LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
Hi. I'm Linda Holmes. I'm here with Glen Weldon. Hi, Glen.
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HOLMES: A woman wakes up after a night of partying and realizes something is very, very wrong. That's the premise of the HBO Max series "The Flight Attendant." It's a taut, darkly funny thriller starring Kaley Cuoco of "The Big Bang Theory" as a woman in search of some answers about the present that might also shed light on the past. I'm Linda Holmes. And today, we're talking about "The Flight Attendant" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.
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HOLMES: Welcome back. Also with us from his home in Baltimore is R. Eric Thomas. He's a senior staff writer with elle.com. Hello.
R ERIC THOMAS: Hi, Linda. I'm so excited to talk about this show.
HOLMES: I am so excited that you are here and that you are here to talk about this. So "The Flight Attendant" is based on a novel by Chris Bohjalian. The showrunners are Steve Yockey, a playwright who's also worked on "Awkward" and "Supernatural," and also Marcie Ulin and Meredith Lavender, who have worked on, among other things, "Nashville." And one of the executive producers is Greg Berlanti, who makes basically all of television now, including the superhero shows on the CW, so I think that's just the law.
I think spoiling the premise is probably OK...
HOLMES: ...That it happens in the first, like, 10 minutes. But if you want nothing, then go watch this show, which Eric and I both really like, and then come back, or at least watch the first episode.
But so what happens at the beginning of this show is Kaley Cuoco is this kind of partying flight attendant who goes out one night. She hooks up with this guy. And when she wakes up in the morning, she is next to him in bed, but he is extremely dead. So then she has to figure out, what's she going to do? What happened? She blacked out.
HOLMES: You like this show. I also like this show. Why do you like this show?
THOMAS: You know, I have been waiting for a show like this. I think nothing brings me greater joy than a genre exercise that completely understands the assignment, and this really hits it out of the park. It's that very common thing - like, a comic thriller with a magical realist psychological character study on the undercard. There is a lot going on. But I think the series really knows what it is and what it is not, which makes it fun and digestible. I think some would say disposable, but - I don't know - I would disagree. Would you - how would you characterize, like, how munchy the show is?
HOLMES: I agree. I think it has a lot of parts that are very - like, it's sort of one part "Catch Me If You Can" in a way. It has, you know, people in these different locations, and it does a certain amount. It has one of those real Saul Bass kind of intro title sequences. It has that kind of charade or, you know, one of those kind of films where people are going to different places and checking different things and wearing different outfits.
But as you said, it also kind of settles down into this character study where, you know, the Kaley Cuoco character - I think one of the things that they deal with that often doesn't get dealt with in this kind of story is that it's not that the partying itself is necessarily a negative, but the way that she parties and blacks out and forgets things and is sort of ripping up her entire life all the time is a sign of probably something going on with her. And I think they talk about that.
But also, the mere fact that her response to this series of events is what it is, which is essentially to flee...
HOLMES: ...Also tells you something about her. And so I think this show tries to kind of get into what those things are. It builds up a couple of really important relationships for her. Zosia Mamet playing her best friend and attorney is wonderful. T.R. Knight, who's playing her brother, I think is also really good in this. And so you get those relationships as well as kind of the thriller parts.
THOMAS: Yeah, I would completely agree. It is - like, it's a fantastic mashup of, like, a larger crime mystery and a personal mystery. And at the heart is the sort of common trope of an unreliable narrator. But, you know, as you point out, her unreliability isn't because she is malicious. It's because she is struggling with alcohol addiction, and she has done something - or she's experienced something, I should say, that maybe isn't super common, but it is not uncommon, which is...
THOMAS: ...To black out...
THOMAS: ...And to forget. And so I found myself watching it, feeling much differently about her than I felt perhaps about, like, the characters in "The Undoing," where I thought everyone was lying. I thought that the violin was lying. I was like, I'm going to catch this violin.
THOMAS: This character I want to like. I feel very much like Zosia Mamet's character, Annie, where I am concerned about her decision-making ability, but I am compelled by her. And I think that makes for a really satisfying viewing experience.
HOLMES: Yeah. It's a really hard character to play 'cause I have heard, you know, a couple people say that they couldn't get into it 'cause they just - they just disliked that character too much, and I understand that. She is one of those sort of extremely messy characters who you sort of have to - I think particularly at the very beginning, you kind of have to stick with if you're going to get into it at all.
But I think over time, the way that they do build those relationships, I - one of the things I really like about it is that the character T.R. Knight is playing is her brother, who is gay and has two kids. And very often, if you have the brother be somebody who is gay and married and has kids and is a happy sort of family person, he becomes a type, right? He becomes a perfectly functional type who doesn't carry tension in his...
HOLMES: ...Part of the story. And I think that this character, Davey, who T.R. Knight plays, carries a lot of his own tension into the story. And his - they have a couple scenes together, him and Kaley Cuoco, that I think are just really strong and good.
THOMAS: Yeah, I would completely agree. And it's sort of a surprise. And I think it speaks to the strength of the show's vision that his character plays out like a surprise. He is shown in the first couple of instances that he appears in the series in these scenes of, like, relentless domesticity. He's, like, washing dishes. He's got the towel over his shoulder. He's, you know, packing kids' backpacks. And so you're primed to expect that he is just going to be the scold. He is home life, and she is nightlife.
But instead, their personalities are rooted in their shared trauma. And as the show unpacks that, it reveals more and more about him as much as it reveals about her and what they experience. And I think that's so, so smart.
HOLMES: Yeah. And I think you're absolutely right when you say relentless domesticity. At the beginning, you get that feeling that he's going to be perfectly stable and the one who's trying to calm her down, and she's going to be, you know, off being crazy. And, you know, this is a dynamic that we've seen play out many, many, many, many times in sibling stories - you know, the responsible sibling and the wild child sibling. And it can be a very boring dynamic. And I think the one between the two of them is much more interesting.
And I also just think - I just think those two performances are really good. And I look at both of those actors, and I think, I'm glad they got to do this because...
HOLMES: He has certainly continued to act since "Grey's Anatomy." I saw him. You know, I've seen him in things since "Grey's Anatomy." But it's really nice to see him doing a really kind of chewy, not the open-faced sweetie pie George O'Malley sad sack thing, but a very different kind of guy.
And then she, I think - I've always been a fan of Kaley Cuoco. I think she is actually very funny in "The Big Bang Theory" and a little bit underappreciated for what a good comic actress she is. I don't know if anybody else would have put her in this. She created a production company and optioned this and, you know, made it with herself in it. And she's really great in it, I think.
THOMAS: Yeah, I agree. You know, I was not a huge fan of "Big Bang Theory." I have parents who love it. And they - every time they called, they would ask me if I saw the latest episode for, you know, however long it was on - 10, 15 years.
HOLMES: Sure, a hundred years.
THOMAS: And I would always say, no, I have not seen it.
THOMAS: But I do appreciate that all of the performers in that show are extremely adept comic actors, and they are inheriting a sitcom tradition that goes back to vaudevillians. And that's not easy to do. It's very, very hard work. So it's exciting to see somebody like Kaley Cuoco really make her own opportunities that match up with her own skills.
This is an antic character. Cassie is prone to physical comedy, prone to dizziness, but she's also rooted in something that is deeply traumatic. And you get to see her play both sides of it. You get to see her play the fun wild child flight attendant, and you also get to see her play a person who is falling apart on the inside. And you like both of those. Well, I like both of those people. I know that that is not maybe shared by everybody...
THOMAS: ...An opinion that's shared by everyone. But I am compelled by her. And that is not easy as well. She's - it's an extremely compelling performance technically as well as virtuosically.
HOLMES: Yeah. To be able to put that kind of comic thriller together with this trauma story is not easy. It's not easy to figure out how to marry those two elements in a way that feels like one show. And one of the things they do, there's a kind of a conceit that they use to allow them to kind of illuminate her internal thinking, her internal processes, which, essentially, in some ways takes the place of a voiceover, which I appreciated. Rather than having her say, like, so the way I had it figured - you know, they don't have that.
THOMAS: Yeah, and it's highly theatrical. She goes into - you know, again, without saying too much, she goes into a mind palace...
THOMAS: ...That feels very Sherlock Holmes. And there is a character in there that plays basically the version of her girl Friday.
THOMAS: And that's a really fun reversal. It is absurd, but it's also sinister. And I think that's one of the hallmarks of showrunner Steve Yockey, who is a playwright. And one of his most famous plays is a play called "Reykjavik," which focuses on grief and desire, but it uses magical realism to explore those ideas. I think a lot of his work is really about combining the unbelievable and the deeply human. Like, I would guess that one of his central theses is that the experience of having emotions stretches credulity.
And you see that playing out in this mind palace, where she is trying to solve a concrete crime. She is a very driven character. I need to find the truth. I also, perhaps, need to find the truth of myself. I'm also going to throw glasses across the room and - as an expression of my...
THOMAS: ...Own inner turmoil.
THOMAS: It's a lot of fun, and it's so much easier to digest than I thought it would be the first time she goes there.
THOMAS: I remember thinking, like, I'm not sure. I'm not sure I'm on board for this. And they sold it.
HOLMES: Yeah. And I think the other thing that mind palace does is that device gives her a place where, to the best of her ability, she's being very honest. She's being very honest about what she's thinking, what she's afraid of, what she thinks has happened, what she's afraid has happened. And I think within that device, they're trying to give her a space where you can start to see a little more of who she really is because, obviously, one of the tricks of adapting novels is always you can't get that interior monologue.
THOMAS: Right, right. Yeah. It's something that I had not seen before in terms of revealing a character's point of view. And I think it works really, really well here. I also think it's exciting to see her revealing the truth about herself to herself while she's encountering these very big side characters. You know, like - well, Zosia Mamet's character is not actually that big. She's one of the more grounded characters. But Michelle Gomez plays a shady character, I should - I'll just say.
HOLMES: She's so good.
HOLMES: She's so good.
THOMAS: She's like the late-breaking MVP of this series...
THOMAS: ...Like, playing, like, notes of sinister and notes of, like, straight comedy really, really perfectly, and a great counterpoint to Cassie, who we have seen perform externally for a number of episodes now while also revealing herself to herself and to us internally. It's a really, really exciting way of building a show.
HOLMES: Yeah, I love that Michelle Gomez performance. I think it reminds me in some ways of Alan Rickman in "Die Hard," which is...
HOLMES: ...Saying a lot that you get these notes of a lack of mercy and a total ruthlessness, but it is elevated by these moments in which the person is so funny that you're sort of coaxed out of their villainy because they're so, like, legitimately funny.
THOMAS: Yeah, yeah. I think she plays comic exasperation so well.
THOMAS: I also want to shout out Rosie Perez, who is playing a very different kind of character than I've seen usually from her. Perez - who I still think should've gotten an Oscar for "Fearless," but that is neither here nor there - is phenomenal in this show as Megan, a senior flight attendant, friend of Cassie's and somebody with secrets of her own that are also sort of rooted in domesticity and an image to the public that is different from her lived experience. And she's just really, really great.
HOLMES: Yeah, I think that's another just in the list of people who are used really, really well on this show, actors who are used really well in this show - Cuoco, T.R. Knight, Zosia Mamet, Rosie Perez, Michelle Gomez. Everybody, I think, is used so well and so smartly.
I am so happy that you love this show 'cause I also love this show. And I've seen seven. There are eight total. They're dropping them in little chunks. I cannot wait to see the finale, and I think it's going to be quite a ride to get to the end.
THOMAS: Completely agree. I cannot wait. I believe that they will stick the landing.
HOLMES: I think they will, too. I think they will, too.
HOLMES: "The Flight Attendant" is available on HBO Max. Tell us what you think. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. R. Eric Thomas, thank you so much for being here.
THOMAS: Thanks for having me.
HOLMES: And, of course, thank you for listening. If you'd like to support the work we do here at POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR and NPR, donate to your local member station at donate.npr.org/happy. Again, that's donate.npr.org/happy. We will see you all tomorrow.
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