Why you should be watching The Flight Attendant
Film noir stylings8
James R | On 19, Mar 2021
Season 2 premieres on Thursday 26th May 2022. This review is based on Season 1.
“It’s a thing that happened. It doesn’t define you.” That’s the advice of Annie (Zosia Mamet) to Cassie (Kaley Cuoco) in The Flight Attendant. The fact that it comes after Cassie has woken up in the same hotel room as a dead person is by the by. If you’re pausing to read that last sentence again, welcome to HBO Max’s wonderfully unexpected, deliciously dark series – strap in, because it promises to be one heck of a ride.
Cassie is – you guessed it – a flight attendant with a jet-set lifestyle and zero commitments. After a flirty connection with passenger Alex Sokolov (Game of Thrones’ Michiel Huisman), she finds himself going out for dinner and drinks with him. One thing leads to another and she wakes up the following morning with a corpse. How and why are a mystery to her as well as us, and so we follow her as she tries to piece together the gaps in her memory.
What ensues is as funny as it is shocking and gripping, and Steve Yockey’s adaptation of the 2017 novel by Chris Bohjalian masterfully hops between genres and tones the way its protagonist flits from one bottle of mini vodka to the next. One moment, we’re knee-deep in anxiety and panic, the next suspiciously eyeing up every member of the supporting ensemble – from Rosie Perez’s concerned airline veteran to Yasha Jackson’s spiteful cabin crew rival and Griffin Matthews’ camp nosy parker.
The script gives them one-liners to dispatch with whip-smart timing – “Why do you look like Norma Desmond?” – and somehow manages to balance that with genuinely heartfelt support from Mamet’s Annie, a lawyer and a grounded old friend. There’s even time for the investigating FBI agents to discuss systemic inequalities in society as well as line up evidence and stare intensely at their chief suspect. And, in between them all, Michelle Gomez brings an intimidating menace to the shadowy edges of the frame.
If that sounds like a lot to pack into a show, you’re not wrong, but The Flight Attendant doesn’t miss a step once, smoothly gliding through its premise with a thrilling confidence. Directors including Susanna Fogel (Booksmart) and Tom Vaughn (Starter for 10) find some visually inventive ways to bring to life Cassie’s uncertainty, with more split screens than an episode of Spooks – watch out, too, for one sequence set to Voulez Vous by Abba. The ever-changing backdrops as the action moves from city to city also ensure that things never feel static. All the while, composer Blake Neely (a veteran of The CW’s Arrowverse) conjures up a delightful film noir vibe with a score that jangles the nerves with all the wit of Jerry Goldsmith in his heyday, powering along a sublime opening credits sequence that recalls Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. (If you’re looking for a TV theme tune to get Succession out of your head, this is it.)
But the engine at the heart of the show is Kaley Cuoco, who first optioned the book on a hunch when it was first published. Diving into her deeply flawed character with all the relish of someone who’s played the same character on a sitcom for a dozen seasons, she’s sublime, juggling every mood with a slight change in facial expression. Her chemistry with Huisman, meanwhile, helps bring real stakes to events, as we keep seeing flashbacks to him and her talking through what happened with the kind of rat-a-tat familiarity usually reserved for a detective and their sidekick.
The result is one of the most surprising TV shows of the year, and the perfect thing to fill the Search Party gap on our screens. Unlike that scathing millennial satire, though, underneath the show’s twisting murder mystery is a winning tale of someone trying to move on from a trauma and not let what happened define her. Every time you think she’s going to, though, another thing happens.