Review: Kaley Cuoco easily departs 'Big Bang' in silly-but-thrilling 'The Flight Attendant'

Kelly Lawler, USA TODAY
·3 min read

After 12 years on a beloved network sitcom, it's not unusual for a TV star to find a very different part to usher in a new phase of their career. And Kaley Cuoco has certainly found the role to make viewers forget all about "The Big Bang Theory."

Penny no more, Cuoco shows off her comedic and dramatic chops in HBO Max's "The Flight Attendant" (the first three episodes are available Thanksgiving Day; subsequent episodes stream Thursdays, ★★★ out of four), a juicy melodrama that mixes dark comedy, murder mystery and an emotional story about addiction. It doesn't always successfully pull off its ridiculous storylines, big tonal swings and overly stylized editing, but, with the help of Cuoco's sharp performance, the limited series makes it all coalesce just enough to be pulpy, compelling fun.

Kaley Cuoco ("The Big Bang Theory") stars as Cassie in "The Flight Attendant."
Kaley Cuoco ("The Big Bang Theory") stars as Cassie in "The Flight Attendant."

Cuoco has done plenty of work outside of "Big Bang," but this is her highest-profile project since the long-running series ended, and perhaps the biggest departure for fans of the prudish network TV antics of Penny and friends. The actress plays Cassie, a mostly functioning alcoholic who enjoys her jet-setting life as a first-class flight attendant, partying on and off the plane. On a trip to Bangkok, she meets Alex (Michiel Huisman of "Game of Thrones") a dashing hedge fund manager who invites her on a decadent night out in the Thai capital. Cassie drinks, a lot, and wakes up the next morning with almost no memory of what transpired. That would normally be OK, except that Alex is dead next to her in the bed.

Related: How Kaley Cuoco moved on from sitcom past to serve up racy sex scene in 'Flight Attendant'

Kaley Cuoco stars as Cassie, who panics after she wakes up in bed with a dead body in "The Flight Attendant."
Kaley Cuoco stars as Cassie, who panics after she wakes up in bed with a dead body in "The Flight Attendant."

Hungover, panicked and fearful of being jailed in a foreign country, Cassie cleans up the crime scene and flees. She spends the rest of the series trying to figure out what happened and clear her name (and occasionally going on a stress-induced bender). But with every move she digs herself deeper into trouble, eventually putting the FBI on her trail and irritating the criminal elements surrounding Alex's murder.

Watching Cassie's series of unfortunate life decisions is like watching a train wreck, or in this instance, a plane crash. You may want to look away, but you just can't. With an actor less capable than Cuoco, it might be easy to turn off the TV when it gets too awkward. But it is precisely Cuoco's deft handle of dark comedy and drama that makes "Attendant" fly, as she switches from emotional outburst to drunken escapade to terror and back again with ease.

Kaley Cuoco plays Cassie and Zosia Mamet is her friend and lawyer, Annie.
Kaley Cuoco plays Cassie and Zosia Mamet is her friend and lawyer, Annie.

Cuoco is supported by an amiable cast including Huisman (who appears in flashbacks and hallucinations as Cassie's dead lover), Rosie Perez as Cassie's maternal co-worker, Zosia Mamet as her lawyer/best friend and Merle Dandridge as a skeptical FBI agent. But it's really Cuoco's show, and even as magnetic and appealing as a lead as she was on "Big Bang," the actress makes Cassie feel like a real person in spite of the absurdity of the story surrounding her.

"Attendant" is the miniseries equivalent of a trashy book you'd read on a plane: gripping and entertaining at the moment, a bit silly in its plotting and forgettable when you're done. But not every TV series needs to be transcendent or award-winning. We need plenty that are just thrilling and fun.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The Flight Attendant' review: Kaley Cuoco shines in silly thriller