Kaley Cuoco has been on TV for most of her life, including guest spots in the 1990s on such shows as “My So-Called Life,” “Northern Exposure” and “Ellen” (where she played a young version of star Ellen DeGeneres). Her breakthrough was playing Bridget Hennessy, the daughter of TV icons John Ritter and Katey Sagal’s characters, on the ABC series “8 Simple Rules … for Dating My Teenage Daughter” — but then came Cuoco’s Big Bang.
After 12 years of playing Penny on “The Big Bang Theory,” which became TV’s most-watched sitcom and ultimately earned her $1 million per episode, Cuoco was in the same space a lot of TV stars are in after the end of their long-running shows. Do you take a break? Tackle movies? Attempt to top that once-in-a-lifetime TV mountaintop?
Ask the “Friends” cast: Sometimes it takes a while to find that next big thing. That’s why I’m more than a little impressed that Cuoco jumped right in after wrapping “Big Bang,” challenging herself by both executive producing and starring in HBO Max’s standout series “The Flight Attendant.” A fun, compelling and exciting mystery, “The Flight Attendant” also gave Cuoco a complicated character to play in Cassie Bowden — an alcoholic who deals with hidden trauma while facing the very real shock of a man who has been murdered in her bed.
Yes, it’s a comedy, and a very clever one. But it’s also a very nuanced, dramatic role, and one that, as executive producer Sarah Schechter told Variety last year, it’s doubtful the sitcom star would have ever been offered. But “The Flight Attendant,” based on the novel by Chris Bohjalian, was the very first project out of Cuoco’s new shingle, Yes, Norman Prods. (which just sealed a huge overall deal with Warner Bros. TV), and with the support of Schechter and fellow EP Greg Berlanti, it became a reality.
Also cracking open how to handle the show’s unique narrative — including the flashes in which Cassie speaks to her dead paramour and pieces together what led to his murder — was co-showrunner Steve Yockey. The two forged a strong partnership in figuring out how to bring “The Flight Attendant” to screen, and he calls Cuoco “a very instinctive producer. She trusts her gut. She’s been on television for basically her entire life and just has a feel for things. It’s fun to really dig in with her. And we share a similar attitude towards set: a positive environment yields good work. Also, a bonus to having good vibes on set, especially No. 1 on the call sheet, is that it stops the kind of ‘manic energy’ of the show from spilling out. We can stay thoughtful about what we’re making.”
After its initial launch, Cuoco was soon joined on “Big Bang” by two more key female stars, both of whom are also enjoying a new wave of success in their post-Bazinga lives. Mayim Bialik, another child star who has also found much success as an adult, is an executive producer and star of Fox’s “Call Me Kat,” which has just been renewed for a second season. Meanwhile, Melissa Rauch is executive producing and starring in the NBC pilot revival of “Night Court,” along with the original series’ co-star John Larroquette.
We’ve been doing a lot of handwringing lately about the state of TV comedy, but with the “Big Bang Theory” trio — all well-versed in the art of what makes a hit — leading the charge, the future of funny is female.