The retro-glam charms of ‘The Flight Attendant’
During the sixties and seventies, the flight attendant was a fantasy figure for many straight men and an aspirational career choice for many straight women. The sight of a woman in a flight attendant uniform immediately conjures up the dream of a woman who will sleep with you and then dash off to work a transatlantic flight the next morning. She’s not going to tell you stories about how awful her mother is or nag you to talk about where this relationship is going. She’s gone. And you miss her. (This is also the reason Gay men love sailors!)
Nowadays, we no longer consider it glamorous or prestigious to be a stewardess. The job no longer pays very well nor offers many benefits. It is now illegal (and generally frowned upon) for airlines to hire and fire personnel on the basis of looks, age and weight as they once did. Thus, flight attendants no longer look like models. And women in general have much loftier career aspirations.
And yet here is Kaley Cuoco as Cassie Bowden, the titular character, looking messy…like she just rolled out of the bed of a strange man. Her slinky flight attendant’s uniform fits her like a glove, (what airline IS this?) and she has perfect bedhead. She is dashing in high heels through an airport – and across our tv screens — trying not to miss her flight. I’m not even straight and I want to get behind the wheel of a TransAm, pull up next to her and ask her if she needs a ride. Although this TV series takes place today, it is strangely nostalgic.
The first season of the Flight Attendant dropped during COVID and was just what we needed. Cassie was doing everything we couldn’t: namely travelling, going to crowded nightclubs and having sex with strangers. The art direction was sharp and stunning. It uses split screens a lot. And there’s a beautifully designed animated opening credits sequence and a compelling percussion-driven score crafted by Blake Neely.
The plot of season one, however, was just okay. It’s basically one of those Hitchcockian derivative situations where she’s woken up in a luxurious Thailand hotel room next to a dead, handsome, and very bloody one-night-stand and in order to prove herself innocent of his murder, she has to get to the bottom of the shadowy organized forces that killed him and framed her. Sure, she didn’t kill her…but she has proverbial blood on her hands for other reasons. The show does this with with deft touches of humor and glamour…but we’ve seen this before many times.
And because this is a limited series on HBO MAX, there’s a lot of unnecessary padding. There’s a family of origin story which explains her blackout drinking and overall irresponsibility. She has fantasy conversations with the handsome dead man. Zosia Mamet plays her best friend who is also a lawyer with connections to organized crime. Rosie Perez plays a co-worker of hers who has a shady secret of her own. It was a little too much, but it was still fun to watch. Finally Cassie clears her name, avoids getting killed herself and vows to clean up her act. The first season ends with the CIA hiring her as an asset, a move that indicated that there would be a second season. Was that wise?
Season two faces two challenges. To justify another season, Carrie must grow in some way. Otherwise, those revelations about her alcoholism and her family of origin trauma during season one were all for naught. On the other hand, if Cassie isn’t a fun hot mess anymore, why should we keep watching?
She’s gotten her act together. She’s a year sober, she’s moved to LA and she’s been dating one guy for almost six months. (She even goes to an AA meeting that, unlike most AA meetings portrayed on film and television actually resembles an AA meeting in many respects) But perhaps the most objectionably grounding aspect of season two is her new hairstyle. Her hair no longer bounces and behaves like it did last season. It droops like that of a schoolteacher that teaches in a district with a lot of humidity.
However now that she’s not drinking anymore, getting into dangerous situations and breaking the rules has become her new drug of choice…and the reason we’re still watching. There’s also a lot of what a literature professor might refer to as “mirroring.” Someone is pretending to be Cassie (same hairstyle, same back tattoo). She is using her credit cards, committing crimes and seems to be setting her up for something grave. Conversely, Cassie is talking to versions of herself in fantasy sequences that have replaced the fantasy sequences that featured her talking to her dead one night stand. One version of herself is quite sensible and helpful. Another one urges her to drink again. A third is herself as a teenager. However, these versions of herself have her hairstyle from season one and that might be this season’s salvation.
But the main salvation of The Flight Attendant is Kaley Cuoco herself. Cuoco is not a household name or a movie star, but up until 2019, when The Big Bang Theory ended its 12-year-run, she was one of television’s highest paid actresses, earning one million dollars per episode plus royalties and residuals. For the past nine years, she has been a Priceline spokesperson. She is an appealing onscreen presence in a very hardworking, direct yet bubbly way. She’s not a dumb blonde, but she’s a fun-but-shrewd, girl next door from the same mold as Goldie Hawn in the 1980s.
She is also the executive producer of this series. Her production company bought the rights to the Chris Bohjalian novel on which this was based and developed it into the limited television series that is currently airing on HBO. I am still watching, and I look forward to seeing what the rest of her entertainment career looks like.