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HBO Max Has a Plan

Dual premieres of ‘I Hate Suzie’ and ‘The Flight Attendant’ are a promising sign that the streaming service knows how to reach its audience

HBO/Ringer illustration

There’s a fine line between having a brand and being redundant. Traditional TV networks tend to err on the conservative side of this divide. Most have defined demographics (Comedy Central, young men; CBS, older white people) or shticks (USA’s Blue Skies era; ABC’s #TGIT lineup of wall-to-wall Shonda Rhimes). But even then, there’s still a basic imperative to keep an audience both broad and engaged with a sense of variety. You can have multiple medical dramas, but you can’t have all medical dramas, and should at least set the ones you have in different cities (even if they’re shot on the same Burbank soundstage). The exceptions prove the rule, and also hint at the alternative. After all, what is Hallmark’s endless deluge of cookie-cutter holiday movies if not the prototype for what we now call a binge?

The incentive structure for a streaming service is slightly different. Earlier this month, Kyle Chayka ruffled some feathers at The New Yorker with a piece about “ambient TV,” presenting the widely hate-watched Emily in Paris as an example of a streaming-native show designed to be viewed passively. Detractors pointed out that having TV on in the background is hardly new, but “ambient” does accurately describe the overall effect of Netflix’s programming strategy: similarity as a selling point, not a disservice. Without ever leaving the app, subscribers can take in identical concepts like Tidying Up With Marie Kondo and Get Organized With the Home Edit, both female-fronted odes to the compartmentalized living space; look for baking inspiration from The Great British Baking Show, Sugar Rush, or Nailed It!, assorted riffs on the inevitable messiness of the most precision-oriented culinary art; or segue seamlessly from Chef’s Table to its spinoff Street Food to region-specific shows like Taco Chronicles or Flavorful Origins, all handsomely photographed food shows. Such commitment to a niche can occasionally verge on the absurd, as when the same platform bankrolls both credulous infomercials like The Goop Lab and debunkings like Unwell, riffs on the shared theme of wellness.

The idea is to keep viewers in the confines of a single walled garden for as long as possible, catering so fully to a given interest that there’s no need to look anywhere else. And while Netflix remains the strategy’s standard-bearer, other streamers are starting to catch on. Hence The Flight Attendant landing (pun intended) on HBO Max within a week of I Hate Suzie, two shows with more parallels than simultaneous launches usually contain. Now past its six-month mark, WarnerMedia’s fledgling service has already shaped an identity that complements the masculine seriousness of its namesake HBO. Originals like Love Life or Selena + Chef, acquisitions like Search Party or The Other Two, and upcoming launches like reality series House of Ho create a collective impression of the ideal Max consumer: young, professional women on the market for distraction. And its latest offerings target said demographic with expert precision.

In practice, the two shows have wildly different tones: The Flight Attendant is a zippy, espionage-adjacent farce packed with scenery porn; I Hate Suzie is a harrowing, chaotic rabbit hole its cocreator and star has readily compared to a panic attack. But on paper, they clearly share some DNA. Both are limited series built around a central performance by an underappreciated actress. Both combine elements of drama and comedy. And both follow their antiheroines as their lives spiral out of control from a single traumatic event. Paired so close together, they’re ideally positioned for a back-to-back binge, a weekend’s worth of entertainment conveniently packaged by a single provider.

Adapted by Supernatural writer Steve Yockey from a recent novel by Chris Bohjalian, The Flight Attendant is by far the flashier of the two, and also the only true Max original. (I Hate Suzie is a British import, initially aired overseas on Sky Atlantic.) Kaley Cuoco stars as Cassie, the titular stewardess on the fictional Imperial Atlantic Airlines whose hard-partying lifestyle is all fun and games until a one-night stand with a handsome passenger ends with his throat slit in a Bangkok hotel room. With no memory of what transpired before waking up next to his bloody corpse, Cassie has to evade suspicious authorities while doing some investigative work of her own. There’s also some forced introspection about the trauma and coping mechanisms that left Cassie vulnerable to getting caught up in such international intrigue, for which her jet-setting job serves as a scenic backdrop.

In its collision of urbane millennial self-absorption with high-flying whodunnit, The Flight Attendant closely recalls Search Party, yet another entry under the HBO Max umbrella. (Search Party aired its first two seasons on TBS before being given new life by its parent company’s big moonshot; after a nearly three-year wait for Season 3, Season 4 will drop in just a couple months.) The Flight Attendant is less spiritually grim than its close cousin: Where Search Party’s Dory is in a hell of her own narcissistic making, Cassie really doesn’t do anything wrong except panic in a moment of truth, as most of us would. To assist in its satirical efforts, The Flight Attendant brings out the big guns in Girls’ very own Zosia Mamet, whose savvy lawyer Annie is like a hyper-focused Shoshanna. Mamet is a cool, tart counterpoint to Cuoco’s frenzied panic, and her character mercifully steers The Flight Attendant away from vicarious anxiety and predictable self-sabotage. Annie becomes her friend’s Virgil through the criminal underworld in which she’s suddenly immersed.

But Cuoco is the star here, effectively introducing herself to a new audience after 12 seasons on The Big Bang Theory made her unfathomably rich. (All 12 seasons of The Big Bang Theory are available to stream on—you guessed it—HBO Max.) Cuoco is objectively famous; on top of its trend-defying live ratings, her former sitcom is syndicated across the globe. Still, she’s not as well known among the streaming set, an audience raised to like their sitcoms single-camera and sans laugh track. The Flight Attendant allows Cuoco to get a bit more R-rated than she could on CBS, and Max subscribers to marvel at her balance of slapstick and pathos. As The Flight Attendant goes on, it becomes less of a murder mystery and more of a character study about a woman messed up in relatively conventional ways, a transition eased by Cuoco’s charms.

I Hate Suzie, too, is an introduction of sorts. Billie Piper has had prominent parts in genre series like Doctor Who and Penny Dreadful and headlined Secret Diary of a Call Girl, her previous collaboration with friend and I Hate Suzie collaborator Lucy Prebble. But she’s never fronted anything as autobiographical as I Hate Suzie, the story of a teen pop star (like Piper) turned sci-fi performer (like Piper) caught in a 2014-style nude photo hack (unlike Piper). This otherwise sympathetic situation also exposes Suzie’s infidelity, since the “penis of color” in the leaked photo clearly does not belong to her husband Cob (Daniel Ings, of the dearly departed Lovesick). Such indiscretions mark Suzie as a member of the Fleabag generation, women whose charisma enables their sins and whose sins are hidden and partly excused by their charisma.

The story of I Hate Suzie takes a back seat to its style, which splits Suzie’s ordeal up into eight stages of grief (“Denial,” “Fear,” “Guilt,” etc.) and makes each its own episode. The premiere is a trial by fire, weaving through a photoshoot at Suzie’s claustrophobic country home as she tries to multitask mugging for the camera while managing the collapse of her marriage. If viewers are able to endure the overlapping dialogue and atonal score, they’ll be treated to a (slightly) calmer look at an externally imposed midlife crisis. There’s a demented, juvenile aspect to Suzie, who wears loud prints, snags a role as a Disney princess pre-hack, and whose last name is “Pickles,” à la The Rugrats. She’s a maddening character who makes infinitely worse decisions than The Flight Attendant’s Cassie, even when dealing with matters far more trivial than an actual dead body. Suzie lies, lashes out, and shuts down, even as she’s supposed to care for her young son, who’s deaf. But if Suzie can be outright repellent, Piper makes her meltdown moving in spite of herself. On The Flight Attendant, Cassie can hop continents to run from her troubles; Suzie doesn’t have the same luxury.

Were these two shows merely premiering around the same time, their thematic overlap would be a fun coincidence. From the same outlet, the pairing looks more deliberate. Last week, HBO announced that remaining episodes of steamy finance drama Industry would premiere on Max, making the entire first season available to binge before the back half aired weekly on HBO proper. More of a Skins-style free-for-all than a Succession-style takedown, and itself starring a young woman scrambling to hold together an aspirational lifestyle, Industry already feels like a better fit for Max than the mothership. That Max has a fit at all after such a disorienting start in the spring is a promising sign.