'Firefly Lane': TV Review

Firefly Lane
Courtesy of Netflix
Overloaded with saccharin and cheese.
2/3/2021

Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke play the 20- and 40-something versions of their characters in Netflix's new drama about lifelong friends suddenly at a crossroads.

The 30-year friendship between two women — one, a housewife; the other, a nationally syndicated talk-show host — comprises the heart of the new Netflix drama Firefly Lane. Sifting through the layers of hurt, jealousy, rivalry and of course mutual support between self-sacrificing frump Kate (Sarah Chalke) and her glamorous, emotionally stunted bestie Tully (Katherine Heigl), this Seattle-set adaptation of Kristin Hannah’s 2008 novel often feels like a Lifetime treatment of My Brilliant Friend. It’s a rich premise squandered by awkward casting, tearjerking storylines and knee-high ambitions.

Firefly Lane jumps between the '70s, '80s and 2003 — when Tully and Kate are, respectively, eighth-graders, college grads at their first jobs at a local TV station and women on the verge of middle age and its complications. In a perhaps inevitable but frequently distracting choice, Chalke and Heigl play the 20- and 40-something versions of their characters, with the Reagan-era scenes drenched in golden light and the camera coated in Vaseline. (Few shows demand so much suspension of disbelief and repay the favor with so little.) While the cinematography, hair and makeup and other context clues rarely leave viewers confused about what decade any scene is in, it’s disappointing to see how little the actresses differentiate their characters’ Girls-aged selves from their Sex and the City 2-aged ones.

The series opens with Tully tired of the fluffy segments on her Oprah-like show (“I used to be a journalist,” she grumbles) and Kate separated from her husband Johnny (Ben Lawson) and searching for her first job in 12 years. Firefly Lane plays out as something of a mystery, with puzzle pieces steadily snapping into place, filling us in on the history of Kate and Tully’s friendship, the shifting roles Johnny has played in their relationship and the various traumas Tully has had to repress to become the high-functioning empty shell she is as an adult. These defining moments are often told much too quickly, contributing to the mathematical feel of the characterizations: This happened on this side of the equation, so that’s why she’s like that on the other side of it. Here’s the cause, there’s the effect.

Firefly Lane fares better when the show focuses on the burgeoning friendship between Kate and Tully as 14-year-olds, both desperately in need of a trustworthy confidant. Nerdy middle-schooler Kate (Roan Curtis) begins suspecting that her seemingly normal family isn’t the picture of wholesomeness she’d been led to believe. Young Tully (Ali Skovbye, who gets closer than Heigl to the magnetism the character supposedly radiates her entire life) is Kate’s new neighbor, her instant popularity at school belying the deep shame she feels about her addict single mother (Beau Garrett, who's saddled with some fright wigs and atrocious old-age makeup in the 2003 scenes).

Curtis and Skovbye enjoy a more natural chemistry than Chalke and Heigl, imbuing the younger actresses’ scenes with a hearty sweetness that contrasts satisfyingly against the thorny resentments of the characters’ older years. Heigl still commands a workable comic timing when it counts, but she's much more uneven than Chalke, who maintains a baseline of solidity even if her innate brightness seems dimmed here.

Sorely lacking is a sense of the passage of time — and with it, a changing Seattle. There’s a throwaway line about an up-and-comer named Bill Gates and a hamfisted 2003-set gag about newfangled phones with cameras on them, but it's otherwise a missed opportunity to consider how Kate and Tully respond to the shifting culture around them. At least their friendship is better explored via their relationships to the people around them: Johnny, who’s more of a jerk than the show seems to realize; Kate and Johnny’s 14-year-old daughter Marah (Yael Yurman), who blames her mom for her parents’ impending divorce; and Kate’s closeted brother Sean (Jason McKinnon; played as a teen by Quinn Lord), who comes out to Tully decades before he does to his own sister.

My viewing notes became increasingly riddled with “LOLs” as the 10-part debut season divulged more of its secrets and emotional beats; creator Maggie Friedman (Witches of East End) is not above killing a dog to wring some tears. But there’s also a tonal consistency, solid episodic structure and a pleasing sway between teases and reveals that makes the series thoroughly binge-able, not unlike when you look up and discover that you’ve eaten an entire bag of fries without realizing it. You might not like what you just hoovered up, but you’ve gotta admire the craftsmanship that went into making something so consumable.

Cast: Katherine Heigl, Sarah Chalke, Ben Lawson, Beau Garrett, Yael Yurman

Creator: Maggie Friedman

Showrunner: Maggie Friedman

Premieres Wednesday, Feb. 3, on Netflix