The recipe for Netflix’s new series “Firefly Lane” includes a hefty dose of cheesiness, a dash of emotional manipulation and just a touch of nostalgia.
Based on the novel by Kristin Hannah, “Firefly Lane” takes the crossroad between “Gilmore Girls” and “This Is Us,” emerging as a melodramatic, slice-of-life drama. The show, created by Maggie Friedman (“No Tomorrow,” “Dawson’s Creek”), follows the ups and downs in both friendship and life of childhood best friends Tully Hart (Katherine Heigl) and Kate Mularkey (Sarah Chalke), traversing their decades of history.
The show ranges from the 1970s to the “modern” timeline of 2003, also flashing forward to 2005 intermittently. “Firefly Lane” is like a perplexing puzzle, constantly dropping new hints and unlocking clues toward the characters’ narrative journeys.
Viewers may feel like the show tosses them into the deep end. “Firefly Lane” begins with a confusing lack of exposition, with the writing crew expecting viewers to care about characters they just met. This leads early episodes of “Firefly Lane” to feel scattered and unengaging.
As the puzzle pieces come together, so does the show. Later episodes of the 10-episode season finally balance the emotional arcs of the characters with the simplicity of the setting. “Firefly Lane” is a small town drama at heart, adapting its “Everwood”-ian roots to the modern “This Is Us” template.
“Firefly Lane” is calm and slow-moving, but it’s not always fun. A drama in this sense would benefit from some lighter plots and comedy, like how “Gilmore Girls” excelled at mixing small-town simplicity with natural levity. “Firefly Lane” often forgets to be fun, letting melodrama absorb the screen.
Tully and Kate’s journalistic careers offer intrigue and a refreshing setting for the female-driven drama genre. The show is rarely as engaging as when Tully leads a scene with her stage presence.
“Firefly Lane” missed an opportunity by not diving deeper into the character dynamics at play between Tully’s rise to success as an Oprah-like daytime talk show host, while Kate was left waiting in the wings. Give the viewers better drama, more cattiness, something to escape the strictly serious tone the show employs.
The performances help sell the schmaltzy script. Heigl (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Knocked Up”) and Chalke (“Scrubs,” “Roseanne”) play off each other well, providing a strong heart to the series. Younger counterparts Ali Svokbye and Roan Curtis also hold down the fort in the ’70s scenes.
While intentional, Kate fades in the background next to Tully. Tully is dynamic, enigmatic and engaging, while Kate can barely muster up likability. She’s a dud, and Chalke’s clear talent couldn’t shore up the character’s shortcomings.
Therein lies a key issue with “Firefly Lane.” A show that relies so heavily on interpersonal dynamics can’t hide behind the dead weight of its main character. There’s no distraction on “Firefly Lane” — the show lives and breathes on the power of conversation.
The densely packed story arc leaves some interesting plots bubbling in the background. Telling the story of multiple decades over 10 episodes is a tricky project, but it leaves “Firefly Lane” with room to circle back in possible future seasons.
Future seasons would be better suited to challenge Kate’s character, making her more rootable to audiences. The Kate we receive is irritatingly passive, a woman who watched her aspirations pass her by, her dream marriage turn into a routine mundanity, who’s lived in the shadow of her best friend, yet she’s painfully dull.
How, with all of these intricacies, does Kate remain such a drab character? She serves “Disney Channel mom” when she should be giving the audience “Desperate Housewives” energy. Can’t blame the acting, as Chalke certainly gives it her all.
“Firefly Lane” offers plenty in the way of entertainment. It’s well-written and well-acted, and it brims with potential. It remains to be seen just how much of that potential will come to fruition, but after a season of sowing patience, the series appears ready to boil over in its finale.
It’s not the next “This Is Us,” but fans of the former would be unlikely to have major complaints with “Firefly Lane.”
“Firefly Lane” is available to stream on Netflix.