The first season of HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant was a harrowing, brutal exploration of trauma and addiction. Season two, in contrast, after two episodes, is a zany spy comedy. The series has become a much less interesting and uncompromising show—though that was probably inevitable. There’s only so long you can film a train wreck before you’re just staring at a pile of charred carbon or you shift the camera somewhere else.
In the first season, flight attendant and black-out drunk Cassie Bowden (Kaley Cuoco) wakes up in bed with a corpse, unable to remember what happened to her. It quickly becomes apparent that being implicated in a murder is the very least of her problems. She has regular hallucinations interspersed with flashbacks to her hideously abusive childhood. When she’s momentarily aware of what’s going on around her she spends her time torching all of her personal and professional relationships.
The Flight Attendant was marketed as a light fizzy comedy. But it was more emotionally difficult to sit through than the vast majority of horror films or dramas. Cassie staggers from one horrific personal decision to another, drinking, fornicating, and betraying herself in a lurching hurtle towards the abyss. I covered my eyes more than once.
Having hit bottom by the end of season 1, Cassie has nowhere to go but up. And sure enough, at the beginning of Season 2, she has significantly straightened herself out. She’s been sober for a year, and has as a result been able to fix her relationship with her best friend Annie (Zosia Mamet) and her brother Davey (T.R. Knight). She’s also got a new part-time job as a C.I.A. asset, doing small surveillance ops as she travels around the world on her main flight attendant gig.
The C.I.A. job is where the adventure and excitement for the adventure/excitement comedy series comes in. In the first episode, a guy Cassie is surveilling is murdered by a woman who looks like Cassie and may be stealing her identity (and her luggage.)
Cassie still has poor impulse control. She follows her surveillance target off the hotel premises after being told explicitly not to, and her sense of self-preservation is in general no match for her curiosity and hyperactive imagination. She also struggles to maintain her sobriety; she frequently has internal monologues/hallucinations in which a gold-dress party version of herself tells her she’s boring and tries to tempt her back off the wagon.
The publicity for the show says that Cassie is still a mess, she just no longer has “an excuse.” But this is misleading. Cassie often makes poor decisions and remains a force of chaos. But that’s in line with many other nosey comedy-adventure/mystery/spy protagonists; Nancy Drew, Jessica Fletcher, Veronica Mars. Cassie’s fun and funny. That’s a big difference from the first season, when she was pretending to be fun and funny to conceal the fact that she was a very, very ill woman, whose life was a single, long, horrifying paroxysm of misery and pain.
The tonal shift is most evident in the scenes with Annie and Annie’s sort-of-fiancé Max (Deniz Akdeniz). In the first season, Cassie had just about wrung the patience out of even her dearest friends. She and Annie loved each other, but the love had been ground down to sharp points on which they were both in constant danger of being impaled.
In Season 2, the Annie/Cassie relationship is straightforwardly a sitcom goof. Kaley Cuoco and Zosia Mamet both have rapid-fire comic timing and they bounce off each other in gleefully escalating rhythmic one-liners. It’s not so different from watching Cuoco’s most famous series, The Big Bang Theory, one of the most successful recent triumphs of safe silly syndicated comedy. Everyone laughs. No one gets hurt.
I happen to like The Big Bang Theory fine, and the first series of The Flight Attendant was a much more emotionally demanding watch than I’d expected when I first tuned in. Cassie was on the road to an early grave; she either had to straighten out or the second season was going to be hour-long episodes in which viewers silently contemplate her headstone. The Flight Attendant Season 1 was remarkable, unexpected, remorseless television, Season 2 is pleasant genre entertainment. I’m a little disappointed. But also relieved.
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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Credit: HBO Max.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.