Since the 1940’s, Hollywood has been obsessed with the idea of an “antihero”: a protagonist who defies usual heroic standards and often acts out of self-interest instead. These characters are more authentic, more relatable and yet almost always, these characters have been men. There are few times where mass audiences can tolerate a woman with the same selfish motives and free-range lifestyle if the woman isn’t vilified for it by the end. That’s why it’s refreshing to get a protagonist like Cassie Bowden (Kaley Cuoco, “The Big Bang Theory”) in the new HBO Max miniseries “The Flight Attendant.” She’s egotistical, bad at her job and will prioritize drinking over her family and friends. And thanks to Cuoco’s perfectly casted and fantastically executed performance, her character is still a fascinating one to follow, who shows glimmers of redeemability among the murky danger of parties and fast living.
After a drunken night out in Bangkok, flight attendant Cassie Bowden wakes up in blood-drenched sheets to find her last night’s hookup with his throat sliced open. With just about the worst case of hangxiety imaginable, Cassie makes it about halfway into covering her tracks before she panics, leaves and continues about her day as if nothing happened.
Based on the novel of the same name, the series is most prominently a mystery-thriller. Having no recollection of what on Earth went down last night, Cassie launches herself into an amateur investigation to solve the murder before the FBI closes in on her. The show moves swiftly between different genre tones. At many points, it’s comedic, and successfully comedic, too. The characters are well-written, and the show knows exactly when to take itself seriously, even using elements of horror to illustrate the very real and very terrifying trauma Cassie has just experienced.
Yet, there is another tone that is more pronounced than anything else. With a storyline that very much roots itself in film noir and spy movie themes, “The Flight Attendant” uses classic Hollywood tropes to bolster Cassie Bowden as its own classic, rugged lead. Like 007, Cassie travels to exotic places, sleeps around and loves alcohol. And just like Bond, her lifestyle is undeniably attractive. With an opening sequence that feels straight out of FXX’s “Archer,” the decision to portray Cassie as a secret agent makes for a terrifically fun watch.
In fact, the show’s thoughtful use of tone may be its most impressive feature. It understands tone as a tool to put us in Cassie’s shoes, rather than one to cast its judgement on her. When Cassie goes for a night out, the thrill is supplemented with flashy split-screen editing and kickass music (the sequence with “Woman” by Karen O & Danger Mouse rocks). It’s an accomplishment for the people behind the scenes, and also for Cuoco, who can balance her messiness with humor, and still keep the darker moments serious when she needs to.
Antiheroes are an essential part of storytelling because they acknowledge humanity. They appreciate that people are not perfectly one-dimensional. They are deeply troubled and often act out of self-interest. Their existence on screen allows people to find pieces of themselves in fictional characters.
Unfortunately, due to Hollywood’s long history of misogyny, authentic female voices have not as often been heard through television. It’s an absolute tragedy that we have only just begun to scratch the surface. The fact that having a genuine character like Cassie onscreen still stands out as somewhat empowering speaks to how little progress we’ve really made. But it makes me feel hopeful when I watch shows like this, which understand that humanity is flawed, and that characters, too, need to be flawed.
If “The Flight Attendant” can build on its momentum with its five remaining episodes, it’ll be a 2020 must-watch for thrill-seeking binge watchers.
Daily Arts Writer Ben Servetah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.