I didn’t have the highest expectations for The Flight Attendant. Having recently finished the first two seasons of Harley Quinn and the entirety of Pretty Little Liars, a show starring Kaley Cuoco (the voice of Harley) in which she becomes involved in a mysterious and dangerous game of cat and mouse seemed like a perfect option for some easy and familiar fun. But I did not expect to fall so hard for this show.
Like many shows, including Harley Quinn and Pretty Little Liars, The Flight Attendant mixes genres freely. Mostly made up of the building blocks of thriller, drama, and comedy, the show dips a toe into the gangster and spy genres as well, and to top it all off includes some brutal action scenes and suspense sequences that verge on horror. But what makes the show stand out, and what has made it my favorite of the original streaming shows I’ve seen, are the performances that manage to sell every single one of these different genres.
Kaley Cuoco is of course key to making these shifts work. As the titular flight attendant Cassie, Cuoco moves through the show’s various styles and tones deftly. She makes every scene, no matter how different it may be from what was happening moments before, fully believable. Her ability to meet the tone of and deliver a fantastic performance in each of the genres that the show moves through makes clear why she’s currently nominated for both a Golden Globe and a SAG Award for her work here.
Cuoco is able make these tonal changes so seamlessly because she has created such a real character in Cassie. Cassie is an alcoholic who makes more than one frustrating decision throughout the course of the show, but she’s also a good friend, determined, and (perhaps necessarily given that the show is also a comedy) very funny. She’s a believable person, so it makes sense that, like any person going through alternately exhilarating, scary, painful, and fun experiences, Cassie acts differently in these situations without ever changing who she is.
At the risk of being overly negative, it’s worth highlighting Cuoco’s work here in contrast to other lead performances in shows that play in a variety of genres. David Duchovny and Sarah Michelle Gellar are fantastic in their central roles on The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer respectively, but they are not able to perfectly play every note that those shows ask of them. Both struggle to make the most dramatic scenes fully work because they are not able to believably convey the deep sadness or visceral despair required of them.
They can make you laugh with their banter and have you on the edge of your seat as they solve mysteries, but their performances crack when they are asked to portray real sadness and loss. Cuoco manages to play the genre (as in thriller/horror/action) aspects of The Flight Attendant along with the grounded drama scenes so believably that in those dramatic scenes, we are more fully invested for having seen Cassie in a wide range of different situations and modes – you know, like a real human being.
Of course, Cuoco is not the only actor in the show, and in fact the full cast has deservedly been nominated for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series for their work. Interestingly, while Cuoco, as the lead, must work her way through each of the different genres in the show, some of her co-stars are more tied to specific genres.
Cassie’s brother Davey, played by T. R. Knight, only appears in dramatic scenes. He talks to Cassie about being around his children when she’s drunk, how he loves her but she needs to get better, and how she and their father would bond over putting him down when they were children. These scenes are powerful, Knight and Cuoco are doing great work and the writing for these scenes feels extremely real as we see them stumble over their points, forget what they were saying, and simply refuse to talk.
This particular strength of the writing is a highlight in a number of scenes between Cassie and her best friend (and lawyer) Annie, played by Zosia Mamet, as well. Like Cuoco, Mamet creates a character with Annie that we can follow through all of her scenes whether they be comedy, relationship drama, or gangster story. The heart of the character is a toughness that is simultaneously threatening and comforting because we know that Annie is going to use that toughness to protect Cassie and help her however she can.
Both of these aspects of their relationship and Annie’s character are established in her first appearance on screen. Cassie calls Annie from Bangkok in the first episode and Annie’s first line of the show is an exasperated “Motherfucker” before picking up and lightly chastising Cassie for calling her in the middle of the night while also telling her that she always knows where Cassie is because of a friend finder app.
But over the course of the show, as we learn more about Annie and her other relationships, we see that this toughness is at least partially a defense mechanism. Mamet makes every part of that arc believable, especially towards the end of the season after we have learned more about her and she is still just as intimidating as she was at the start, if not more so.
In the same way that Knight sticks to the more dramatic scenes, Michelle Gomez almost entirely avoids them as Miranda, a fixer who is very good at her (sometimes significantly) less than legal work. But the fact that Gomez plays only in the thriller and comedy scenes of the show does not mean that her performance is any less integral or show stopping. In fact, because she is not weighed down by the need to elicit sympathy, Gomez is able to play her role purely in the heightened genres and be broad in both her menace and her humor, leading to some of the scariest and funniest scenes in the show. Sometimes Gomez and the writers combine these aspects of the character to brilliant effect, like the scene where Annie asks her “have you ever killed someone” and Miranda’s answer is a deadpan “definitely yes, yesterday was the most recent.”
Ironically one of the best performances comes from what is otherwise one of the weakest points of the show. Rosie Perez essentially has her own show in a significant subplot and delivers a heartbreaking performance as Megan, a fellow flight attendant who gets involved with what she believes is corporate espionage but may in fact be far more sinister. This storyline detracts from the main plot about Cassie and the mystery, but it allows Perez to do some incredibly affecting and hilarious work, as she moves between conversations with her husband and son to meeting with spies at diners and motels. While the subplot breaks the momentum of the main plot, it highlights that Perez is one of our best screen actors because of her ability to play various roles in various genres. Combined with her turn as increasingly frustrated good cop in a bad city Renee Montoya in Birds of Prey, 2020 may have been one of the best years of her career.
The cast of The Flight Attendant, along with some brilliant writing, push the genre mix of the show beyond the limitations of its individual aspects and lead it to become truly greater than the sum of its parts. The way that these characters move from fighting for their lives to exasperatedly arguing with loved ones to bantering with friends is seamless because they are all such well-realized characters brought to life by incredible performances. And that seamlessness makes what could have been a mess of disparate tones into one of the best new shows on TV. I for one can’t wait for Season 2.
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