HBO Max thriller The Flight Attendant can't get off the ground: Review

Kristen Baldwin
·3 min read

Phil Caruso/HBO Max

As far as concepts go, "waking up next to a dead body with no memory of the night before" is a solid, albeit not particularly groundbreaking, foundation to build a story upon. But a premise is not a story, which is why The Flight Attendant — a zippy, stylish limited series premiering Nov. 26 on HBO Max — never really achieves liftoff.

New York-based flight attendant Cassie Bowden (Kaley Cuoco) works for Imperial Airlines, demonstrating safety procedures by day and partying until the wee hours every night. Burlesque clubs in Germany, ice hotels in Norway, karaoke bars in Seoul — Cassie's been blackout drunk all over the globe. She meets a handsome businessman named Alex (Michiel Huisman) on a flight to Bangkok, and after they spend a rom-com perfect day and booze-filled night together, Cassie awakens to discover Alex's lifeless body beside her in bed. In a panic, she cleans up the scene and flees back to her hotel — the first of many foolish decisions. But there is no escape. Once she's on her way home, Alex continues to appear in Cassie's mind, questioning her choices and leading her through blurry, fragmented memories like some kind of charming, undead tour guide.

So is Cassie a killer or just a "crazy drunk flight attendant," as she would like the FBI agents tailing her (Merle Dandridge and Nolan Gerard Funk) to believe? With help from her best friend Annie (Zosia Mamet), who is conveniently a lawyer, and Annie's boyfriend Max (Deniz Akdeniz), who is conveniently a computer hacker, Cassie hopes to find out. Based on the first half of the season, there isn't much to suggest that Cassie is a murderer. She does have a troubled past — she began drinking as a child with her alcoholic father — but The Flight Attendant's glimpses into Cassie's deeper complexities are largely overshadowed by her frantic, increasingly silly efforts to find the mystery woman she met in Bangkok (Michelle Gomez) and piece together the events leading up to Alex's death. By the time Cassie and Max begin taping together shredded stolen flight manifests in episode 4, you may long for her boneheaded decision to crash Alex's wake in episode 3.

Filmed on location in Bangkok, Italy, and New York, The Flight Attendant looks great, from its animated pop-art opening credits to its quick-cut flashbacks and sleek split-screens. Heck, even Cassie's Imperial Airlines uniform is cute. Cuoco is phenomenal in the title role, keeping Cassie's many emotional plates spinning at manic speeds. She and Mamet have a wonderful comedic chemistry; the Girls star balances out Cuoco's whirlwind intensity with subtle, impeccably timed deadpan. Over in an odd B-plot, Rosie Perez delivers "middle-aged mom on the verge of a nervous breakdown" energy as Megan, Cassie's flight attendant friend who's also involved in some kind of Chinese corporate espionage.

HBO Max only made four of The Flight Attendant's eight episodes available for review, so it's possible the series, adapted from Chris Bohjalian's 2018 novel of the same name, is building to something great. But I have doubts. Midway through the season, there's a beautiful moment between Cassie and her uptight but loving brother Davey (the superb T.R. Knight), who no longer has the emotional strength to worry about his train-wreck sister's well-being. It's a brief but powerful exchange between two people who are hurting, and it packs a wealth of character development into a single conversation. A few scenes later, a body falls out of a window and lands at Cassie's feet. For this Flight, the plan seems to be madcappery over meaning. Grade: B-

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