"The Flight Attendant" returns with double the baggage and showcase for Kaley Cuoco

Mixing espionage into a sobriety struggle and a friendship comedy is quite a load to handle, but it mostly works

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published April 21, 2022 7:11PM (EDT)

Kaley Cuoco in "The Flight Attendant" season 2 (Julia Terjung/HBO Max)
Kaley Cuoco in "The Flight Attendant" season 2 (Julia Terjung/HBO Max)

"The Flight Attendant" demonstrates why "it's a lot" is a favorite idiom of mine. It's a short phrase, yet one that expresses manifold emotions. Depending on who is saying it and what they're describing, it can be a pejorative, but not necessarily.  Generally someone or something being "a lot" merely implies a complicated but navigable situation.

"My life is a lot right now," Kaley Cuoco's titular protagonist Cassie Bowden tells anyone who's either intentionally or accidentally making her life tougher. Cassie flings around that expression as an excuse sometimes. In the second season of "The Flight Attendant," however, she utilizes some version of it to explain behavior she cannot, whether for reasons of national security or her own safety.

But Cassie is "a lot" too, as the first season establishes. Her adventures begin in Bangkok next to the dead body of a guy she picked up on a flight she worked. Since our flight attendant was blackout drunk, she has no memory of what happened.

Cassie tends to be a wreck.

But she's not the only one in her circle with secrets. Her co-worker Megan (Rosie Perez) inadvertently sold intelligence to North Korea. Her best friend Annie (Zosia Mamet) performed shady acts for the law firm where she used to work, on top of keeping other secrets from Cassie.

One year later each of them contends with the fallout of those choices, although Cassie's troubles are in large part her own making. Along with getting sober, she has relocated to Los Angeles, has a solid relationship with a sexy, sober man named Marco (Santiago Cabrera) and is moonlighting as a civilian asset for the CIA. Managing a plate that full would be challenging for a stable organized person. Cassie tends to be a wreck.

RELATED: "Flight Attendant" boss on Cassie and Megan's parallel journeys and a potential Season 2

Yet again, she ensnares her friends and family into a fresh web of drama and danger that would have been entirely . . . well, mostly . . . avoidable, if she tended her own life and stuck with her handler Benjamin's (Mo McRae) insistent directions to walk away.

But sober life, like idle hands, proves to be the Devil's playground. Before long Cassie's trotting along in a dynamite-red coat behind a woman who looks exactly like her, then thinks she sees her kill a man she was tracking in a car bombing.  From there her murderous double starts getting too close for comfort, to the point that Cassie wonders if her doppelganger is also working for the CIA. The stress of her predicament winds her up, and the viewer along with her, to the point that each time her phone bounces alive with its '80s one-hit wonder ringtone you might start tugging at your eyelashes.

Sober life, like idle hands, proves to be the Devil's playground

However, it's tough to say who is more dangerous: the other Cassie or the multiple versions of her who have taken up residence in the chic bar inside her head, goading her to drink at every conceivable moment. See? It's a lot!

It's also doubtful Cuoco would have it another way, given the dramedy's unstated role as a vehicle to vault beyond "The Big Bang Theory" and to demonstrate her dramatic range. "The Flight Attendant" is at its sharpest when it fulfills this purpose – especially this season, which trades Cassie's externalized interior conversations with last year's dead lover (played by Michiel Huisman) for increasingly sweaty sparring with various versions of herself.

Kaley Cuoco in "The Flight Attendant" (Jennifer Rose Clasen/HBO Max)

Cuoco still plies the zany comedic side with aplomb, playing to strengths that have served her so well in other shows, including the animated cult hit "Harley Quinn." But this season's harsh gaze allows her to differentiate each version of Cassie with confident dexterity, escalating her party girl-self's vicious undermining to bringing out Cassie's mopey depressive and her inner dejected teenager (Audrey Grace Marshall).

All of them magnify the character's profound self-loathing, a bitter and degenerating feeling that slowly pulls apart her outward self over the course of the six episodes made available for review. And this unraveling also amplifies the unease permeating the scenes she shares with McRae, or her co-worker Grace (Mae Martin) or, much later into the season, a long-avoided confrontation with her mother (played by Sharon Stone).

As a platform to showcase the star's talent without straying too far from its frenetic narrative path, few shows can match it.

Nevertheless, the added mass in this new season drags on the overall velocity that gave prior episodes so much kick. Cassie's tangled A-plot apparently isn't enough for her to manage by itself, so she draws in Annie, who's also trying to relocate to Los Angeles, while taking it upon herself to track down Megan, who is in the wind following the first season finale's revelations.

Margaret Cho pops up in a charming if morally murky role.

Where that previous season's lightning pace is expertly driven by a character whose blood alcohol content was far too high for her to be behind a wheel, this season's espionage plot can at times feel like carriage tugging along Cuoco's character study on regret, repressed guilt, anxiety and shame, along with a raft of famous guest stars. (In addition to those aforementioned names, Margaret Cho pops up in a charming if morally murky role.)

The convolutions involved in this combo of whodunit and "who is it," while interesting, carry far less weight than the more substantial show crouching behind all the excitement. I'm referring to the one that uses Cassie, Annie and Megan to dig into what it means to be a bad person, or what it takes to be a good one, and whether it's even fair to try to jam ourselves into those costumes.

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Part of this requires a few familiar faces returning, including Cassie's brother Davey (T.R. Knight), Griffin Matthews as Cassie's other co-worker and brutally honest confidante Shane Evans, and others best left a mystery. But we're also subjected to a classic and somewhat hackneyed TV interpretation of the alcoholic's journey. I am not in recovery, but a person doesn't have to be to recognize that Cassie follows a long-established TV pattern of fresh sobriety as many TV writing rooms map it out.

If a person hasn't seen shows that get closer to a more realistic take on new sobriety, like the tightly crafted "Single Drunk Female," this may not bother them. Cuoco's realistic writhing and perspiration through moments of temptation makes for engrossing viewing, and augments Shohreh Aghdashloo's robust performance as her sponsor Brenda. But it also sets up Cassie's sobriety as a means of saucing the action with predictable tension, to the point that it's not a question of whether she'll relapse but when.  

There's no denying the soaring pleasure of "The Flight Attendant" despite these minor irritations even so, because Cuoco is simply that good at captaining our way through Cassie's muchness. She is a lot, but it's nothing we can't handle.

Season 2 of "The Flight Attendant" debuts with two episodes on Thursday, April 21 on HBO Max. New episode premiere on Thursdays.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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