The Flight Attendant Review: A Fizzy, Messy Mystery

Ten minutes or so into the first episode of HBO Max's The Flight Attendant, as Cassandra "Cassie" Bowden (Kaley Cuoco) is engaging in an increasingly flirty conversation with one of the passengers on her flight, their chat quickly turns to the subject of centuries-old literature. While Cassie tries to defend a particular title she likes, she utters a line that unintentionally encapsulates the overall experience of watching The Flight Attendant: "What's wrong with messy?" Based on its first four episodes, The Flight Attendant exists somewhere in the spectrum between a soapy network dramedy and a prestige HBO series -- but, oddly enough, there's nothing wrong with that. Anchored by Cuoco's performance, the series establishes a chaotic, engrossing, and earnest mystery that will absolutely hook viewers in.

Based on Chris Bohjalian's 2018 novel of the same name, The Flight Attendant follows Cassie, a New York woman who uses her career as a stewardess on a major airline -- and her fondness for alcohol and casual romantic hookups -- to escape the trauma of her past. This comes to an unexpected head when she meets Alex Sokolov (Michiel Huisman), a charming businessman she meets on a layover in Bangkok. After the pair spend the night together, Cassie wakes up to find Alex dead in the bed next to her, with no recollection of the time leading up to his death. As Cassie returns home to the United States, she begins to question if she had something to do with Alex's murder -- or if a larger conspiracy could be behind it all.

From the jump, one of the most surprising elements of The Flight Attendant is its approach to its own storytelling, which honors the source material while also deviating quite a bit. In addition to some overall narrative changes -- multiple characters are gender-bent, and the location of Cassie and Alex's fatal night is changed from Dubai to Bangkok -- there are some interesting pivots in terms of structure. While the structure of Bohjalian's novel, which immediately opens on Cassie finding Alex dead, could have naturally lent itself to a television format, the series decides to establish more of Cassie's life and interpersonal relationships before sending all of that crashing down. As a result, the series restructures key events to weave in plot twists and reveals that will be a little obvious to those who have read the book, but still play out in an effective way. (It also feels like The Flight Attendant might be the first HBO Max original to truly utilize the streaming service's "three-episode premiere" release format, as the third episode ends on a note that is just enticing enough to leave viewers wanting more.)

That being said, there is one facet of The Flight Attendant that could polarize those who watch it -- its tone. Initially, the miniseries is much more plucky than its grisly murder mystery might suggest, with a take on life in New York City that feels like Sex and the City, if Carrie was about to wake up next to Mr. Big's corpse. That oddly aspirational veneer begins to gradually fall away as the episodes progress, but there still is a mishmash of tones that almost feels baffling if you stop to think about it for a minute. It's nowhere near the cringe-worthy alternate reality of Emily in Paris, and the performances in The Flight Attendant are strong enough to keep you invested, but it still is unclear if the series wants to be an intense thriller, a stylish workplace dramedy, a rumination on addiction and PTSD, or a spirited look at life for a single woman in New York. The aesthetics and technical elements of the series add to that quaint, but frenetic energy, from the frequent use of split-screen montages to Blake Neely's catchy, but chaotic score. To an extent, the clashes between what type of story The Flight Attendant wants to tell almost work in its favor, to further illustrate the paranoia and emotional freefall that Cassie is currently undergoing.

By far, the strongest thing The Flight Attendant has going for it is its ensemble cast, who anchors the series and bring it a lot of heart even as it veers towards the absurd. Cuoco, who also executive produces the series, brings a performance to Cassie that feels both new and familiar -- a little of the "messy girl next door" energy of The Big Bang Theory's Penny, a little of the chaotic relatability of her take on Harley Quinn, and a lot of extra earnestness. As Sokolov (who, thanks to a clever framing device, has a larger role in the series beyond a glorified corpse), Huisman is a great complement to Cuoco, bringing a charm and mystery that fans of his work on Orphan Black and Game of Thrones will recognize. Rosie Perez, who plays Cassie's work confidant Megan, is also given a larger role than viewers might expect and is a welcome addition to basically every scene she's in. By and large, a lot of the standouts of the series are the women, including Zosia Mamet as Cassie's lawyer best friend Ani, Merle Dandridge as one of the FBI agents on Sokolov's case, and Michelle Gomez as Miranda, a mysterious character who could likely be the dark horse of the entire series.

The Flight Attendant is far from a perfect show, but that doesn't stop it from being a largely entertaining one. It's abundantly clear that Cuoco and company see the series as a labor of love, which makes the fact that it's a little rough around the edges much easier to excuse. The series has a mystery that will leave viewers eagerly awaiting the next episode, and a chaotic energy and sense of style that feels oddly easy to escape into. The Flight Attendant feels like the television equivalent of overhearing somebody else's personal drama at a crowded restaurant -- it's a little erratic and not expertly told, but you'll be left desperately wanting to hear more.

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Rating: 3 out of 5

The first three episodes of The Flight Attendant will debut on Thursday, November 26th on HBO Max.