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Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke Elevate Firefly Lane

The two TV favorites help this time-hopping friendship drama transcend its shopworn premise.
  • Neither Cagney nor Lacey: Firefly Lane stars Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke in full eighties regalia. (Netflix)
    Neither Cagney nor Lacey: Firefly Lane stars Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke in full eighties regalia. (Netflix)

    In its continued quest to dominate all genres of televised entertainment, Netflix is wading into the realm of the female friendship drama. With Firefly Lane, the lifelong friendship of two women is chronicled through the years, as relationships, family crises, career opportunities, and parenthood intervene. And while that may sound like the type of premise you'd find on Lifetime or Freeform, the show boasts a particularly intriguing pair of lead actresses in Sarah Chalke (Scrubs) and Katherine Heigl (Grey's Anatomy); they're the reason to check this out.

    Amid a flurry of time-hopping scenes in the pilot episode, we're eventually introduced to Tully Hart (Heigl) and Kate Mularkey (Chalke), who become teenage neighbors on the show's titular Firefly Lane. Tully's mom is a drug-addicted hippie disaster (pretty much all the Robin Wright parts from the middle hour of Forrest Gump). Tully latches on to the introverted Kate — with her ludicrously big glasses to connote nerdiness — and before long, they're best friends. We see these scenes in extended flashbacks, on a parallel timeline with adult Tully and Kate, when Tully is a hugely famous TV talk show host and Kate is still struggling to make it as a journalist. Tully is audaciously single, while Kate is dealing with a crumbling marriage and a teenage daughter who hates her. And although this has all the makings of a Beaches-esque resentment narrative, Tully and Kate's fierce friendship prevails over all.

    This is familiar territory for the show's creator, Maggie Friedman, who was a writer on the ABC relationship drama Once and Again and the short-lived WB series Related, which was about four sisters and their close bond. Friedman went on to develop Eastwick for ABC, based on The Witches of Eastwick, and then the similarly titled but entirely unrelated Witches of East End, which lasted two seasons on Lifetime. With Firefly Lane, adapted from the novel by Kristin Hannah, Friedman returns to her witch-free roots to tell a fundamental story of female friendship as their lives ebb and flow, like sine waves moving in opposite directions, each one leaning on the other when they need to.

    The series boasts Katherine Heigl as its lead actress, which is always going to carry a measure of intrigue, as she remains, perhaps unavoidably, a lightning rod for how we react to Hollywood actresses. Heigl came to fame via the breakout success of Grey's Anatomy, alongside the likes of Ellen Pompeo and Sandra Oh as the young surgical interns thrown to the wolves at the former Seattle Grace hospital. As with many hugely successful TV shows, the growing pains behind the scenes at Grey's became gossip fodder, especially an early altercation between cast members Isaiah Washington, Patrick Dempsey, and T.R. Knight, where Washington was accused of using gay slurs. Heigl was vocal in support of Knight (and against Washington), and Washington was written out of the show not long after. Then, after Heigl won a (somewhat surprising) Emmy Award in 2007, she took herself out of the Emmy race the following year, saying the writing for her character wasn't up to par that season. Around the same time, she starred in the Judd Apatow film Knocked Up and made comments in the media about how her character was written as a humorless shrew. In tandem, these comments painted Heigl as a disloyal cast member and an actress who was ungrateful for her opportunities, a reputation that has stuck with her for over a decade.

    The thing about Katherine Heigl is that more often than not she was right. Her character in Knocked Up was a humorless scold while the boys all got to be carefree and funny. The writing on Grey's Anatomy's fourth season was terrible, especially when it came to her character. And sticking up for her friend against abusive homophobic language was the right thing to do. And yet, because Heigl did so out loud and indelicately, it was held against her. As have the myriad of subpar film and TV roles she's taken in the years since. Her NBC political thriller State of Affairs was canceled after one season. Few people even remember the 2017 CBS legal thriller Doubt, probably because it only aired two episodes. And by the time she joined the cast of Suits for its final two seasons, that series was mostly known as having been a launchpad for Meghan Markle.

    And yet, as Firefly Lane proves, Heigl remains an incredibly magnetic screen presence. As Tully, she's the heedless one, while Chalke's Kate is the responsible one, and while it would be easy for the show to indulge in all the clichés of that dynamic, both women feel quite specific. This is the closest that Heigl has played to an Izzy Stevens character since she left Grey's. She's more confident now, but she remains ambitious and headstrong. It's a great element for Heigl to be in. Chalke gets the seemingly unenviable task of being the more neurotic one, living in Tully's shadow, but she doesn't play the self-pity of it all, and gets to be quirky in her own way.

    The strength of Heigl and Chalke's performances is particularly important as it helps counterbalance the show's puzzling choice to tell its story on multiple timelines that keep zigzagging through each episode. It's not just present-day Tully and Kate with flashbacks to their teen years. We also get a timeline in the '80s when they're both trying to break into their TV journalism careers, alongside the very Australian Ben Lawson as Tully's producer and Kate's soon-to-be husband. This isn't a spoiler, since all of these stories exist in past/present/future at the same time (using only Kate's feathered hair as a way to differentiate the time period). And while this helps Firefly Lane fit in with the current zeitgeist that demands all stories be told via multiple timelines and chopped up narratives, the approach does little to help this particular story.

    Then there's the conclusion of the second episode, which shows two characters preparing for a funeral, as all shows of this sort must in order to goose intrigue over who ends up dead by the season's end. But, again, the specter of death does little to enhance our reasons for watching the show. This isn't that kind of series, and Tully and Kate's friendship isn't a mystery we have to untangle.

    Temporal frustrations aside, Firefly Lane is a solid little show, especially if you find yourself charmed by its lead actresses, '80s hairstyles, or the prospect of seeing Katherine Heigl doing coke with a gay guy in a Navy uniform. See, that's how you build intrigue for a relationship drama.

    Firefly Lane drops on Netflix on February 3rd.

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    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Firefly Lane, Netflix, Katherine Heigl, Sarah Chalke