TV mysteries are a lot like bumpy flights: So long as they end well, earlier quibbles can be forgiven. “The Flight Attendant,” one of HBO Max’s first marquee originals, didn’t offer its finale to critics in advance, and the first four episodes have plenty of bumps if you want to look for them. But the sleek ride Susanna Fogel, Steve Yockey, and especially star/producer Kaley Cuoco have cobbled together makes it hard to push the call button, let alone start looking for a parachute. Meshing together a handful of genres — part mystery-thriller, part dark comedy, part surreal romantic-fantasy — the hourlong series careens forward with a propulsive pace, curious side stories, and an enticing cast of characters. Suspension of disbelief is a requisite and nagging questions need to be held until the end, but all signs point to net positive trip, even if a safe landing is still up in the air.
In the first of many montages, “The Flight Attendant” opens with Cassie Bowden (Cuoco) jet-setting around the globe, mixing business with pleasure by working each flight and going out each night. The blunt opening, set to Sofi Tukker’s “The Good Time Girl,” plays into our collective presumptions about what flight crews do when they’re not enforcing sky law: hitting the hottest bars, sleeping in glamorous hotel rooms, and even inviting the most attractive passengers to sign up for a mile-high membership. But the lack of masks and fear over job security aren’t the only reasons not to take Cassie’s life as a literal interpretation of what it’s like to be a flight attendant: The series quickly undercuts any representational reality when the good times suddenly end.
After an excellent first date with Alex (Michiel Huisman of “Game of Thrones” and “Haunting of Hill House” fame), Cassie wakes up to a fate much worse than her hangover: Her new beau’s perfectly trimmed throat has been slit. In a panic, she runs back to her job, flies out of Bangkok, and tries to act like she never even went out with “3C,” as her fellow flight attendants have been calling Alex. But when the body is found, Cassie has to search her foggy memory of the worst one-night-stand ever for clues that just might save her life.
Things only get weirder from there. For one, Cassie’s subconscious takes the form of Alex: Whether she’s mid-flight or being interrogated by the FBI, Cassie keeps flashing back to Alex’s hotel room, where he’ll sit up in bed — neck still sliced, body still covered in blood — and start talking to her. Their conversations go further than Cassie using Alex as a stand-in for her own memories, and, in one of the series’ biggest reaches, their time together is real enough that she starts falling in love with not just a dead guy, but her active hallucination of a dead guy.
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Like I said: weird. But that kind of bizarre choice helps make other unnatural decisions look sensible. For reasons necessary to the plot more than the character, Cassie starts investigating the murder on her own. She argues it’s to help clear her name, but she’s got a lawyer best friend (played by Zosia Mamet) working for free, and there’s very little evidence that makes her a prime suspect; it’s her own investigation that gets the FBI’s attention, meaning it’s Cassie’s bad decisions that keep the story going.
OK, enough nitpicking. This is a mystery-thriller, Cassie is your every-woman protagonist, and entertainment is the priority. In addition to stylish modern costumes (courtesy of Emmy nominee Catherine Marie Thomas) and more frames within the frame than any comic book movie since “Hulk,” “The Flight Attendant” has a great main character. Writer/producer Yockey (adapting Chris Bohjalian’s 2018 book) gives Cassie enough history to make her feel real, even when she’s living through goofy, surreal circumstances. Plus, Cuoco nails every beat of the genre-shifting script.
The “Big Bang Theory” star brings her comedic chops to the table yet again, but she also enlivens the many frenzied close-ups of Cassie’s bewildered, worried, or excited expressions. It’s a detailed performance, requiring Cuoco to handle every disparate scene as they come, while also tying them together to form a through-line only she can — one minute Cassie is having a heart-to-heart with her brother (a well-cast T.R. Knight), then she’s stuck inside her own mind talking to a dead guy, and then she’s knocking over a tray of drinks. Personal drama, existential romance, physical comedy: Cuoco plays them all in the span of a few minutes, and she also wraps one into the other as she goes.
Not knowing where all this is going makes it hard to say whether “The Flight Attendant” is worth an eight-hour investment — let alone its $15/month subscription fee. The HBO Max original is moving so fast, it could come crashing down at any second. But as a light and loose limited series with an arresting turn from Cuoco, there’s enough sheer entertainment for fans of the star (or anyone already subscribed to WarnerMedia’s burgeoning service) to hop on board. Unlike those long flights, if this mystery gets too bumpy, you can deplane at any time.
“The Flight Attendant” premieres its first three episodes Thursday, November 26 on HBO Max. Two new episodes will be released each following week, with the finale debuting December 17. The first episode is available to stream without a subscription.