Netflix’s hyper-specific categories have become something of a punchline over the years. For every general collection of “comedies” and “reality TV,” there are ones like “critically acclaimed LGBTQ TV shows” (“Queer Eye” and “Tales of the City”), “Feel-Good Reality TV” (“The Great British Baking Show” and “Dream Home Makeover”) and “Oddballs and Outcasts” (“Sex Education” and assorted standup specials from men who were bullied in high school). At first, these subgenres just felt like cheeky ways to organize Netflix’s ever-ballooning library. Increasingly, though, it seems as if Netflix originals are pitched and written with an eye toward fitting into these esoteric characterizations.
Enter “Firefly Lane,” a new drama from Maggie Friedman that’s tailor-made for Netflix’s “soapy romantic TV dramas about friendship” category, which currently features shows ranging from “Grey’s Anatomy” to “Emily in Paris.” Based on Kristin Hannah’s novel, the unabashedly sentimental series follows two best friends from the moment they meet in 1974, through their time working at a local news station in the ’80s, and finally, to their lives as 40-somethings navigating work and relationships in 2003. Tully (Katherine Heigl) is a charismatic force of nature who spins the pain of her past into gold, while Kate (Sarah Chalke) is her kind, constant shadow who struggles to make her own mark.
If this sounds like the hit 1988 film “Beaches,” well, you’re not wrong. Hannah is well aware of the similarities, given the review excerpts on her website that explicitly compare “Firefly Lane” to “Beaches.” And yet, despite its many parallels to tearjerkers past, “Firefly Lane” loses out on much of its potential emotional resonance by getting lost in its own narrative trickery.
Each episode weaves among the three timelines in fits and starts that only occasionally make thematic sense. The transitions between Tully and Kate as teenagers (played with charm by Ali Skovbye and Roan Curtis) to the two as hardworking career gals of the ’80s to them as lonely women in their 40s sometimes works. More often, they’re jarring enough that I kept rewinding episodes to be sure I didn’t miss some connective tissue. (I didn’t.) It almost feels like each time period was written by entirely different people.
By 2003, Tully has become the multimillionaire host of “The Girlfriend Hour,” a daytime talk show that feels like a mashup of “Oprah” and “The Ellen Show,” both of which are referenced in passing with a semblance of a self-aware wink. Kate, meanwhile, is distracting herself from her divorce while working her first job since having her daughter (Yael Yurman). Here, Heigl and Chalke live more naturally in their characters and the relationship between them. This era feels like a completely separate show than the ones unfolding in the other two, which not coincidentally feature wildly exaggerated costuming and production design; the ’80s newsroom material might as well be a “Working Girl” parody, except no one is in on the joke.
Having embodied appealing klutzes on shows like “Roseanne” and “Scrubs,” Chalke is well up to the task of embodying Kate in early midlife crisis even when her forced mousiness defies belief. And it’s easy to understand why Heigl, also an executive producer, gravitated to the role of Tully; her career was built on a foundation of such spiky, sexy women who demand to be taken seriously. Tully, who created a life out of the rubble her stoned hippie mom, Cloud (Beau Garrett, chewing every piece of scenery into pulp), leaves behind fits right into Heigl’s repertoire. Some of the series’ most discordant and perversely fascinating moments, in fact, arise from the clash between the show’s overtly maudlin sensibility and Heigl’s more sour than sweet performance.
Put it this way: The show itself skews more Kate than Tully, and the moments when that’s not true feel uncomfortably forced. (See Tully saying, “You’re my soulmate, bitch,” to Kate’s “You’re the bitch, bitch” — a cute attempt to give this “girlfriend hour” some bite, but not one that particularly works.)
While it might be tempting for some to describe “Firefly Lane” as a Hallmark or Lifetime movie stretched beyond its limits, that wouldn’t be quite right. For one, dismissing media about women, for women, in that way is annoying and reductive. More germane to the reality of “Firefly Lane” is that it’s not on Lifetime or Hallmark but on Netflix, which has quietly built a small empire of exactly such “soapy romantic dramas” that are easy enough to get lost in for a weekend (or for a holiday season, in the case of the network’s many, many Christmas movies). Shows like “Sweet Magnolias” and “Virgin River” might not get much critical or awards attention, but that’s not especially important when they land such consistent, dedicated audiences. There’s little doubt that “Firefly Lane” — confusing conceit and tone and wigs and all — will attract the same.
“Firefly Lane” premieres Wednesday, February 3 on Netflix.