With so much media scattered across a dozen different major pay-walled subscription services—Netflix, Hulu, Peacock, Disney+, Paramount+, Criterion Channel, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime—the situation is grim for anyone who wants to watch a movie made before 2005. Titles appear, disappear, and reappear with no rhyme or reason and no fanfare. For the last three years, I’ve been trying to see the 1968 sex comedy Three in the Attic, a movie that was never released on home video and whose only circulating copy is an abysmal transfer of a cropped VHS bounce on a bootleg DVD. It was on Paramount+, presumably in full quality, but unless they put up all of William Witney’s movies (or the collected works of Roy Rogers and Trigger, the Smartest Horse in the Movies), I’m not subscribing to another “platform.” Besides the inconvenience of so many outlets, it leaves even more films walled off and harder and harder to see. Then again, sometimes you get lucky: Three in the Attic popped up on Prime Video sometime in the last two months, in a mediocre transfer that still looks better than that bootleg. You never know, and you never know why.
All that’s to say that the only streaming service I’m glad I started using is HBO Max. Besides offering the most diverse—but still far too small—set of movies, its original programming isn’t just worth watching, it entered the zeitgeist in a way that hasn’t happened for a digital broadcaster since the early-2010s with Netflix’s House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. It’s not surprising that HBO is faring best in the Wild West of the 21st century entertainment industry: they’ve always been on the move, looking towards the future. And Just Like That… may be a really lousy and borderline offensive follow-up to Sex and the City—if Samantha Jones won’t show up, neither will I—but if nothing else, it makes people want to watch the original series. Ditto for Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, which has managed to remain consistently hilarious since its first season in 2000. Because David doesn’t crank out episodes, and because HBO doesn’t make him, new episodes remain necessary.
Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep miniseries, now at its halfway point, is topped only in recent years by Twin Peaks: The Return for pushing the limits of what a television miniseries can do. And everyone, including me, has already written about Succession and Euphoria. Those were shows that broke out of the anonymous abyss of “content” and gained the credibility and respect of shows that used to be “appointment viewing.” But Kaley Cuoco’s The Flight Attendant, a comedy-thriller that likely won’t continue, is a great example of how good the programming is on HBO Max and how they’re really alone in not ripping off their customers blind. The Flight Attendant is not a red-letter show, nor a particularly remarkable showcase for anything, besides Cuoco (an A-lister if you watch network TV; I’d no idea she was on The Big Bang Theory).
I wish the show was actually about a flight attendant. Cuoco does work as a flight attendant for the fictional Imperial Atlantic, but most of the show is spent on the ground. Cuoco’s Cassie Bowden is an alcoholic hunted by various governments and criminals from all over the world because she slept with the wrong guy in Bangkok (well, a nice guy, just bad timing). Instead of a comedy about pushy passengers and the stress of working a job most people know but know little about. The planes on the show are noticeably advanced and luxurious, suggesting Virgin Airlines circa 2000. There are fewer seats, but bigger compartments—and it doesn’t take long to realize that the “plane” is absolutely not moving, let alone airborne. Maybe it’s for the best that The Flight Attendant quickly turns into a Killing Eve style globetrotting murder mystery than a sitcom about a flight attendant; the heart of the show is Cassie’s alcoholism and that kind of material will always get me—it’s dealt with wonderfully here.
But I still want to see a show about what it’s like to be a flight attendant, especially now that passengers have become unruly again. It can’t cost much to make the plane set jiggle a bit—maybe instead of shooting in five continents, just send someone to grab exteriors…? Well, what do I know—this! It’s a very good idea, suggested but unexplored by HBO’s The Flight Attendant. I wish I was getting paid for this article; no, I’m just looking for balm wherever I can find it.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith