The role of Penny, being that of a combination sexy-girl-next-door and straight man, may be the most thankless in the series, Cuoco mainly being asked to twist her perfect, golden face into a wry smile of amusement, a neat frown of bafflement, or a cute pout of disapproval. Now and then, though, there are moments where the actress manages to coax something more interesting out of the two-dimensional character the writers have created, and these are invariably moments in which she is channelling a realer, uglier version of the pretty little neighbor from 4B, a persona we’ll refer to as “Bad Penny.” Bad Penny, who feels infinitely more believable as a tough girl from Omaha than her sweet, Ugg-boot-wearing counterpart Good Penny, is slovenly, slightly mean, a practiced drinker and a less-than-patient bitch. She says things like “I mean alright, yeah, my sister shot her husband, but it was an accident and they were drunk,” and “I wish I were dead in a hole,” and “oh yeah, what kind of doctor removes feet from asses, jerk?” while pouring rum into her eggnog, her eyeliner smeared just-so in order to suggest a trainwreck. She has obvious Daddy issues, her upbringing as a tomboy springing from her father’s inability to accept that he had a daughter, not a son. Like How I Met Your Mother’s Robin, another hot, hardscrabble female character done dirty by bad sitcom writing, she identifies the onset of sexual maturity as the beginning of the end of his paternal interest, and the start of her desire to compensate by chasing boys.
Somewhere, in an alternate dimension whose coordinates are mysterious to everyone except — presumably — the kind of hyper-educated science boffins who are gently satirized by The Big Bang Theory, there exists a version of the show in which the main character is not a male geek looking to win the heart and rockin’ body of a Cheesecake Factory waitress, but this Penny: a complex and maybe-traumatized young woman whose experiences with drink and rural poverty and wanton sex provide a deeper, darker contrast to the sheltered know-it-alls across the hall. In this version, she has an actual surname, and a foul mouth, and a wardrobe full of clothing that did not come from Forever 21, and she does not end up marrying the nice bespectacled guy with whom she shares no chemistry. Eventually, she comes to terms with the ramifications of her father’s early treatment of her as “the son he never had.” Perhaps she has a female best friend with whom she has something else in common other than the bond of being the only other girl in the TV show.
For those of us who reside in this dimension, there is always HBO’s The Flight Attendant, in which Cuoco has surprised and impressed critics by demonstrating a natural aptitude for drama in addition to her flair for screwball goofing. She plays Cassie Bowden, a beautiful, sloppy, thoughtless alcoholic with the lifestyle of a twenty-year-old playboy and the hygiene of a fifty-year-old barfly. She works as a flight attendant, swigging mouthwash and hastily sweeping up her sweat-slicked hair into a bun as she sprints through the airport gates, never on time, never quite good enough at playing the sober and subservient working girl to fool her peers. She is a partier in the classic downer mode, where partying becomes a slow-motion attempt at suicide. Cassie is always somewhere new, speaking just enough of whatever the native language is to order shots or ask for drugs, and she is blonde and good-looking enough that, like a cat, she has nine lives: more chances to fuck up and then apologize, or to say sorry and half mean it, or to turn up ninety minutes behind schedule with a face that simply dares you to tell off a girl this hot. In the pilot, Cassie flirts with, and then kisses, a passenger on her flight, meeting up with him post-landing in Bangkok for dinner, sex, and very, very heavy drinking. The next morning, she wakes up with a sore head, throws open the hotel room curtains, and then notices a splash of errant blood, red as a beacon light, adorning her right hand. “Jesus, what did we do last night, Alex?” she groans wearily, before turning around and seeing that her bed-mate is not unresponsive because he is sleeping, but because his throat’s been slit. The camera cuts between the wound and Cassie’s face, her huge green eyes and o-shaped mouth; the soundtrack, a chaotic blend of thrumming didgeridoo and wild piano, reaches a crescendo with her breathing and then stops. For a moment, there is no sound, Cassie being — maybe for one of the first times in her life — completely at a loss for words. Suddenly, her iPhone alarm begins playing “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” a gag so perfectly-timed that the show manages to make itself completely irresistible even before the smash cut to the opening titles.
When Cassie pauses before leaving the hotel to clean the crime scene, picking up a bloodied broken bottle with her bare hands, we begin to understand why she might have been named Cassandra in the first place: she is fated to spend eight episodes desperately attempting to convince the authorities of the truth, and being continually disbelieved. The Flight Attendant, with its animated credits heavily inspired by Saul Bass and its boozy, woozy air of well-dressed chaos, follows in the footsteps of Paul Feig’s 2018 A Simple Favor by combining retro styling with a very modern streak of self-awareness: dressing up its airport thriller twists and turns in Saint Laurent and Isabel Marant, splicing pitch-black jokes about familial trauma with straightforward action sequences that would not feel entirely out of place in something featuring Jason Bourne. Each time Cassie speeds to some new, crucial destination, it employs a split-screen that feels simultaneously like a mid-century take-off, and a tongue-in-cheek nod to the gradual, inexorable fracturing of her drink-addled, troubled mind. It scans, at times, like an homage to the Hitchcock homages of the 1960s, a pastiche of a pastiche. It is that rare thing, a TV show that can genuinely be pegged as a “caper” or a “romp,” a brisk, fleet trifle whose intricate engineering allows it to appear effortless, weightless enough to fly. “The Flight Attendant is a show that makes very little sense,” The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wrote on Twitter, “but it doesn’t matter because it’s gorgeous and fun and the main actress is genuinely fabulous, so good that she gives this frothy thing all kinds of depth.”
It’s true that without Kaley Cuoco in the role, we might not believe Cassie Bowden any more than the police do. Time and time again, her decisions are inexplicable, self-sabotaging to the point of near-derangement. It is unclear how she escapes being fired, and equally unclear how she manages to keep herself in plush $3,000 coats at the same time as blowing what we presume to be half her salary on vodka. It is never unclear — thanks to Cuoco’s split-brained, sugar-and-spice work as the air hostess, by turns jittery and doped, depressed and manic — what our heroine’s damage is. Like Penny, Cassie grew up hunting and fishing with her father, who made sure to raise her as a son and then, once she turned nine or ten, to treat her like a drinking buddy. Unlike Penny, she bore witness to some ruinous event as a result of his behavior that has changed her life forever, her reliance on alcohol and inappropriate men filling the void left by this mysterious trauma. She has moved to New York in order to reinvent herself as someone carefree, hoping to stave off the hangover of that terrible happening by staying at least tipsy at all times. There is something of the noughties TMZ celebrity about her — her perpetual tan and her dry-shampoo-bolstered blowout, her tireless dedication to the life of the good-time girl. That her best friend is a high-powered and neurotic attorney is both very convenient for the plot, and left entirely unexplained other than the implicit, not unreasonable suggestion that the two of them have simply been best friends since they were very, very young. (Whirling dervishes with enviable wardrobes and good bone structure, like Cassie, tend to remain loveable for longer than their worse-dressed, plainer peers.) As Cassie tries to unravel the mystery of her lover’s violent death, she is also unravelling her own perception of herself: is she a free spirit or is she, as her new and frightening circumstances would seem to suggest, the kind of drunk who does not notice a dead body in her bed until the sober light of morning? It is not insignificant that she is not in her twenties, but her thirties, making her somebody who should probably have left the party, but who chose instead to double down and stay until it turned into a wake.
The real proof of Cuoco’s brilliance in The Flight Attendant lies in how she handles one of its most dubious plot devices: every now and then, Cassie is panicked enough to dissociate, outwardly entering a fugue state and inwardly revisiting the hotel room where she woke up next to Alex’s dead body. Alex, spry and chatty and reanimated, reappears there as a figment of her cracked imagination; because he is in her head, he knows only what she knows, and because she knows very little, he exists as an idealized, flattened version of himself. She bickers with him, alternately raging at him and then asking him to kiss her, eventually telling him that she is beginning to love him. Sometimes, she hallucinates CGI rabbits, a quirk later explained by a violent flashback from her childhood. Cassie’s mind-palace-cum-Hilton is the kind of dumb idea that ought to end up killing a TV show’s credibility stone-dead, mawkish and self-consciously kooky enough to end up being memed on Twitter eight years down the line as “the most amazing scene in television history.” Instead, Cuoco’s vulnerability makes it believable that she might love the man she’s dreamed up in her mind, and touching when we realize that she’s actually beginning — falteringly, nervously, with some reserve — to love herself. The big epiphany for Cassie is that she is not in fact an awful person, but a person who was treated awfully by the cruel, alcoholic father she adored. There is, of course, a lot that happens in The Flight Attendant that is zippier and more thrilling than the material about Cassie’s pain: there are near-misses with murder and mysterious jets that smuggle bombs, and there are car accidents, comas, and sub-plots about Korean-American espionage. Still, nothing quite compares to seeing Cuoco make good on the minor, tender flashes of emotion that occasionally crackled, like some distant radio signal, through the cozy comedy of her seemingly endless tenure on The Big Bang Theory. In a scene where Cassie accidentally winds up at an AA meeting, she is stunning — feral with denial, as elastic and fleet-footed as a cartoon character in her escape. If it feels as though a sitcom character has been beamed into a slick drama, her flaws magnified until they become something closer to grotesque than quirky, it may be because that’s literally the case.
“A lot of people ask me what my goal was after Big Bang Theory—was I trying to…become the opposite of Penny, and all this stuff,” Cuoco told Vanity Fair, in an interview about playing Cassie Bowden. “[But] I really wasn’t.” Cassie, with her boozing and her aptitude for slapstick, her adventurousness and her high-end wardrobe, is the kind of sharp-edged woman people used to call a “broad.” (She is not, her friend Shane points out, a more modern kind of b-word: “We don’t call women ‘bitches,’” he says, firmly. “That is a phrase used for delinquent fuckboys. And sometimes male politicians.”) Trying to piece together what I loved so much about the series and her character, I ended up arriving at the realization that if Cuoco had not played her, Cassie Bowden would have been the perfect comeback role for Lindsay Lohan — a long-time favorite of mine, an actual TMZ icon of the noughties, and a genius comedienne whose life, not unlike Cassie’s, took a turn for the abruptly terrifying. Born a mere eight months apart, both actresses have the all-American names and frat-queen sexiness required of sitcom actresses and YA movie stars, looking like they might have been the hottest girls at their respective high schools. In each instance, that apparent sunniness — that winner’s attitude and quiver — is betrayed by a delicious smoky voice, a too-natural ability to play the word that Shane refuses to call Cassie. If Lindsay Lohan’s identification with a careless, gorgeous addict whose relationship with Daddy had been difficult enough to leave her scarred even once she had fled the suburbs might have been more visceral, it could not have been more convincing, or more touching to behold. Emma Stone, who seems so clean even when she is playing dirty, never felt to me like Lindsay’s heir apparent, in spite of her coronation in the press. Cuoco, though, might yet become the foul-mouthed, gritty-pretty millennial screwball dame we were expecting in the years immediately after Lindsay Lohan turned 18. She has two choices ahead of her: lean into the Good Penny, and make bad TV and eye-watering money, or steer straight into the dark storm of the Bad one, and begin to really soar.