“The Big Bang Theory” aired on CBS for over 12 years, accumulating around 11,700 minutes of runtime or 195 hours. That’s the equivalent of over eight full days of straight footage. Even if you didn’t sleep for a week, you could not finish the entirety of “The Big Bang Theory.”
The series ran on CBS starting in 2007. The sitcom revolved around a group of four geeky friends and their inability to assimilate into “normal” society. Though highly educated, the male cast of the Big Bang Theory is portrayed as stereotypical nerds and hopeless with women. Throughout the entire run of the show, Kaley Cuoco is a series regular. She is notable on the show for being the only “normal person,” the viewers’ way into the nerdy and geeky world of the boys. While there are various problematic elements of her character and the show’s humor, she had an otherwise successful and critically unnotable career.
However, “The Big Bang Theory” concluded in 2019, with most of the cast jumping ship to pursue other interests. Once freed from CBS’s “Big Bang” purgatory, Cuoco got involved in various new projects. She started her own production company in 2017 called Yes, Norman Productions. Since then, Cuoco has starred in and developed multiple new and dynamic projects.
In the past year, I have twice encountered Cuoco entirely by accident.
“The Flight Attendant” was released by HBO in 2020 and won Cuoco a new level of critical acclaim. Cuoco works both in front of and behind the camera. She is an executive producer behind the screen while, onscreen, she plays the troubled, boozy protagonist Cassie who gets caught up in a larger corporate-spy plot.
In the show, her character wakes up next to her brutally murdered one-night stand in Bangkok. The man has his throat completely slit open, and party girl Cassie is completely unprepared for the sight. Recalling Amanda Knox, an American charged with a crime abroad who was wrongfully sentenced to 26 years in an Italian prison, Cassie makes the executive decision to clean up the crime scene and any evidence of her staying the night. Picking up broken glass, Cassie fumbles around the apartment, trying to keep her hysteria in check.
Cuoco, so often portraying a street-smart, “normal” girl in “The Big Bang Theory,” gets to stretch her emotions. In a single scene, she transforms from a confident, irresponsible party girl to scared, traumatized and panicked. Cuoco makes this transition convincingly and maintains the viewer’s sympathies.
Most American audiences have seen a bevy of crime-solving shows. From “Bones” to “CSI,” American audiences know what not to do at a crime scene. Cassie breaks all the rules. She leaves her fingerprints on the murder weapon after picking it up, she trails blood across the floor and she answers the door to shoo away a maid. However, despite all Cassie’s obvious blunders, it’s hard for her not to remain a sympathetic character.
The truest test of Cuoco’s acting ability is not her ability to sashay down a hotel lobby, but rather her ability to remain relatable during a crisis. Watching Cuoco cleaning up a crime scene is heart-pounding. She channels the right amount of panicked and overwhelmed without seeming too tacky or over-acted. She calls her network and family, trying to get advice without implicating anyone she loves in the mess she woke up in. At that moment, with the information the show provides, the most logical course of action is Cassie’s chosen path. Cuoco and the script are able to make a convincing case for Cassie’s reactions. Thanks to this careful framing, instead of yelling at the television, I remained surprisingly sympathetic toward Cassie.
“The Flight Attendant” has enjoyed rave reviews since it first aired in November 2020. The show, Cuoco and the cast were nominated for the Golden Globes this past month. In a recent Variety article, Cuoco said that “The Flight Attendant” was “the highlight of (her) entire career.”
But the real highlight of Cuoco’s career is what she did with superhero cartoons.
It’s not often that I completely forget where I know an actress or voice from. I pride myself on being able to recognize voices and faces on screen. When watching animated movies and shows, though unable to identify the voice actors, I know voices from previous characters. Sometimes my ability to discern and identify voices ruins the immersion but I can shake it off.
Twice Kaley Cuoco has eluded me.
The first time was in “The Flight Attendant.” The second time was in HBO’s “Harley Quinn.” Another offering from Cuoco’s production company, “Harley Quinn” effectively terraformed the comic book media landscape by introducing the commercial possibility of feminist, irreverent television for comic book fans. Harley Quinn, voiced by Cuoco, has her vices: a bad ex (the Joker) and something to prove.
The character is narcissistic and selfish but unapologetically so. She is confident in her femininity and unafraid of violence. In a way, Harley Quinn of the “Harley Quinn” TV show is a conceptual predecessor to Cassie in “The Flight Attendant.”
Portrayals of Harley Quinn in the DC comic book universe can be a mixed bag. Sometimes Harley is a seductress, more archetype than character. Other times, Harley is inscrutable, both victim and perpetrator, with motivations unknowable to Batman’s cohort. It’s not uncommon for Harley to be used as a plot device. Even recent comics centering around Harley begin with an unsteady understanding of who the character is. Comics cannot reconcile Harley as a “wild,” sexually active, abused woman and simultaneously extremely educated. Any portrayal of Harley as a multifaceted woman and an individual is undercut by the comic book’s persistent sexualization of her.
However, in the “Harley Quinn” TV show, viewers can understand Harley as a complex woman. She is no longer inscrutable with vaguely referenced motivations and is not simply an insane Joker lackey; she is a woman who has made her own choices and is learning to live with herself. The show picks up right after the Joker and Harley have broken up for the last time. Harley is distraught and she throws a fit, unable to be comforted by her close friend Poison Ivy.
Similar to Cassie, Harley is not a great person. Both women have made many mistakes and hurt people close to them, repeatedly engaging in compulsive, harmful behavior. But even in crisis, both women remain real and sympathetic. Harley’s struggle to define herself apart from her disastrous relationship with the Joker feels natural. What else characterizes one’s mid-20s if not messy, modern relationships and having to grapple with enormous emotions that feel too large for our bodies? Harley makes mistake after mistake but she’s undergoing a learning process. She is fallible and sympathetic.
In creating an unapologetically loud and vulgar female-lead superhero cartoon show, “Harley Quinn” breaks the male-fantasy comic book tropes in half. From the canon of the DC Universe, “Harley Quinn” pieces together a modern narrative that bridges continuity gaps and isn’t afraid to laugh at the source material’s idiosyncrasies. The show is similar to “The Lego Batman Movie” in that it acutely understands Batman’s role in popular culture. Comic book writers tend to take Batman incredibly seriously. They see the billionaire in tights as regimented and silently tortured. “Harley Quinn” understands Batman as a workaholic. The show is LGBTQ+ inclusive and absolutely hilarious to watch. Under Cuoco’s leadership, it proves DC comics’ audience is composed of more than the “stereotypical geek” characters in “Big Bang Theory.” Geeky girls and so-called “normal” girls alike consume superhero narratives. I often pass it along to my non-DC comic fan friends as their first foray into comic book media.
From sit-com to 2D animation, Cuoco has a lot to offer. More so than merely being a versatile actress, Cuoco shakes up the industry. “The Big Bang Theory” made Cuoco a household name, but “The Flight Attendant” and “Harley Quinn” show is Cuoco’s legacy thus far.
Book Review Beat Editor Elizabeth Yoon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.