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Netflix's Firefly Lane is proof that not all books need to be adapted as TV shows or movies

  • "It goes without saying yet still needs to be said: Not every book needs to be adapted for TV or movies. For producers ignoring this warning and moving ahead anyway, you have one job: Tell us why," says Promo Khosla. "Why this story, this moment, this medium of storytelling? Why these creative liberties — or lackthereof? Netflix's Firefly Lane, based on the novel by Kristin Hannah and adapted for TV by Maggie Friedman, is a show that fails to answer any of these questions. It tells the story of best friends Kate (Sarah Chalke) and Tully (Katherine Heigl), who have known each other since eighth grade and remain enmeshed in a tight-knit, volatile, and sometimes unhealthy relationship 30 years later. Their story is told over three timelines: The '70s, the '80s, and 2003, with the girls aged 14, early 20s, and 43, respectively. Because Chalke and Heigl inexplicably play their 20-year-old selves and the ghost of this creative decision hovers over the entire series, we need to discuss it up front. There is some light de-aging and a cute color filter on the '80s scenes, but we simply do not have the technology to make people in their 40s look 20 years younger. AND THAT'S OKAY. I would have loved to see these 2000s TV darlings owning it as two grown adult women negotiating their mature dynamic."


    • Firefly Lane is not good or original at all, but it is kind of entertaining: "It was, not to put too fine a point on it, not great. Not original. Not inventive. Not challenging in any way," says Charlie Mason. "But maybe because of the stressful times we’ve been through of late, it was just what I wanted. It asks literally zilch of us. Subtlety isn’t a consideration on Firefly Lane. The series is a sledgehammer. A pretty, pretty sledgehammer...So, is Firefly Lane good? Alas, no. But is it entertaining? Kinda — and not even in a mean way. It’s an adequate time-passer till the shows for which you’re really jonesing are back on. There’s no more shame in indulging in it than there is in equating sex to ice cream."
    • Firefly Lane fails in trying to be Beaches: "If this sounds like the hit 1988 film Beaches, well, you’re not wrong," says Caroline Framke. "(Author Kristin) 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.) One minute, for instance, Tully’s talking Kate through her first period; the next, the show cuts to 2003 to show Kate’s estranged husband Johnny (Ben Lawson) training for a dangerous reporting assignment in Iraq. It almost feels like each time period was written by entirely different people, leaving the editors to piece it all together in post."
    • Firefly Lane is an addictive, empty binge: "It's kind of nice that amid the utter mayhem that is the real world, Netflix has gifted viewers with Firefly Lane, a soapy, breezy friendship drama that exists entirely outside of it," says Candice Frederick. "But it does present an interesting question: How much is too much escapism? As seen by the polarizing responses to Bridgerton, an equally digestible contribution from the streamer that all but demands you shut off your inquisitive minds, audiences still crave some sense that what they're watching lies within a landscape with which they're familiar. Firefly Lane isn't completely removed from that discussion, though it's a far more cursory experience than the popular British entry."
    • If you’re looking for objects of ridicule, you’ll easily find them in every story line: "Bad wigs, absurd age makeup, mawkish needle drops, obvious plot twists," says Judy Berman. "There are enough female rite-of-passage clichés to fill a dozen women’s lifetimes; Tully gets slut-shamed following a date rape, Kate wears white pants to school and promptly gets her first period, mothers and daughters communicate almost exclusively in accusations, every possible outcome of marriage and pregnancy is explored, there’s a feminist art show that’s all vaginas and a #MeToo incident. Johnny and the other men are underwritten to the point of becoming forgettable. Cloud is a one-note character. There’s an unforgivable interval between a cold open that shows some of the characters at a funeral and the revelation of who died (among other teases). The list of topics the show depicts without seeming to understand on even the most basic level—from media to drug addiction to the likelihood of a fancy restaurant allowing a random guest to sing multiple songs in its busy dining room—could fill a shooting script. Story lines sag in the middle of the season and get crushed into an overcrowded finale. By most metrics, Firefly Lane is simply not a good show. Yet despite its many limitations, there’s something lovable about it. While the plot can be hysterical and the styling is off the wall, the central friendship is not just believable, but also endearing."
    • Firefly Lane is especially disappointing in the way it tries to differentiate each time period: "Few shows demand so much suspension of disbelief and repay the favor with so little," says Inkoo Kang. "While the cinematography, hair and makeup and other context clues rarely leave viewers confused about what decade any scene is in, it’s disappointing to see how little the actresses differentiate their characters’ Girls-aged selves from their Sex and the City 2-aged ones." Kang adds: "Sorely lacking is a sense of the passage of time — and with it, a changing Seattle. There’s a throwaway line about an up-and-comer named Bill Gates and a hamfisted 2003-set gag about newfangled phones with cameras on them, but it's otherwise a missed opportunity to consider how Kate and Tully respond to the shifting culture around them."
    • Firefly Lane knows the power of easy, submergible TV, which will likely more than outweigh its schlock: "Given that it’s marketed to women and not aiming for critical acclaim, the genre is often unfairly maligned or underestimated," says Adrian Horton. "But even by Netflix soap standards, Firefly Lane is underwhelming, leaning too heavily on the saccharine, asking too much of its capable leads, and whizzing too often through hazily connected timelines to land an emotional punch."
    • Firefly Lane somewhat self-consciously represents the Netflix version of an old-fashioned soap: "The central relationship proves touching, as Tully and Kate remain each other's rocks, with the occasional hiccup, through thick and thin," says Brian Lowry. "It's a big, flamboyant role for Heigl (who's also one of the producers) in particular, and its subplots about the price that women pay for stardom resonates more loudly thanks to unfolding in the just-distant-enough past. In terms of Netflix fare, perhaps the closest cousin would be Dead to Me, another series built around a female relationship with a densely serialized plot. While that's not an especially novel formula, getting the mix right makes Firefly Lane the kind of place where, if you drop in for a visit, you'll probably be inclined to keep the lights on until the end."
    • Firefly Lane has a big structural problem: "While the book proceeds decade by decade through the friendship of these two characters, the series scrambles the sections of Tully and Kate's lives so that it's forever hopping between 1970s teenagers (played by Ali Skovbye as Tully and Roan Curtis as Kate), 1980s twentysomethings getting their start, and early-21st-century fortysomethings coping with midlife. And it scrambles the stories not from episode to episode, but from scene to scene," says Linda Holmes. "It's not that this couldn't work; it's just that it doesn't work."
    • Firefly Lane the series is unfortunately a failure of both style and substance: "In between all the clichés it borrows from Beaches and various Lifetime and Hallmark films, it relies on a This Is Us-style fractured timeline to layer in some mysteries," says Alan Sepinwall. "But the format undercuts what little power Tully and Kate’s story is able to generate in occasional moments throughout the 10-episode first season. And the out-of-order narrative adds very little, other than the chance for Friedman to put her two high-profile leads onto the screen much earlier than if she were going chronologically. This Is Us, of course, didn’t invent that structure. But it was notable for its cross-pollination of weepy family drama tropes with ones from mystery-box sci-fi series — as if writers’ assistants for Parenthood and Lost crashed into each other and walked away with their scripts co-mingled. That mixture was enough to turn This Is Us into the kind of phenomenon that broadcast network shows aren’t supposed to be anymore, and inspired a brief and mostly unsuccessful wave of copycats...Firefly Lane runs into several problems with this approach. The first is that the whole puzzle component tends to be more fun as a weekly conversation with lots of other viewers than as a show meant to be binged in a weekend, maybe along with a good pal. The instant gratification of getting explanations — some explanations, anyway, since the show leaves several mysteries dangling for a potential second season — isn’t nearly as satisfying as the chance to spend the time in between theorizing and debating what everything means."
    • Firefly Lane definitely feels like a series set in 2003: "By that, I mean if someone told me this show was filmed that year and had been languishing in a vault for the last 18 years, I’d believe it," says Kristen Lopez. "The series, an adaptation of Kristin Hannah’s novel of the same name, feels akin to series like Brothers and Sisters or Parenthood in its high-stakes melodrama and tackling of real issues. But with the former ramped up to 11, the latter — looking at sexism and workplace harassment — is overshadowed at best and incredibly maudlin at worst. At least the casting is compelling enough to keep things afloat."
    • It’s sometimes hard to get a grasp on exactly what kind of show Firefly Lane wants to be: "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," says Caroline Siede. "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."
    • Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke aimed to be as authentic as possible: "We all worked really hard to keep these characters as realistic and honest as possible and not too shiny, glossy and perfect,” says Heigl. Chalke adds: “For me, this one was a no-brainer because it’s so rare that you find all the elements. I love that the whole show was based on these women and their incredible friendship. It’s not a story that we see told on television.”

    TOPICS: Firefly Lane, Netflix, Katherine Heigl, Kristin Hannah, Maggie Friedman, Sarah Chalke