy one-night stand Alex with his throat cut and flees the crime scene, this glossy global caper taunts us with its heedless hook-ups, deliriously crammed bars and seamless, maskless air-travel.
Smart, sheenily stylish and formally daring, The Flight Attendant feels a long way from the brittle neo-noir of Sidney Lumet’s similarly premised The Morning After (1986). Cheerfully pillaging thrillers past and present to create its bouncy Hitchcock-lite feel, it summons a 70s Foul Play-style screwball vibe as Cassie turns detective to try to prove her innocence. This is nimbly updated with the genre-skipping and amateur sleuthing of Search Party (2016-), and a hint of the winking surrealism of Russian Doll (2019-). Unstintingly playful in its plotting and retro touches (the sub-Saul Bass pop art credits, and nervy, jangly Blake Neely jazz theme are a blast), the show makes heavy use of split screens, sliding frames and quick cutting to splice together an artful mix of murder mystery, millennial comedy and character study.
Creator Steve Yockey (who showed a light touch with high emotion in recent seasons of Supernatural, 2005-20) anchors the plot in Cassie’s trauma, however. He opens up her panicky, drink-fuelled thoughts by plunging us into her hallucinations, a ‘mind-palace’ of the luxurious hotel suite murder site where she’s regularly trapped with her fantasy version of Dead Alex (a deadpan Michiel Huisman) as her life unravels. Picking over blurry memories of their date for useful clues, plagued with flashbacks to a dysfunctional childhood, her fractured thoughts are mirrored in the cleverly sliced narrative.
Fast and fizzy direction of the first two episodes by Susanna Fogel (whose 2018 The Spy Who Dumped Me also ploughed the female-amateur-abroad furrow) establishes a style that holds all these strands together. Proceeding at a jet-propelled pace allows the show to skip over the holes in what emerges as a macguffiny money-laundering plot. The show has an insatiable need for speed, keeping Cassie in perpetual motion, scrambling around New York and Rome after clues, her mind pinging between fantasies and memories.
A high-functioning alcoholic who stubbornly sees herself as a free spirit (“I’m a public nudity, yelling-on-the-subway kind of drunk”), the reckless, self-absorbed, increasingly paranoid Cassie is a truly unreliable narrator of her own life. Her terrible choices drive the plot, dropping her, over eight crammed episodes, into the kind of pulpily dangerous or hilariously tense sequences that the show revels in. Masquerading clumsily as a client at Alex’s office, breaking incompetently into his flat or drunkenly disrupting his funeral, Cuoco’s game, self-destructive heroine pinballs from slapstick ineptitude to pathos-packed pleading.
Aside from Davey, the steady brother her drinking is alienating, the emotional heft and hurt of this series – like other female-led HBO shows (Sex and the City, Big Little Lies, Girlfriends) – lies in its severely tested female friendships, principally with Zosia Mamet’s flinty Mob lawyer Ani, whose life is tanked as she’s dragged into Cassie’s lethal snooping. As Cassie unravels, however, she takes up most of the show’s energy, leaving subsidiary story strands – such as a mid-life excursion into espionage by Rosie Perez’s stewardess Megan – underpowered. But as the critic Emily Nussbaum observed on Twitter, this is the kind of show, like Killing Eve, where a lack of sense doesn’t matter when the main actress is so good.
For Cuoco – a veteran of The Big Bang Theory (2007-19) – owns the show in every sense (she bought the book it’s based on, and is executive producer): her expressive portrayal showcases a Goldie Hawn-ish daffy quick wit and comic timing, and a new and appealing vulnerability. Watching her argue and fall in love with the Dead Alex that she has constructed in her own head as confidant and caller-out of her bullshit is simply riveting.
Borderline unlikeable in her sodden solipsism and careless use of loved ones, Cassie is a risk as a female lead. But she’s one of a collection of difficult, life-swiped, often drink-or-drug dependent women who have emerged in TV drama. Until recently, only charismatic men, the Don Drapers and Walter Whites, could be compellingly damaged (and damaging) protagonists. Now, despite its frothiness, The Flight Attendant is – along with I May Destroy You and The Queen’s Gambit – one of a handful of new dramas keen to explore female trauma. Like them, it’s a series unafraid to climb inside its heroine’s mind and show the messy ways she can harm and heal herself.
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Sight & Sound Summer 2021
In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy