The first few minutes of “The Flight Attendant” are as vivid and glamorous as the life Cassie Bowden (Kaley Cuoco) projects to the world as she travels it. She hops from one blurry night out to the next, trading cities and men with practiced abandon. But when she wakes up in Bangkok after a blurry one-night stand to find her date (Michiel Huisman) horribly murdered, she does what most every rational human would do: she panics. Thousands of miles from home, with no memory of the end of her night, Cassie doesn’t know what else to do but clean up what she can and tear the hell out of there. As her entire life looks ready to collapse in front of her eyes, the camera tilts, the music becomes unbearably sharp, and the focus shifts just enough to let us know that things are about to get very bad, very quickly. Soon enough, Cassie hops a flight back to New York City, hoping that will give her enough distance to never have to think about any of it ever again. After all, she tells herself and most everyone she meets, she’s just a drunk party girl flight attendant.
That characterization, to “The Flight Attendant”‘s intriguing credit, ends up being both true and false. In the four episodes screened for critics (the season has eight in total), creator Steve Yockey writes Cassie as a believable mess in the aftermath. She can barely sleep without spiraling into panic, and her attempts to figure out just what the hell happened are…well, as her flabbergasted lawyer friend Annie (Zosia Mamet) sputters, to say they’re “misguided” would be an incredible understatement. Every other decision Cassie makes — especially when faced with a pressing FBI probe, her wary brother (T.R. Knight), and a mysterious woman lurking in the wings (Michelle Gomez) — is straight up terrible, even when her amateur sleuthing miraculously leads her closer to an answer.
So, no, “The Flight Attendant” isn’t about some supernaturally smart woman who witnesses a crime and gets spurred into action. It’s about a wildly messy person who stumbles into something truly horrific and has to deal with it, a combination that threatens to bring down the carefree persona she’s so carefully crafted over the years. The story, based on Chris Bohjalian’s novel, is pitch black, especially when Cassie has to confront the dark corners of her memory she’s long suppressed. But with Cuoco at its center both as an actor and executive producer, the series has enough of a sense of humor to keep from sinking into annoyingly grim territory.
Cassie’s story would be more than enough to keep the show moving, but almost no one on “The Flight Attendant” — not even Annie or Cassie’s nervous coworker Megan (Rosie Perez) — is exactly what they seem. Everyone’s so shady, in fact, that tallying up all the salacious details can make the show seem flat-out ridiculous. But the actors bring enough of a comic spark to their sometimes unbelievable characters that it doesn’t really matter as long as you’re along for the bumpy ride, and the pacing of the show makes it hard to stop watching even if you try. (If that’s the case for you, take note: rather than roll out the entire season at once, HBO Max is dropping the first three episodes, then two episodes a week until the finale bows solo.) Arguably the splashiest entry to HBO Max’s original programming slate yet, “The Flight Attendant” is a fizzy cocktail of a show that goes down easy — which, for a nascent streaming network trying to keep its audience’s attention, might be just right.
With slick directing from Susanna Fogel, a jazzy score from Blake Neely, and sporadic flashes to Cassie’s terrified subconscious, the show quickly becomes a surreal noir with a solid screwball performance at its center. It’s just swapped the traditional hardboiled, probably alcoholic detective for a scatterbrained, probably alcoholic flight attendant. Pulpy and surreal, watching “The Flight Attendant” feels like reading a page-turner you’d pick up in an airport for a flight and accidentally tear through in the first couple hours. Hopefully your trip wouldn’t end up like Cassie’s, but if it does, hey, at least you’ll know exactly what not to do.
“The Flight Attendant” premieres November 26 on HBO Max.