Television

The TV Club, 2020

Entry 3: The screwball surrealism of The Flight Attendant

Kaley Cuoco dressed as a flight attendant on a plane holding a tray with three glasses of juice.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by HBO Max.

The 2020 TV Club features Slate’s Willa Paskin, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, the Hollywood Reporter’s Inkoo Kang, and Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff.

Hey gang,

If there were a physical space that made up TV Club HQ, I’d hope it looks something like Claudia’s pastel wonderland of a bedroom on The Baby-Sitters Club—a place to gather, nosh, look around, and feel embraced not only by your fellow members but by the very walls.

The episode of the BSC that’s stuck with me the most—as a onetime devotee of the books who always appreciated the rare Asian American representation that Claudia offered (even if I was admittedly way more of a Janine)—is the one that dove into the Kishi family’s experience of Japanese American internment. It was one of the darker episodes of the season, introducing with Claudia’s grandmother’s stroke-induced aphasia the possibility that the middle schooler might be separated from her most beloved family member by a sudden and immovable language barrier. The episode hit me hard, partly because that kind of linguistic aphasia is one of the recurring anxieties I’ve had about both my immigrant parents and myself—that we’d somehow not only be locked out of speech, but also become victims of a medical system that’s hostile to most patients, but especially to those that can’t readily communicate or advocate for themselves. But it also hit me hard because it was designed to as a very good instance of Comfort TV, one that intimated history and struggle and loss while ultimately providing an emotional balm.

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I guess that’s my slightly roundabout way of trying to find a middle ground between Willa’s guilty(?) skepticism of the artistic merits of Comfort TV and Kathryn’s persuasive efforts to divorce “greatness” or “prestige” from “joy” and “not feeling like shit after putting a show on.” It’s easier to love a Comfort TV show, at least for me, if it’s heavily streaked with sadness (like Never Have I Ever) and/or absurdity (like BoJack Horseman) and/or cutting jokes (like Schitt’s Creek) and/or social resonance (like The Baby-Sitters Club). Maybe it’s still unfair to reserve praise for multitonal comfort shows if we’re just going to end up praising the same old attributes anyway (darkness, humor, relevance). But there’s a reason why bakers always add a pinch of salt to their batter.

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A corollary to the pandemic-induced retreat toward safety and familiarity seems to be television’s weakening hold on the cultural agenda. 2020 felt like the year when proudly in-the-know TV consumers—the ones who want to be up on the latest buzzy series—finally gave up. A few shows still managed to stand out from the crowd and drive discussion online, many of which Willa mentioned already: I May Destroy You, The Queen’s Gambit, The Boys, The Crown, The Vow. There’s already been a lot of talk about how the extremely terrible Tiger King (which Willa eviscerated exquisitely) benefited from coming out at the exact moment that much of the country had to lock down and was starved for both entertainment and conversation. But by late spring, many people seemed to retire to their niche solaces, maybe because they suddenly had the free time to rewatch all of Frasier, maybe because they no longer felt pressured to keep up with watercooler conversations or their coolest friend.

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Kathryn, I’m so glad you mentioned The Flight Attendant—a show that was indeed made for a different universe than the one we’re stuck in, but which is no less delightful for that. For all its chilly atmosphere and bloody surreality, it’s been the most comforting show for me this fall, offering reassurance that TV can still offer second chances to talented actresses who have aged out of the ingenue age range. Star Kaley Cuoco is still young (she’s in her mid-30s), but the fact that her boozy stewardess is a decade or so past her college years gives her pleasure-addict character a lot more depth than if she were in the thrall of Hedonism 101. There’s also a ditzy screwball unpredictability to Cuoco’s performance that perfectly complements the show’s grounded phantasmagoria, and it’s one that the actress also channels, with a big dose of confused romanticism, in her winsome lead voice performance in the ridiculously charming (and gory) Harley Quinn adult cartoon.

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So I guess that’s me playing Leslie Knope to Willa’s Cassandra, with her portents of television’s descent into (even greater) mediocrity. In the short term, that might well be true: The high costs of COVID testing and PPE have led to renewal reversals (as in the case of GLOW) and might make executives more skittish about greenlighting expensive series without built-in audiences. Television will most likely emerge from the pandemic as a diminished medium in both quantity and quality. But the media hyperfragmentation is here to stay, which to me practically promises at least a few Great Shows a year, even if it’ll also make it harder for critics and networks to convince audiences to search them out. I don’t know how much louder I can yell, “Please watch Vida and Work in Progress!”

Justice for Carole Baskin,

Inkoo

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