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'Firefly Lane' Is A Regrettably Shapeless Friendship Story

Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke play Tully and Kate, two friends who spend decades supporting each other in <em>Firefly Lane</em>.
Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke play Tully and Kate, two friends who spend decades supporting each other in Firefly Lane.

As of this writing, as its Netflix adaptation is about to premiere, the 2008 Kristin Hannah novel Firefly Lane sits at #1 in the Amazon Kindle Store category called "Women's Sagas." And indeed, it is written and presented as a women's saga: the friendship of Kate and Tully, played as adults by Sarah Chalke and Katherine Heigl, as observed over several decades, beginning when they're teenagers and continuing into their forties (at least in these ten episodes).

Much of the story, in broad strokes, is familiar: Tully is the rebellious and sparkling one with a past that is difficult in more visible and explicit ways; Kate is the quieter and more cautious one with a past that is difficult in less obvious ways. Tully's life is more focused on her career (as a television talk-show host); Kate's life, although she is a TV producer, is more focused on domesticity (she ultimately has a teenage daughter). There is a man named Johnny who is important to both of them, who winds up being Kate's husband. They are there for each other in times good and bad, in loss and in table-dancing, in sharing their tales of both disastrous boyfriends and promising ones.

There are people who are suspicious of slick marketing and packaging of some of the elements that predominate in this story — female friendships, romantic intricacies, marriage and divorce, pregnancy and motherhood, and who have learned to bump books like this into a firmly unserious subcategory. Thus, this is a "women's saga," while the story of, say, a crime family that operates over generations on the violent and vengeful energy of a bunch of men, with women primarily appearing as sex objects or symbols of the dream of a serene life that is forever out of reach, would simply be called a "saga." Despite the fact that the best available information has indicated for years that women as a group buy and read far more fiction than men in most genres, whatever is about women at home and with friends and children and lovers is "women's fiction," rather than just ... fiction.

Stories like Kate and Tully's are potentially deep and satisfying sources of meaning in real life — not the kind of meaning that comes from moonshot life events most people will never experience, but the kind that flames up from the apparently ordinary. It's regrettable, then, that this high-profile entry that adapts a successful book by a successful writer doesn't make for satisfying television.

Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke are frequently enjoying that feathered hair of the '80s in <em>Firefly Lane</em>.
/ Netflix
Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke are frequently enjoying that feathered hair of the '80s in Firefly Lane.

The first problem is structural. 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.

It's not that this couldn't work; it's just that it doesn't work. At a micro level, there's considerable wit in how the transitions are done, so that a cut from a scene in the '80s to a scene in 2003 will put the characters' earlier and later iterations in conversation with each other. But the series lacks momentum, in part because just as a story starts to become interesting, we jump from that decade to somewhere else. It inevitably takes time for your viewing mind to first remember the details of what's going on in that timeline and then reenter that narrative emotionally. And just as you get situated? Whoosh, buckle up, we're off to a different year.

Showrunner and executive producer Maggie Friedman has said that this change to the book's approach "makes the story richer," but it's hard not to suspect its actual purpose is to make sure the famous actresses who take over in the roles are in the show from the beginning, as opposed to asking audiences to invest in a story about teenagers starring actresses they don't know well, anticipating that Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke will take over around, say, Episode 4. (Heigl and Chalke are even asked to play the women as college students in a few sequences, which is pretty ... odd, given that these actors who played them as high school students are right there.)

But the bigger issue, exacerbated by the timeline choices but not entirely the result of them, is that the series as a whole lacks narrative purpose. It treats these women's lives as a series of disconnected emotional vignettes — someone's wedding, someone's professional disappointment, someone's new romantic entanglement — and many of those scenes are lovely and, in isolation, effective. But over the course of the ten-episode season, none of the emotional stakes that emerge in those moments stick. They lack consequences that reverberate from one episode to another, one decade to another, or one scene to another. "Tully and Kate are always there for each other through thick and thin" is not a story, in and of itself. It's the emotional atmosphere in which the story happens.

It's a shame that the story isn't built better, because the cast is solid and both Heigl and Chalke have good moments, particularly in the chronologically last section where the styling is less distracting. Chalke is a solid comic actress, and Kate's somewhat nervous exploration of her middle-aged sexuality is fun to watch, if not particularly new. Heigl understands Tully, I think, as a character built on a series of disappointments, and I wish the script gave the character more of a chance to build rather than just react, react, and react to individual events.

This is also a series that seems to reveal some challenges with the Netflix model, and with the way it's been applied to this adaptation. A saga has a beginning, middle and end; this "first season" is made up of a little bit of beginning and then a great deal of middle, with ultimately no end at all. If there is no second season, it will be a very odd artifact. Novels can be adapted into series, to be sure, but this isn't the right way to do it.

It's common to dismiss the very subject matter of a project like this as slight or trivial and to blame its failure to satisfy on its fundamental women's-fiction-ness, as if spending all this time with these characters was doomed to be dull. But the problem isn't in the idea or the genre; it's in the execution, and especially the writing. A story that's as full of events as this one (Births! Deaths! Divorces!), perhaps counterintuitively, needs a pretty robust structure, because otherwise, those events become a bunch of scenes pinned to a corkboard, and even if they're compelling, they just kind of ... sit there.

It's harder than it looks, this kind of story. It can be done successfully, but it hasn't been here.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.