How ‘The Flight Attendant’ Evolved the TV Addiction Drama

“The Flight Attendant,” which debuted late last year on HBO Max, begins with the fizzy, busy energy of a big night out. Cassie, played by Kaley Cuoco, is an amiable goof who loves to have fun between and sometimes during the transcontinental trips she serves for work; after meeting a stranger (as played by Michiel Huisman) on board, Cassie parties with him through the night and wakes up next to his corpse. Part of the trouble for Cassie is that she cannot remember the end of their assignation, and thus can’t confidently defend herself — or explain, even to herself, what happened.

The burbling onslaught of plot has the tendency, at first, to obscure what’s really going on here: Cassie’s struggle, over the course of the season of television, is to understand not merely what happened to her that night but what she’s inflicting upon herself over the longer haul of her entire life. Her inability to see her situation, or herself, clearly provides some of the drama of “The Flight Attendant,” part of a wave of prestige shows dealing with recovery: That’s what makes for the mystery. The show’s real charge, though, comes from her attempts to begin setting things right — that’s what provides the solution.

This is hardly the only prestige television show to assay the journey toward recovery: “Succession,” for instance, has Kendall Roy, played by Jeremy Strong with a sort of clenched hyperfocus on keeping things together. And “Euphoria” centers on Zendaya as Rue, an addict who is, some of the time, convinced that her life is salvageable and, in other moments, ready to give up on getting better. It’s easy to see even a reason beyond the prevalence and currency of substance issues in the real world for these stories proliferating (though that’d be reason enough): These roles lend performers both the extremity of, as the newer show’s title suggests, euphoric highs and despondent lows, as well as a constantly shifting dynamic, moving toward or away from an elusive goal. Even while confidently not using, for instance, Kendall must relearn to process his emotions of jealousy and insecurity — serious stuff for Strong to work with. It’s little wonder Strong and Zendaya won the two lead performer Emmys in the drama categories last year.

“Euphoria” and “Succession,” though, make the dramatic case that staying sober is an ongoing process: Both Kendall and Rue relapse in their show’s first seasons. By contrast, “The Flight Attendant” is about getting sober, and its form tends to follow its story. Cassie’s constantly facing down new triggers and new potential threats — her existing, as the object of a legitimately high-stakes mystery, in a justifiable state of perennial coiled-ness, ready for the fight or the flight — creates a sense of her as on the precipice of either major change or total collapse. It makes literal and urgent the moment in her life she’s come to, a point at which giving up her medication of choice and giving up on the future are the only two options available.

The triumph of this show’s treatment of addiction comes in its reflection of Cassie’s inner life, treated as a sort of “mind palace” to which she retreats. The degree to which substance abuse is an isolated and isolating endeavor is made visual here, as Cassie retreats into reconstructed memories, both of moments in her adult life as well as the points in her childhood that brought her into disaster. We see just enough of the reactions of people in Cassie’s life — the slow burn of disappointment from her brother (T. R. Knight), the finally-had-it cutoff from her best friend (Zosia Mamet) — to complete the picture. But for most of the series, the only way out of a hazardous present is for Cassie to excavate her challenged past.

That accounts for why the show feels like such a genre-bending, unexpected achievement. A caper about a fun-loving flight attendant might not be expected to operate so fully within the world of metaphor, but this one does. It treats the emergence from trauma — much of it self-inflicted — as the ultimate detective story, one that’s completed by investigating oneself. That Cassie arrives at the end of Season 1 feeling ready to face the world without a crutch makes the show’s Season 2 renewal feel like especially welcome news. Now, the story of Cassie can really begin

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