You would hope that the trajectory of Kaley Cuoco’s career was always leading to this, a substantial role in a series that is simultaneously lightweight and consequential. As Penny in The Big Bang Theory, Cuoco’s role began as an entirely objectified figure. The early episodes now seem embarrassingly sexist in that Penny was simply treated as the “hot girl”, a bit dumb and mere fantasy female for the Leonard character. It was years before Penny had adult substance and Cuoco’s gift for wry comedy was mined for material.
The Flight Attendant (Crave) is her first post-Big Bang role and she has enough heft to be both star and producer. The interesting thing about the series – three episodes of eight are available now – is that it is great fun and also fraught. Sure, it’s a darkly comic whodunnit with plenty of laughs, but at its centre is the issue of why Cuoco’s character is who she is – a self-admitted good-time gal who drinks and parties heavily. She’s Cassie, a flight attendant who is blond, beautiful, unfettered and promiscuous.
Our first glimpse of Cassie is in a montage in the opening credits. But when we actually meet her in the flesh, she’s passed out on the subway and unsure of how she spent the night. This is treated lightly and for laughs and it isn’t long before Cassie is in Bangkok and on the town with a guy she met while serving him drinks in the first-class section. Then, as everyone already knows from the promotional hype, she wakes up in bed with the guy. He’s been murdered, mind you, and Cassie is freaking out. Of course, she tends to deal with trauma by getting drunk again.
The whodunnit part of the story is deftly done. While Cassie flees and tries to piece together events, she returns in her mind to that hotel room, and the dead guy talks to her. It’s not really him, you understand, it’s her subconscious trying to get through to her. Along the way, she has conversations with her brother, who is increasingly intolerant of her irresponsible behaviour, and her lawyer-friend Annie (Zosia Mamet), who is at that point where she thinks Cassie’s scrapes and misadventures aren’t fun and entertaining anymore.
You watch this unfold funnily but you know this: What Cassie needs is to escape the male gaze and quit indulging that gaze with the same fervour she indulges her drinking habits. She needs to grow up a bit, be an adult and stop acting like she’s living out a Cosmo magazine article about the fun adventures of international flight attendants.
This is not to suggest The Flight Attendant is heavy going. It’s incredibly light, enjoyable and made with great panache, and Cuoco is tremendously good as a physical presence. It’s a very demanding role and she’s brilliant at commanding attention, deftly coming apart and pulling Cassie back together. She embraces it all with lip-smacking relish, and that physical expressiveness, underused on Big Bang, just soars.
Also airing this weekend
The Covid Cruise (on The Nature of Things, Saturday, CBC NN 8 p.m. and CBC Gem) is a gripping and chilling hour, a detailed look at what happened on the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast of Japan back in February of this year. As the world watched, COVID sprang from Wuhan, China to that ship, one with 3,700 on board, mostly elderly. The result was 705 testing positive and 14 deaths. The program, (made by Mike Downie and Dave Wells) offers a day-by-day account of events on board and a withering assessment of the cruise-ship industry.
Running Wild: The Cats of Cornwall (Saturday, TVOntario, 9 p.m. and streaming everywhere on tvo.org) tells an astonishing story – Cornwall, Ont., has more cats per capita than any place in Canada. There are thousands of feral cats and the documentary asks, why? Also, what can be done? We meet the locals who loathe the cat population and those trying to do something. There is also some fascinating information about the impact of cats on bird populations, and the environment in general. The story told (made by Aaron Hancox of Markham Street Films) is as much about the people as the cats of Cornwall; where people are frustrated but it emerges that there is no easy answer or solution.
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