Katherine Heigl, Sarah Chalke lead a "mom show" with merit

Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke in Firefly Lane

Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke in Firefly Lane
Photo: Netflix

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Sandwiched between the second-wave feminism of Boomers and the third-wave feminism of Gen X sits a microgeneration of women caught between both worlds. The women who were young teens during the 1970s women’s movement and entered the workforce confident that they would be the ones to tear down the last vestiges of patriarchy, only to find the glass ceiling still very much intact in the early 1980s. The ones who no longer had to fight for the right to have a career, but were expected to choose between that or having a family. The women who assumed they’d escaped the burdens their mothers faced, only to find old patterns repeating themselves.

It’s that generation that sits at the heart of the Katherine Heigl vehicle Firefly Lane—a Netflix series that combines the schmaltzy female friendship of Beaches with the time-hopping premise of This Is Us and just a touch of Broadcast News. Heigl is Tully Hart, an Oprah-esque daytime talk show host whose sky-high ratings are just starting to decline. Her best friend is unassuming Kate Mularkey (Scrubs’ Sarah Chalke), a former journalist who dedicated much of her adult life to being a wife and mother and now finds herself grappling with her identity as she barrels toward a divorce. Neither woman is fully satisfied with her life as she heads into her mid-40s circa 2003. But through it all, Tully and Kate have each other—a lifelong friendship stronger than any of the men who come in and out of their lives.

Reductively, Firefly Lane is a “mom show.” The sort of overly gentle, supremely uncool melodrama that doesn’t get a lot of critical attention, but has long thrived on places like the Hallmark Channel. Netflix has slowly been building its own little empire in the genre, including much-watched but little-discussed series like Sweet Magnolias and Virgin River. Like those shows, Firefly Lane is based on a successful women’s fiction novel and borrows its aesthetics from a Lifetime original movie. It’s the sort of cheap-looking, unevenly written and acted series that’s easy to rag on—especially given how often it teeters between boring and baffling. But beneath the bad ’80s cosplay and cheesily rote dialogue, Firefly Lane offers an exploration of women’s interior lives that still feels relatively rare in the TV landscape.

While Kristin Hannah’s novel unfolds linearly, creator and showrunner Maggie Friedman (Lifetime’s Witches Of East End) adapts the source material with the multi-timeline approach popularized by This Is Us. Firefly Lane jumps back and forth between three main time periods: 1974, when free-spirited 14-year-old Tully moves in next door to nerdy Kate on Firefly Lane. The 1980s, as twentysomething Tully and Kate start their careers at a local TV news station, where they both catch the eye of handsome war correspondent Johnny Ryan (Ben Lawson). And the present of 2003, where the women grapple with the fallout of the choices they’ve made throughout their lives.

Illustration for article titled Netflix’s iFirefly Lane/i gives Katherine Heigl her own iBeaches/i

Photo: Netflix

Tonally, Firefly Lane is at its most cohesive in the 1974 timeline, which stars Ali Skovbye and Roan Curtis as a teenage Tully and Kate and almost exists as its own standalone series. Elsewhere, it’s sometimes hard to get a grasp on exactly what kind of show Firefly Lane wants to be, particularly in its uneven premiere (the weakest hour of the 10-episode first season). There are elements of a feel-good female friendship dramedy, a soapy melodrama mystery, and an era-spanning character study at play, and Firefly Lane tends to be strongest when it’s emphasizing the latter. Tully and Kate’s teenage friendship is solidified by a secret that speaks to the level of trauma Tully hides beneath her glamorous cool girl exterior. Firefly Lane’s most interesting through line traces the ways in which Tully’s experiences with an irresponsible mother and a series of abusive men shape her narcissistic, self-destructive sense of confidence.

The character is a natural fit for Heigl’s particular brand of peppy intensity, and it’s easy to see what drew her to Firefly Lane as her latest comeback project (she is also an executive producer on the series). Heigl particularly shines in the 1980s flashbacks, which allow her to channel a darker version of the gumption that made her a breakout star on Grey’s Anatomy. Playing a more passive character, Chalke struggles to captivate in the same way. While Firefly Lane gives Heigl a chance to lean into what she does best, Chalke seems to be purposefully moving away from her quirkily offbeat Scrubs demeanor. Though she occasionally gets some effective dramatic moments in the 2003 timeline, she’s too often stuck playing clunky rom-com material and feels too self-consciously self-conscious in the flashbacks. The idea that Chalke could ever be seen as mousy or frumpy is Firefly Lane’s most implausible conceit.

Illustration for article titled Netflix’s iFirefly Lane/i gives Katherine Heigl her own iBeaches/i

Photo: Netflix

While Firefly Lane is better than its worst moments, it’s not as consistently good as its best ones either. Scenes like a nuanced depiction of date rape and emotional gaslighting sit oddly with cringe-y attempts at sitcom comedy about Spanx. And it’s hard to overemphasize just how cheap the gauzily shot 1980s flashbacks look, or how laughable it is every time the series tries to balance its examination of wealthy white lady ennui with an exploration of the psychological trauma of wartime journalism. It doesn’t help that Firefly Lane clearly expects to get a second season and leaves much of its story unresolved, which makes the first season a frustratingly anti-climatic binge.

Still, for all its flaws, Firefly Lane succeeds at rooting its story in a very specific generation and a very specific type of woman. As with This Is Us, the time hops add suspense and surprise to the relatively straightforward material, particularly when it comes to a subplot about Kate’s closeted brother and his own life path from the 1970s to the early 2000s. Firefly Lane is a show that’s better in concept than in execution. But considering the ideas it’s exploring are relatively unique in the TV landscape, it’s at least a mom show with merit.

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