If you asked Kate and Tully, the protagonists of Netflix’s soapy new mom-dram “Firefly Lane,” to describe the series in which they live in one word, their responses would probably go something like this: Kate, the sweet, klutzy one with a heart of gold, would say “Fate. No, destiny. No, friendship-of-the-heart. No no no, soulmates. Wait, I’ve got it,” and then she’d smile slowly and say, “Family.” She’d mean every word, and then she’d push her glasses up, or trip and fall into a wedding cake. In contrast, there’s Tully, an acerbic, chaotic font of charisma. She’d think for a moment, take a shot of tequila, then look you right in the eye and say, without hesitation, “Bullshit.”
Unlike Kate, Tully would be lying—she’s really a slow-smile-“family” type deep down. But she’d also be correct. This writer, on the other hand, would beg to add an adjective. “Firefly Lane,” an adaptation of Kristin Hannah’s novel of the same name, is bullshit. But it’s watchable bullshit. In fact, if I might add another word, it’s eminently watchable bullshit. Full of contradictions, structured with all the soundness of a Jenga tower but anchored by two good (one of them very, very good) performances, it’s the kind of series made for Netflix’s autoplay feature. Watch one episode, roll your eyes, grimace, and settle in for another; emerge 10 hours later, blinking and baffled into the light of a new day.
Should that fate befall you, you’ll have Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke to thank. The unlikely friendship of Kate (Chalke) and Tully (Heigl) defines the series, from the day Tully and her mother Cloud (Beau Garrett) move in next door to Kate and her seemingly perfect, genuinely loving family, to the final, baffling moments of the season finale. (As teens, Kate and Tully are endearingly played by Roan Curtis and Ali Skovbye.) As children, they build an unshakeable bond, one that carries them through college, then their early days in ‘80s television news, and on through Tully’s rise to near-Oprah-level daytime stardom and Kate’s journey through motherhood. Through the decades—get ready for a lot of vaseline on the camera’s lens when Heigl and Chalke navigate the pair’s 20s—they cherish, nurture, and protect each other; wounds are sustained, but nearly always unwittingly inflicted. Their hot producer (Ben Lawson of “Designated Survivor”) can’t part them. The gap between their relative levels of hotness (we’re meant to believe that Chalke is the mousy one, hence the glasses) can’t part them. Tully getting birth control pills for Kate’s 14-year-old daughter (the promising Yael Yurman) without Kate’s knowledge or consent can’t part them.
Yet something eventually does. If you’re humming “Wind Beneath My Wings” under your breath right now, you’re onto something; the novel has garnered no small number of comparisons to “Beaches,” and the show seems likely to do the same. Yet an equal influence on showrunner Maggie Friedman seems to be NBC’s “This Is Us”—think of it as “This Is Beaches,” and you’ve got a good idea of the show’s appeal. Jumping through decades with startling and often disorienting frequency, the series doles out its plot in an a-linear manner intended to engender a sense of mystery, though it never hits on question as potent as “How did Jack Pearson die?” (“This Is Us” viewers who know the importance of a kitchen appliance in the answer to that question will understand that comparison to be even more damning than it suggests.)
The real lack here, though, isn’t in the absence of a compelling mystery; it’s in the artlessness of those jumps. Friedman, her fellow writers, and directors like Peter O’Fallon (“UnREAL”) rarely manage to connect the disparate stories in each episode by anything other than the friendship of Tully and Kate, or occasionally, themes like “weddings” and “mothers.” The years do not echo off each other; there’s no sense of connectedness or the potency of the past. More often than not, we jump from one decade to another by way of, say, someone asking for a hot dog in the “present” (the early 2000s) before the series cuts to someone mowing down on a hot dog in the past. Not the stuff of poetry. Time-jumps only work when there’s a reason for them, a need in the characters to explore a certain memory or idea; maybe it’s trauma resurfacing, or a long-held secret breaking free. Hot dogs aren’t gonna do it.
Luckily, Chalke and Heigl, particularly the latter, are there to give the show its spine, or “Firefly Lane” might be totally invertebrate. (Heigl is also an executive producer.) Once you accept the idea that Chalke’s Kate is “the plain one”—no small feat, as Chalke gives Kate an almost palpable air of warmth and gentleness that would likely prove irresistible to all who cross her path—it’s all too easy to attach yourself to her. It’s a performance rich in empathy, and Chalke manages to make the frequent “oh boy, what I weirdo klutz I am, gee whiz” moments seem genuine, or nearly so.
She’s also an excellent foil for Heigl, though fittingly, given the story’s bent, it’s Heigl who’s the real standout here. ‘Play a character of unrivaled, irresistible charisma who is also often an asshole without making her insufferable’ is no easy brief, but Heigl clears that bar with ease; the adoration and bottomless frustration felt for Tully by the other characters is perfectly comprehensible. The most appealing contradictions in the show all arise from Heigl’s performance. It’s a turn of subtlety and vulnerability, a startling counterpoint to the laziness and inelegance of the teleplays, direction, and production design. (You know when sitcoms do flashbacks to the characters as young versions of themselves, with terrible wigs and huge shoulder-pads and a level of deliberate artificiality that’s part of the joke? “Firefly Lane” looks like that, but it’s dead serious.)
By the time the first season ends at its head-scratching conclusion—no series has more transparently and ineffectually bellowed “STAY TUNED FOR SEASON TWO” in recent memory—“Firefly Lane” will likely have hooked viewers, thanks largely to Heigl and Chalke, who are great separately and even better together. This writer watched all 10 hours, because that’s the job, but I must admit that had only a portion of the episodes been made available to critics, I’d almost certainly have dialed up the remainder on its release. It’s easy to care about these women, and easier to care about their friendship. There’s nothing wrong with some healthy, soapy melodrama and a little sentimental hokum in one’s viewing diet. There’s certainly an audience for both, as “Beaches” and “This Is Us,” to say nothing of the success of the Lifetimes and Hallmarks of the world, easily prove. So by all means, watch “This Is Beaches,” if that’s your thing. Love it with all your heart, if you can. Just learn this lesson from Tully and Kate: it’s better to recognize the failings in those you love than to be willfully blind to them. Just because it’s about family doesn’t mean it’s not also bullshit.
Complete first season watched for review.