Television may be better than it’s ever been before, but it’s also darker. Shows routinely center around lonely men and troubled women on the verge of mental breakdowns, climactic family betrayals, marriage-ruining infidelity, grisly murders, and billion other high stakes plot points. All of these heavy emotions make for excellent drama, but you know what? They can also suck all the fun out of your weekend. That’s why The Flight Attendant is so impressive. In a TV climate where darker is better, Kaley Cuoco’s HBO Max original delivers all the drama you could ever want without losing its sense of fun.
There are a thousand reasons why the show’s levity could have been lost. At its core The Flight Attendant is a pretty hardcore and bleak show. The series starts with a drunken party girl (Cuoco) waking up next to the murdered body of her latest one-night stand (Michiel Huisman). From there the plot only amps up its darkness. There’s more murder, a countless number of lies, suicide, threatening hitmen, and even a nefarious rich family in responsible for smuggling weapons. Then there’s Cassie herself.
Only half of this series focuses on Cassie’s struggle to remain alive while being chased by assassins. The other half is a visualization of Cassie’s inner struggle as an alcoholic. Though she’s loathe to admit it to herself, with every desperate swig of vodka Cassie internally descends further into her crutch. Even when Cassie is at her lowest points and having her most hateful internal conversations, the camera never looks away. The Flight Attendant always shows Cassie’s love of alcohol as a problem and it maintains a quietly judgmental eye as Cassie makes more terrible decisions.
Any one of those plot points is heavy. And yet The Flight Attendant manages to always feel fun without dismissing the gravity of the situation. Part of that has to do with the series’ excellent writing. Even when they’re in the midst of a meltdown, characters fire one-liners at each other with a snappiness that leaves you wanting to rewind and watch again. Cuoco and Zosia Mamet’s Episode 2 exchange about Annie keeping Topo Chicos in her office is a perfect example of that. Here are these two women, one possibly on the run from the law and the other gearing up to defend her best friend. Yet all they can do is bicker over mineral water and Cassie’s inflated ego. That’s best friendship in a nutshell.
That exchange also highlights one of the greatest parts of The Flight Attendant: its cast. Shown through their interactions with Cassie, the three female leads feel like three different, fully developed people. And yet all three zing with the same brand quick energy when they’re in Cassie’s presence. For Mamet’s Annie that means a lot of pointed looks and long hums that should be recognizable to anyone with an exhausting best friend. For Rosie Perez’s Megan it presents itself as a sort of wide-eyed and fast-talking rant that seems endless. Megan is the face of that doting friend who can talk your ear off. And for Michelle Gomez’s chilling Miranda, that energy takes the form of arched eyebrows and smug half smiles, jarring expressions that immediately communicate Miranda is the alpha of their situation. Cassie’s relationships with these women feels as complex and nuanced as Cassie herself. But they never feel like a bummer and you’re never left wondering why these women are friends in the first place.
Speaking of, Cassie herself is a blast. Cuoco refuses to lean into draining grief or self-pity in her titular role. Instead she utilizes laughter. Even when Cassie is on the brink of collapse she always has another scathing remark, another put-down directed at herself. It’s a smart hack that immediately makes Cassie seem more charming. But more than that Cuoco’s smiling through Cassie’s pain feels realistic. That’s how people react when they’re about to lose it but they know they can’t — not with sorrow but with manic laughter.
And you know what? That rapid dialogue and those countless self-owns make the show’s central drama feel all the more real. The Flight Attendant understands that in order to make the most beautiful picture possible, you have to use all the paints on your palette. To make the darkness shine, you have to use the light. That’s something all of television should keep in mind both in the interest of great storytelling and to keep us from worldwide depression.
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