The Flight Attendant (HBO Max)

So far in my life, I’ve seen Kaley Cuoco in TV three series: Charmed, The Big Bang Theory and now The Flight Attendant.  I don’t remember her making much of an impression in Charmed beyond being young and pretty.  As someone who liked and enjoyed The Big Bang Theory, I appreciated how she transformed Penny from essentially eye candy to a person with self-awareness, vulnerability and the ability to deliver a punchline.  With The Flight Attendant, Cuoco managed to destroy twelve years of good will over what I can only describe as a mess.

In The Flight Attendant, Cuoco plays Cassie Bowen, a flight attendant who’s main character traits are drinking non-stop and having sex with every cute guy she meets.  She flirts with Alex (Michiel Huisman, Game of Thrones) on their flight to Bangkok and later joins him for a night on the town.  She blacks out from drinking so much, and awakens the following morning to find him lying dead next to her with his throat cut.  In a panic, she calls her quirky lawyer friend Annie (Zosia Mamet, Girls) to ask whether Amanda Knox was kept in Italy while under arrest for the murder of her roommate.  After Annie confirms the obvious, Cassie cleans up the room and heads to the airplane to Soel.  The plan being that when she eventually makes it back to the US, she won’t be extradited.

On the way back home, Cassie starts having conversations in her mind with Alex.  The two of them discuss Alex’s murder while trying to unravel her fragmented memory of that night.  I don’t remember this plot device being used since Ratatouille.  I didn’t mind it then, given that Ratatouille was a cartoon featuring talking rats.  Here, it comes off as an annoying contrivance. (My wife tells me that she did not remember that being part of the book.)

After landing in New York, Cassie is told that the FBI wants to interview all of the crew about Alex.  She inexplicably attempts to flee, only to be nabbed by airport security.  In spite of her obviously suspicious behavior, the FBI let her go home to get some sleep.  Back home, she drinks even more.  We find she has a brother (T.R. Knight) with two nieces.  She is supposed to take them to the Museum of Natural History, but her brother is naturally concerned with having his walking drunk of a sister around his children.

Cassie remembers that Alex’ colleague Miranda met them the night he died.  Cassie figures if she could find out how Miranda is, maybe Miranda would help Cassie out of her predicament.  Cassie decides to play junior detective and goes to the building where Alex worked, which is a large hedge fund.  She clumsily asks about Miranda and when HR gets suspicious and calls security, Cassie, flees the building.  (I wished the show would have played some wacky “gotta get outta here!” music, so that Cassie’s constant fleeing wouldn’t look come off so pitifully.)

The FBI asks Cassie to meet with her 10:00 AM the next morning.  The afternoon before, Cassie meets with her lawyer friend Annie, who tells her to not be late and to plead the fifth when any incriminating questions are asked.  Cassie, wanting to block out the troubling visions of Alex’s corpse in her head, meets her work friends for drinks.  Cassie eyes a cute guy at the bar and buys him many drinks.  She heads to his place, where she proceeds to have sex with him in her underwear.  (Alas, the days of wanton nudity on HBO are truly dead.)  Predictably, Cassie arrives late for her meeting with the FBI.  Even though she reeks of alcohol, the two FBI agents still interview her.  Ignoring the advice of her lawyer friend, she instead listens to the projection of Alex inside her head and tells the FBI everything.  Later in the day, the two FBI agents agree that anything Cassie said while under “diminished capacity” would not hold up in court, but they will continue to use her for information.  What?

Cassie later learns that Alex and Miranda were dating, and that Miranda has violent tendencies.  As Cassie headed for her flight out of town for Rome, followed by a stiletto-knife wielding Miranda, I decided to cancel my reservation.

I can understand why Cuoco was drawn to this material.  The character of Cassie is somewhat of an extension of Penny.  Like Penny, Cassie sleeps around and makes bad decisions while drunk.  Unlike a character on a broadcast sitcom, Cassie can swear and have (partially clothed) sex onscreen.  I’m sure Cuoco found these character traits very liberating.  The problem I had is that Cuoco plays Cassie at such a frantic, manic level, always panicky, always flustered, always rambling, that she becomes exhausting to watch.  Cassie is also completely bereft of any common sense at all.  Her actions border on stupid.  How anyone would think that partying the night before a meeting with the FBI about a murder, a murder in which she is a suspect, would be a good idea is beyond me.  In the two episodes I watched, it seemed as if every time she had to make a decision, she would choose the completely stupid option.

I have not read the book The Flight Attendant is based on, but I imagine it was a quick and enjoyable airplane read.  It likely focused on Cassie, and kept the action moving along at a brisk pace.  The book probably would have made a decent 90 minute film, but as a TV series, it feels padded, and not in a good way.  We learn that Cassie’s brother Davey is gay and married with two daughters, but nothing else.  Cassie’s best friend is Megan (Rosie Perez) and a fellow flight attendant, but why they are such close friends is never shown.  The portrayals of the two characters by Cuoco and Perez are so tonally different, they seem to be in completely different movies.  There are cutaways to the two FBI agents, who don’t like each other and converse in smarmy tones, and I thought, why should I care about them?  How is Lawyer friend Annie qualified to represent Cassie with the FBI?  How and why is she friends with Cassie?  What field of law does Annie practice?  (All not explained.)

Even Cassie as a character is paper thin.  As I mentioned before, she drinks like a fish and engages in casual sex at every opportunity.  As further character shading, Cassie also has that god-awful song from the Eighties by Stacy-Q as her ring tone and sweats up a storm in her riding class.  I suspect I’d learn more about why she behaves as she does these as the series progresses, but honestly, Cassie (as portrayed by Cuoco) is so incredibly annoying that I don’t want to spend any more time with her if I can help it.  Cassie is essentially a bad sitcom construction, all “crazy behavior” with no context or subtlety.  Instead of a fully realized character with a bit of common sense, we get a wide-eyed, rapid-speaking girl-child.
Somewhere in the original story, I imagine there are elements that would make a decent guilty pleasure of a movie.  Unlike, for example, The Girl on the Train, The Flight Attendant doesn’t have the conviction of its seamy origins, and refuses to fully embrace its own depravity.  It wants to be a sexy comedy, a thriller, and study of self-destructive behavior all at once.  Problem is, HBO had a series that managed to be all of those things, much more convincingly and with far better acting.  That series was called Run, and HBO cancelled it after one season.  The only fair punishment for the HBO executives who green-lit this ridiculous trash would be if they were stuck on an international flight with Cassie, and had to sit with her while she downed one tiny bottle of Vodka after another, after another, after another…

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