The line between camp and kitsch is thin. Both characterize the exorbitantly saccharine and garish, but the key difference between the two, as Susan Sontag describes in her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” is whether the text is in on the joke or if it’s only the audience’s to share. “Camp sees everything in quotation marks,” Sontag wrote. “It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ ”
The first season of HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant” saw series creator Steve Yockey experiment with this aesthetic sense. Was the dark comedy mystery show self-aware of its main character’s idiocy and the excess of its visual self-indulgence? “The Flight Attendant” always appeared to sit at the threshold between self-seriousness and self-mockery; between kitsch so earnest as to make the audience laugh due to perceived ironic value and self-aware camp — a show poking fun at itself so the audience can poke fun at it too.
The second season of “The Flight Attendant” sees the series take a few steps in crossing this threshold, more clearly dipping its toes into the latter camp (pun intended). In the second season, Cassie Bowden (Kaley Cuoco) has moved from New York City to Los Angeles, enjoying a year of sobriety and sporting a relationship with a new man — all while reveling in her new side gig as a secret CIA asset. Once again, she finds herself entangled within a murder investigation, though this time, the killer on the run appears to be impersonating her. The season follows Cassie and her friends Annie (Zosia Mamet) and Max (Deniz Akdeniz) embarking on a mad-dash caper to uncover this mystery.
This time around, the show traffics in self-aware, anticipatory quips about Cassie’s haphazard choices and actions, trading in the freshman season’s green emphasis on plot-based shock and confusion for an emphasis on the hilarity of Cassie and others’ characteristic capriciousness. As in the first season, Cuoco’s frenetic, screwball-esque performance stands out as the series’ strongest element, her bouncy, off-kilter persona deftly grounded in emotional richness. The season’s expanded focus on Annie, though, functions as an improved element, her dysfunction and self-sabotage thematically intertwining her side plot with Cassie’s in neat fashion.
In the freshman season, Cassie entertained periodic interludes in the midst of the central action. This took the unusual form of her hallucinating lengthy banter with the dead man she slept with after finding herself entangled in his murder investigation. Similarly, in the second season, Cassie experiences breaks from reality, having conversations with different versions of herself in her head. These versions include her “fun” self who hasn’t yet quit drinking, her childhood self who has just been introduced to alcohol and a straight-laced version of herself that feeds into Cassie’s self-hatred, reminding her of everything she is doing wrong on her road to sobriety.
While the hallucinations in Season One were an embodiment of Cassie’s impaired memory — a personification of the alcoholism that causes her to struggle to make sound decisions — these new myriad personas Cassie encounters are more obvious embodiments of the lingering childhood trauma and crippling self-doubt that haunt her road to recovery. As a result, while the second season’s central mystery may be more intimately intertwined with Cassie’s arc of personal growth, at times these interludes lead to overwritten explanations of the protagonist’s psychological state.
Some pivotal developments feel rushed and unearned, some key characters’ motivations arbitrary and vague in crucial moments. The show still continues to find itself bogged down by the sprawling web of its own intricate plotting and trapped within a need to end with relief even in circumstances where warmth might not be as welcome. Still, Cuoco’s inept and ever electric part-time CIA investigator keeps “The Flight Attendant” from skidding too far off course.