How on earth does the title character of “The Flight Attendant,” the best new miniseries on HBO Max, manage to hold down her job? Cassie Bowden (Kaley Cuoco) lives with her feet off the ground, both metaphorically and literally. She is the embodiment of all those lightly sexist tabloid monikers: party girl, train wreck, hot mess. In order to get a colleague in the first-class cabin to slide her some liquor, Cassie needn’t do more than pout and blow on her blond curtain bangs. “The Flight Attendant” is superficially a caper, and, with Cassie, it dutifully references the Hitchcock heroine. But the blue of her uniform put me in mind of another pop-culture touchstone: Britney Spears’s flight-attendant themed music video for “Toxic,” in which the singer spills champagne on her passengers and makes out with one of them in the bathroom. This woman is steering, but she is not in control.
In the pilot, Cassie swoons over the guy in 3C: Alex Sokolov (Michiel Huisman), who might be described, in noir parlance, as tall, dark, and handsome. And literate! (The two bond over Russian novels.) On landing in Bangkok, they engage in excess: too much food, too much alcohol, and too much sex. The morning after, Cassie wakes up to find Alex dead, his throat slit, the sheets bloodied. She is unable to recall the events of the night before. The killer’s identity will remain a mystery for the next seven episodes, but one antagonist has already revealed itself: memory, with its ability to not only augment the truth but to supplant it.
“The Flight Attendant” is an adaptation, from Steve Yockey, of Chris Bohjalian’s novel of the same name. (Cuoco is an executive producer.) The series is like a clever pop song; the thrill is in its juxtaposition of a rowdy rhythm with a lyrical portrait of tragedy and grief. Cassie tidies the murder scene, then flees the hotel. Back at work, she is eyed by her co-workers, the wonderfully fey Shane (Griffin Matthews) and the middle-aged worrier Megan (the terrific Rosie Perez). But no one is too concerned about her erratic behavior. Everyone is used to tolerating her chaos.
On the flight back home to New York City, Shane’s phone buzzes with the news of Alex’s murder. Cassie is interviewed by the F.B.I.; she pleads, rather unconvincingly, that Alex was alive the last time she saw him. All the while, blurred memories of their date night come rushing back. These moments intensify as the series goes on, extending back past Cassie’s time in Bangkok to unearth repressed memories from her childhood. She also sees visions of Alex, who, from beyond the grave, becomes her spirit guide.
The series does not waste time pointing the finger at Cassie. When she blurts out, “I’m not that kind of drunk—I’m public-nudity, yelling-in-the-subway kind of drunk,” we believe her. She just doesn’t seem like she’s capable enough to commit a murder; in fact, much of the fun of “The Flight Attendant” lies in watching her stumble into capability, as she becomes an amateur sleuth in an attempt to clear her name. We get a villain turned friend in Miranda, played by Michelle Gomez, with her gorgeously craggy face. We get a wacky laundering scheme, replete with sinisterly named organizations like Lionfish, that is uncovered by Cassie and her lawyer best friend, Annie (the flinty Zosia Mamet). We go, distractingly, from Thailand to New York to Rome and back.
All that movement—geographic, psychological, physical—can cause “The Flight Attendant” to get jerky. (Cassie herself is in constant motion—always flying somewhere or running from something—in flashy split-screen sequences that reflect her fractured state of mind.) But the mystery rights itself before it crashes; we finish the eight episodes because of the show’s aesthetic ambition—clear from its boldly designed title cards, which evoke Saul Bass—and because of Cuoco’s remarkable performance, a breakthrough for the career sitcom actor.
Cassie’s lies calcify into a tower of avoidance and pain. I loved the gradual darkening of the party scenes: our stewardess goes from gyrating at European clubs to stealing a kiddie ride from a bodega. In Cassie, “The Flight Attendant” manages a character study that feels intriguingly quiet, especially given the commotion of its thriller conceit. This may be at the expense of the secondary characters, who were not given much room to grow. (A couple of welcome twists in the finale bode well for future seasons, however.) I was particularly interested in Perez’s Megan, a homely wife from Oyster Bay, who is helplessly drawn to the dirty glamour of her younger, whiter colleague. She calls her constantly, fawning that could be pseudo-maternal, sexual, or both. But, rather than explore this, the show opts to silo Megan into a convoluted subplot that culminates in her gaining “agency” by becoming a sleuth herself.
“The Flight Attendant” works hard to earn its place among its contemporary influences, which might include “Russian Doll,” “I May Destroy You,” and “BoJack Horseman.” But the show’s high jinks sent me back to Bugs Bunny. Cassie moves through the world like a flesh-and-blood cartoon, careening from drunkenness to lucidity. Cuoco gives this physical recklessness some meaning, thereby humanizing a trope. When she visits Alex’s workplace, in search of more clues, she is chased by security guards whom she is able to evade, but not before she destroys a sculpture of—what else?—a rabbit, on display in the lobby.
A live rabbit makes frequent appearances in Cassie’s surreal flashbacks. We learn that the animal witnessed the car crash that killed Cassie’s alcoholic father. Cassie has convinced herself that her dad was a fun-loving prankster; the reality is much more violent. (He gave his daughter her first beer when she was ten.) The family trauma anchors what could have been a fizzy romp about a bad one-night stand. The series is also a romance—or a sweet perversion of one. The Alex of Cassie’s imagination helps her confront her personal issues. “You say you wanna help people, but, really, you’re attracted to disaster,” he says. “I’m totally in love with you,” she tells him later, though she is really talking only to herself. The device is almost grotesque, but it’s also lovely.
Cassie Bowden would be a delicious subject for Lady Whistledown, the anonymous gossip columnist in Netflix’s “Bridgerton.” Whistledown is the faceless narrator of the series, a costume farce of Regency society based on Julia Quinn’s wildly popular romance-novel series, and she is voiced by Julie Andrews—possibly the least anonymous person in Britain. It’s courting season in early-nineteenth-century London, and the eligible girls, teetering under pounds of curls, are vying for approval from the snuff-sniffing Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel). Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor, as delicate as a songbird) is the most sought-after girl in the “ton,” until, all of a sudden, she’s not. Desperate to marry well, she recruits the grouchy bachelor Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), into a mutually beneficial dating scheme.
“Bridgerton” also concerns the legacy of a bad parent. When Simon’s father was on his deathbed, Simon vowed that he would never have children, in order to end the Hastings line. But, as is expected, Daphne and Simon end up falling for each other, and their union permits “Bridgerton” to mature past the cutesy and into the adult. Fans of the novels will watch the series out of curiosity as to how it will reveal the identity of Lady Whistledown—and also for the feverish sex.
Shonda Rhimes, who is almost a genre unto herself, produced the series, which was created by Chris Van Dusen, and it is the first to début under a new deal that Rhimes has with Netflix. My empty, end-of-the-year brain was well served by the burlesque of selfish viscounts, conniving ladies of the house, and enterprising modistes. Less pleasurable were certain attempts at seriousness. Van Dusen’s version of nineteenth-century England is race-blind, and Simon’s refusal to propagate his seed has something to do with his father’s race shame. The grafting of contemporary politics onto the period piece feels extraneous and vague. Maybe this interracial-love fetish would have jelled better in the Obama era. “Love, your grace, conquers all,” Simon’s de-facto mother, Lady Danbury, tells him. “Love changes nothing,” he responds. ♦