It takes a couple of seconds of Firefly Lane’s first episode or even its trailer to know the series’ Netflix header. The gauzy soft lens to signal the past, the sparkly golden font, the casting of 2000s romcom lead Katherine Heigl in an aspirational media career, the numerous clinks of wine glasses – all signal Netflix soap, a lower-stakes, female friendship-centered sub-genre that couples Hallmark sentimentality, CW candor, and Netflix’s latitude for curse words and sex. The 10-episode series, created by Maggie Friedman and based on the based on the bestselling 2008 novel by Kristin Hannah, is yet another entry, like this summer’s not-so-surprise hit Sweet Magnolias, into Netflix’s slate of shows which spin various plotlines on romance, motherhood, divorce, menopause, and dating in middle age from a center of airtight, decades-long female friendship – here, between Tully Hart (Heigl) and Kate Mularkey (Sarah Chalke), two childhood neighbors on said Firefly Lane.
Given that it’s marketed to women and not aiming for critical acclaim, the genre is often unfairly maligned or underestimated. But even by Netflix soap standards, Firefly Lane is underwhelming, leaning too heavily on the saccharine, asking too much of its capable leads, and whizzing too often through hazily connected timelines to land an emotional punch.
The show contains all the requisite parts for a mass crowd-pleaser: two proven network stars in Heigl (Grey’s Anatomy) and Chalke (Scrubs) as a textbook yin-yang pair – Tully the magnetic cool girl with an icebox heart and bruised past of family abandonment, Kate the awkward, perennially overshadowed nerd with a stable family in childhood and middle-age. Their 30 years of best friendship is relayed through a This Is Us-style mash of skipping timelines that drop in and out of notable memories and loosely sketched life phases.
The first timeline begins in 1974, when 14-year-old Tully (standout Ali Skovbye), is forced by her flaky, drug-addled hippie mother Cloud (Beau Garrett) to move to Firefly Lane, somewhere near Snohomish, Washington, and befriends the mousy girl across the street, Kate (Roan Curtis). The eighth grade and early high school years, the foundational period of the girls friendship, are marked by overt costume signalling (intimidating, false-confident Tully bedecked in lip gloss and miniskirts, nerdy Kate obscured by pancake glasses), trauma, an inseparable bond and the origin of Tully’s lies about her mother’s addictions out of embarrassment, one of several themes that patchily surface in the later timelines.
Speaking of, there are several others that make accounting for the setting difficult: college years; upstart young 20s at a local TV network years; Tully and Kate in their early 40s, navigating career stalls, divorce, and changing relationships, set in the year 2003; a brief flash forward to 2005, played for awkward, shifting cliffhangers from the third episode on.
The most coherent, best costumed, and most intriguing era are the middle years: Tully is a famous Seattle-based daytime host of the The Girlfriend Hour, a mash-up of Ellen and Oprah (she references both) who both lavishes and resents her notoriety, while Kate reels from her impending divorce to Tully’s producer, Johnny (Ben Lawson), the pair’s former boss in the 80s, and the cold shoulder from 14-year-old daughter Marah (Yael Yurman). The space afforded to the struggles of middle-age womanhood – Tully staring down menopause and one night stand-turned-romance with much-younger Max (Jon-Michael Ecker), Kate re-entering the workforce after 14 years as an assistant to entitled Seattle Weekly editor Kimber Watts (Jenna Rosenow) – provide the stars with their best material and unfortunately cast the weaker flashback sections in even harsher light.
The flashback costumes, sets, lighting, and bad hair of the show’s parodic depiction of the 80s are particularly shoddy; more distracting is the fact that the actors playing the friends at 14 could play them at 20, but Firefly Lane posits Heigl and Chalke, both in their 40s, as plucky 22-year-olds in strange soft focus. The discordance is not so much a comment on either actor, whose sharp handling of the maudlin material closer to their age is one of the few anchor points to keep viewers watching through 10 50-minute episodes. Heigl, no stranger to the role of prickly, particular, career-dominant protagonists (see 27 Dresses, The Ugly Truth), and who serves as an executive producer on the series, delivers a tart, admittedly intriguing performance as 43-year-old Tully. Chalke’s schtick as self-doubting, endearing-until-she-cracks Kate can wear thin by mid-season, but again, she’s far better than the lines she’s given. Still, to be frank: neither actor should’ve been asked to play a 22-year-old.
Not that it matters much, given that ambient dramas such as Firefly Lane, which aim to please and take ridiculous costumes and hammy acting as par for the course, are proven hits on Netflix (see: the recent Emily in Paris, the aforementioned Sweet Magnolias, and Virgin River). Firefly Lane’s weaknesses, including a rushed cliffhanger on the status of the friends’ relationship in the final episode, far outweigh its strengths, most notably the darker patterns – Tully’s possessiveness, Kate’s passivity – to their friendship. But it knows the power of easy, submergible TV, which will likely more than outweigh its schlock.