Review: Firefly Lane (Netflix)

On February 3, Netflix released Firefly Lane, a drama series that follows the relationships and drama of two women over the course of thirty years. It is based on the book of the same name by Kristin Hannah and given that it seemed to me to be part Gilmore Girls, part Nicholas Sparks novel, I went in with a degree of apprehension. In that way, Firefly Lane is similar to The Queen’s Gambit. I really, really enjoyed The Queen’s Gambit, and I enjoyed Firefly Lane, too, but really they aren’t even in the same league. Or perhaps it’s just that the two shows are different. I really don’t know; I’m still an amateur at reviewing stuff. But, hey! It’s a free country, right? So, here’s the review.

The Premise

The time is 2003, and the place is a small town Seattle, Washington. Forty-three-year-old Tully Hart (Katherine Heigl/Ali Skovbye) and Kate Mularkey (Sarah Chalke/Roan Curtis) have been best friends since Tully first moved to the small town in 1974. Tully is a successful daytime television host à la Ellen or Oprah, and Kate is a stay-at-home-mom who is going through divorce and trying to get back into journalism. In 1974, Kate is a geeky eighth-grader who becomes more outgoing and adventurous after Tully, also an eighth-grader, moves to town. In the 1980s, Tully works her way up to on-air talent at a small news station where Kate is an assistant then copywriter/producer. The show follows these three timelines, revealing how events of the past shaped the personalities of the future, and generally creating and exploring drama.

The Review

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There are no spoilers here. And if you do watch the show then come back and re-read this review you’ll think that it’s a bit of a surprise there are no spoilers because an awful lot happens that is important to this review. But I can do it; that last sentence notwithstanding, I like to think I’m a decent writer, and I suppose this is how we’ll learn whether that’s true.

First off, I must mention that the show contains a lot of moments where drama is thrown heftily into a scene without much nuance. There will be a conversation going on, then completely out of no where the speaker says something like, “I wish it had all been different back then,” or something equally vague, and then the heavy handed drama commences.

Second, I must mention the CGI. For the scenes shot in the ’70s, teenaged actors portray Tully and Kate. For the 1980s and onward, Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke play Tully and Kate. Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke are both in their 40s, so CGI was used to make them look like fresh-out-of-college twentysomethings. It’s not necessarily badly done, but it’s distracting and occasionally has a similarity to Tom Hanks in Polar Express (pictured below). I don’t know a delicate way of saying this, but it was just distracting. Instead of thinking, “oh, wow, they made Sarah Chalke look like she did in season two of Scrubs,” I thought, “oh, wow, they made Sarah Chalke look like a character in a graphic novel.” It’s really not bad on wider shots (pictured above), but when there’s a closeup of someone’s face, it’s aggressively noticeable.

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Each episode ends with a cliffhanger ranging from the super dramatic to the blithe I-guess-I’ll-keep-watching-because-that-was-just-interesting-enough-to-have-me-come-back-for-more. However, there are also genuinely dramatic and heartbreaking scenes as well. Kate’s brother is a truly tragic character for reasons I will allow you to discover on your own, as is Tully’s mother. Tully’s upbringing is downright sad. Kate’s upbringing was sad, but in different ways, some more significant, others less so

Ultimately what Firefly Lane struggles with is writing. Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke and their teenage counterparts all do excellent jobs. But this feels like a show that would be better as a book. I haven’t read the book and I absolutely will not read the book because I prefer my sappy drama in visual form, but I can guess that the book is better organized. The book is 528 pages long, and Netflix has turned that into a ten-episode first season and, given the nature of the cliffhanger in the season one finale, a second season of unknown length. I don’t know what had to be drawn out for 528 to become at least ten hours of television, but I believe this show would have benefitted from better choices on how to develop the story in a way that is subtler and more like a dramatic novel.

Ultimately, this is a good show but not a great show. I will, undoubtedly, watch season two whenever it is released, and I’ll likely review it, too. But then again, I unashamedly watched One Tree Hill, Gilmore Girls, and when I was in high school I even watched All My Children, so maybe I’m a sucker for slightly cheesy drama.

The Conclusion

In my recent foray into television reviews, this is the most difficult one to rate thus far. The show is [Larry David voice] pretty, pretty, pretty . . . pretty good. Sometimes it’s bad, but it also has little moments of greatness. Unfortunately, the majority of the show is just watchable. That’s why I hated that my first instinct was to compare it to The Queen’s Gambit. The Queen’s Gambit was phenomenal. This show is…average. The actors did the absolute best job of expressing the writing/adapting, but the writing/adapting itself leaves much to be desired. Hopefully the writing will be crisper in season two and bring the whole show’s rating up.

But we’ll have to wait for season two for that. For now, this show gets a 5.5 out of 10. Here’s a reminder of where that falls in our combined rankings so far:

Breaking Bad9.7
The Wire9.6
Seinfeld9.0
Downton Abbey8.8
The Office (US): 8.4
The Queen’s Gambit: 8.2
Scrubs8.0 (which would be higher but that last season was so bad)
Parks and Recreation7.8
The Newsroom7.0
John Adams6.8
Tiger: 6.5
Firefly Lane: 5.5
Last Man Standing5.0
Weeds4.5
How I Met Your Mother4.0
Two and a Half Men2.5
The Big Bang Theory0.3

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