Kaley Cuoco was 16 when she was cast as John Ritter’s oldest child in the ABC sitcom 8 Simple Rules for Dating my Teenage Daughter. She’d been acting since she was little (here she is as a young Claire Danes in a My So-Called Life flashback) and had already developed some promising comic timing, but her main function when the show began was to make Ritter gnash his teeth over her character’s flaunting of her body. In the pilot, he complains about her wearing a belly-baring top, and, in another scene, a thong, and she gestures at her breasts to explain why multiple guys want to take her to a dance.
Cuoco kept acting into young-adulthood, first as a last-gasp addition to Charmed, and most famously as Penny on CBS’ The Big Bang Theory. By then she was in her twenties, and TV creators felt even freer to objectify her in the manner common to the medium. In the first few episodes, especially, Penny is basically just a sexual fantasy for new neighbor Leonard. (She even uses his shower in the pilot because her pipes don’t work.) Over time, the writers would start throwing her some jokes, particularly as Penny developed an unlikely friendship with Sheldon. But it took the addition of two more regular female characters in the fourth season for Penny to be treated as a funny person first, rather than as the Sexy Girl who inexplicably hung out with these nerds. The costume department didn’t exactly start dressing her in burlap sacks, but Cuoco turned out to be one of Jim Parsons’ best comic foils, and a strong central presence in the many stories about what Penny, Amy, and Bernadette did when the guys weren’t around. She was a genuine comedic talent who just happened to look like Leonard’s dream girl.
HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant is Cuoco’s first live-action role since Big Bang ended (though she’s done terrific voice work as the title character of the hilarious Harley Quinn animated series, now also on HBO Max). Here, she plays Cassie Bowden, a walking train wreck with a preternatural gift for finding parties, and trouble, wherever her international flights land. The show often emphasizes the “hot” part of hot mess, not only with Cassie’s busy sex life, but with her glamorous off-hours outfits, like a slinky gold dress she dons for a Bangkok adventure with first class passenger Alex (Michiel Huisman from Game of Thrones).
But Cuoco is in a different position here than she was on past shows. She’s a big star now, and also an executive producer on this project. No one is objectifying her in lieu of giving her good material; she’s owning Cassie’s sexuality as a key part of the character. And she’s the very clear, and often very funny, protagonist of this darkly comic mystery story, which begins when Cassie wakes up from a night of blackout drinking to find Alex’s bloody corpse in the hotel bed next to her.
As she begins interrogating herself about what happened, Cassie is sure, relatively speaking, that she couldn’t have killed him herself, insisting, “I am not that kind of drunk. I am public-nudity, yelling-on-the-subway kind of drunk!”
When Cassie meets Alex on the way to Thailand, he’s reading a copy of Crime and Punishment, which she uses as an excuse to argue for Doctor Zhivago as the superior piece of Russian literature. It’s a way of letting us know she has more substance than one might assume from our early glimpses of her getting lit all over the world. The Flight Attendant itself, though, is on the frothier side of things — even with several pesky murders — more akin to the kind of light reading you might try to finish on a transcontinental flight. It’s full of twists and turns, along with humor to keep the story from feeling too dense or hard to focus on. (The show was, in fact, adapted by Steve Yockey from a novel by Chris Bohjalian.)
Director Susanna Fogel (The Spy Who Dumped Me) gives the early episodes a bouncy look and feel. And she finds ways for the jokes to complement the thriller tropes, rather than letting the two genres undermine one another as Cassie’s travels take her back and forth from New York to Bangkok, Rome, and other locations foreign and domestic. There are some seemingly unnecessary detours involving supporting characters like Cassie’s best friend Annie (Zosia Mamet) and co-worker Megan (Rosie Perez). But the main plot moves briskly, even as the investigation forces Cassie to turn inward and figure out how she became the ungainly disaster whose friends indulge her only because she’ll make good story fodder later.
Cuoco is sharp and likable throughout, two necessary ingredients for playing a character who makes a scene wherever she goes. (“She looks fun,” someone observes while looking at a photo of Cassie, “in, like, a sorority kind of way.”) And the exasperation she inspires in friends and family (including T.R. Knight as her disapproving brother Davey) generates wonderful sparks between Cuoco and Girls alum Mamet, who gets to play a comic symphony of disapproval as high-powered lawyer Annie watches her pal make one terrible choice after another.
The only thing preventing a full-throated recommendation here is the fact that HBO Max provided just four of the eight episodes for review in advance. With mystery series, even humorous ones like this, landing the plane is as important as what happens while you’re a mile high in the air. Though HBO Max has billed The Flight Attendant as a limited series, Cuoco has said she hopes to make a second season if it’s successful. This might explain some of those non-Cassie subplots, as a way to help prolong a story meant to be finite. This kind of hedging rarely works out to anyone’s satisfaction, from Big Little Lies making an unnecessary second season to The Killing not solving its initial mystery at the end of its first year.
But even if it doesn’t end well, it’s a great showcase for this next phase of Cuoco’s career. Big Bang syndication money means she has the privilege of taking only the jobs that interest her. She has long since ceased being the object and has instead become the person in control of her roles. She’s off to an excellent start with whatever she wants to do with that power.
The first episode of The Flight Attendant is available now on HBOMax.com, with the first three episodes officially premiering on HBO Max on November 26th, followed by two episodes apiece dropping on December 3rd and 10th before the finale is released on December 17th. Watch with a free trial to HBO Max here.