HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant was the perfect way to end 2020. It has everything: intrigue, humor, hot men, finely dressed female assassins, and Kaley Cuoco delivering the performance of her career. Many viewers have pointed out how the series mashes the comedy and drama so well that we get a truly complicated, emotional payoff, and we can thank creator Steve Yockey.
Kaley Cuoco’s Cassie is not an easy character to root for, and Yockey knew that the writing needed to not judge her in order for the audience to follow suit. By carefully revealing Cassie’ trauma, we can acknowledge how she is the maker of her own madness but we are intrigued to where the story is heading. If we hated Cassie, no one would watch beyond the second episode of The Flight Attendant.
Yockey set out to create a stylish show with a surprising emotional heft. He credits Cuoco’s lauded performance, but his writing is so springy and sophisticated. He is a man who knows that we will love Rosie Perez in any form, so he gives her her own espionage storyline. The twist with another fan-favorite character is such a surprise that it had my head spinning. We buy the ticket for the ride, but Yockey knows how to make the ride worthwhile.
Awards Daily: The tone of The Flight Attendant is very tricky. It reminds of something like Desperate Housewives in how it balances the drama with humor. I mean that as the highest compliment. Talk to me about that balancing act.
Steve Yockey: We had two things working in our favor. I love genre blending so the question you always get is, ‘What’s the tone, what’s the tone what’s the tone?’ With this, we had producers who are willing to go on that ride with us instead of trying to “fix” it which is sometimes it gets even trickier. To their credit, yay support. The second part is, we have a cast, led by Kaley [Cuoco], who writes the book for it. As she moves through these eight episodes, she keeps it from feeling like whiplash. We have a cast that has a lot of chops who can do comedy but also drop in. As long as we don’t push too far. If the giant rabbit is the zaniest thing and then we don’t lean into small violin moments, it feels like everyone stays on the ride.
AD: Kaley reminds me so much of Goldie Hawn in this role. I can’t unsee it.
SY: Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin. She definitely has that.
AD: I’m glad you brought up the ensemble because everyone is so strong. Griffin [Matthews] is great. Rosie Perez is always welcome on my TV.
SY: And who doesn’t love what Rosie is doing on this show? Every week it’s like let me gaslight my husband and do an undercover espionage drop while taking my son to Big Gay Ice Cream. I am so in love with Rosie’s version of Megan. It’s really special.
AD: You wrote the first two episodes and the finale. Having a character like Cass Bowden has to be difficult to write for. She’s the friend you get sick of being around and she’s the one who tests your patience at almost every turn. I am with her every step of the way for this season. It’s a testament to the performance but it’s in the writing too.
SY: The beautiful thing is that five or ten minutes after I met Kaley, I was like, ‘Oh wow.’ She has this openness and charisma and energy that draws you in. It’s why she’s a TV star. She knows the craft of acting which is such a phrase that she would smack me for. She knows the work. You can really take that our for a spin. As long as you’re writing a character that makes these poor decisions, it’s okay because with Kaley in the role it counterbalances it. If you don’t sympathize with her, you empathize with her. You can understand what she’s doing even if you are screaming at the screen. I think that’s the magic of the show.
AD: You make us care for her. It would be too easy to judge her, because I was worried about her the entire time.
SY: That’s the biggest conversation that Kaley and I had, and then I had the same conversation with Suzanne McCormack who is the vice president of Kaley’s company, Yes, Norman Productions. Our initial conversation carried out with everyone who came on board with the project, so that included all the directors, all the producers, all the writers. At no point is the show going to judge Cassie. If the show does that, it tells the audience that she’s trashy and she’s a drunk. If we just show the behavior and how it impacts the people around her, you’re going to have to drawn your own conclusion. Hearing you say that you didn’t judge her, makes it a success.
AD: The final episode has this very touching conversation between Cassie and her younger self where she forgives herself. I loved how Cassie moves her father’s head off the steering wheel. That’s a beautiful touch. Was that the hardest scene to write because there is so much on the line?
SY: All through episode eight, Cassie is taking agency. She is figuring out that she is the one that can make change happen. We’ve been hearing the car horn in all of the flashbacks going back to episode one. She finally steps into the flashback, removes her father’s head so she can see his face and it stops the horn. Cassie can tell herself that this incident was not her fault. It’s not a moment that’s going to define her. She’s talking to herself but it’s very powerful. It leads to a string of decisions on her part like when she’s in the “mind palace” with Alex and he’s bleeding and she lays him on the bed. It’s the first time she says, ‘This is not how I’m going to remember you’ and she consciously changes the hotel suite around them so that he’s better. It’s her getting strong enough to face these truths to take action. The entire show is this journey to recovery. By the end of episode eight she’s taking her baby steps in the right direction and we are hoping that she is going to be able to pull this off.
AD: The emotional element is a big surprise. It’s a sucker punch.
SY: That’s the idea, right? When you’re launching your series or your limited series, you are making strong stylistic choices that will make people feel comfortable. Then you can move the show right out from under them and they are trapped on the ride. When it happens to me as a viewer, I think it’s fun, so we wanted to do that. There’s this idea that prestige television has to be super serious and I don’t think that’s true. It can be fun and splashy and then have it dip into serious stuff. It’s still an escapist ride.
AD: The twist with Shane at the end quite literally had me screaming. I’ve never seen a gay action hero like him who barges in and shuts the situation down. What’s it like to create something that we’ve never seen before? I feel like it’s going to mean a lot to people.
SY: I think I was more conscious of upending the gay best friend stereotype and Griffin [Matthews] was very interested in doing that as well. We wanted to make Shane more complicated than that so that he appears as one thing. Him being an action hero is the cherry on top. Representation matters and we have a lot of it on our show in a lot of different ways. It’s behind the camera as well as in front of the camera. It wasn’t particularly difficult to achieve that and, I think, that’s the biggest lesson. You just need to do that. By the way, nobody balked. It was a nonissue. When those opportunities present themselves, you just have to take them. It’s not built like the Buckley/Felix reveal where you could piece them together based on what he’s saying. The first he does in the FBI interview is speak Russian and he starts asking them questions. In the end of episode three, he looks at Cassie dead in the eyes and says, ‘Cassie, I’m really good at keeping secrets’ and he walks away from her. There are nods that aren’t really nods because who would piece that together, but it adds to the fun of the reveal.
AD: Even the credits had me saying out loud, ‘What…is…this…show?!’
SY: (laughs) And then you got to episode seven and you realize that everything in the credits has happened.
AD: Megan has a line in the final episode where she says, ‘Not everybody gets to be okay.
SY: ‘But I appreciate the thought.’
AD: The show acknowledges that while the mystery is solved, Cassie has a lot of difficulty ahead of her. She says, ‘I’m trying not to drink.’
SY: It’s going to be a struggle. I want people to hope that she are going to get it right.
The Flight Attendant is streaming on HBO Max.