Eventually, as the cliché goes, everything old becomes new again.
Netflix pioneered the schedule of binge releasing new series. But in the eight years since House of Cards premiered, they haven’t learned that some shows are really just better suited to the traditional weekly route.
I hate to break it to the streaming platform but they really should hear it from a friend: Netflix’s latest drama Firefly Lane is a network or perhaps a basic cable series. It belongs on ABC or NBC or Lifetime. It should have been released in the early 2000s where we could all watch it on a Sunday night and then talk about it at work the next day. We would have laughed at the outfits and agonized over the plot twists. The show is a blast from a bygone TV era that no longer exists.
The dramatic beats of Firefly Lane simply aren’t made for binge watching. Its twists and turns need time to settle. Viewers need time to ruminate over the cliffhangers and try to unravel the long-gestating mysteries. They need time to love a character, hate a character, and then learn to love that character again. A weekly rollout is more forgiving. Grating ticks, repetitive plots … all of that is easier to forget and forgive when there is at least a seven-day grace period between airings.
In the series, based on the book of the same name by Kristin Hannah, Tully (Katherine Heigl) and Kate (Sarah Clarke) meet in the 1974 when they are 14-years-old. Where do they live? You guessed it: Firefly Lane. In case we ever forget the title of the series, Tully is fond of often proclaiming “Firefly Lane girls forever!” Young Kate (Roan Curtis) comes from a loving family with two devoted parents and an older brother. Tully’s mom Cloud (Beau Garrett) is an addict who spends her days in a drug-induced haze, leaving young Tully (Ali Skovbye) to fend for herself. Kate provides Tully with stability. Tully pushes Kate to take risks. The girls forge a friendship that will last a lifetime—or at least a 10-episode series.
The series bounces around from 1974 to 1982, when the women are beginning their broadcasting careers at a local Seattle station (Heigl can’t escape the Seattle setting), and then to 2003 when newly-separated Kate is mom to adolescent Marah (Yael Yurman), and still single Tully is host of the popular talk show The Girlfriend Hour. The jumping around decades brings on ridiculous wigs, outrageous outfits of the era and some very questionable aging make up. At first I really thought the show would have that glorious and elusive so-bad-it’s-good-vibe. The kind of escapist drama you can sink yourself into and relish every ridiculous plot twist. But, back-to-back, what was once fun becomes plodding; the binge release means that the show becomes repetitive and grating. How many times can Tully not let someone in emotionally? How many times can Kate feel insecure? (The show loves to show Heigel having sex, although the PG network kind of course, with your bra on and the bedroom sheets strategically placed.) Heigl and Chalke both give compelling performances, but they are hampered by the show’s circular structure.
Firefly Lane is based on the premise that wild, free, but damaged Tully can get any man she wants. Like Samantha from Sex and the City, Tully is afraid of commitment and prone to bon mots like this “You’ve been with the same man and the same penis for 15 years. Just think of all the penises you’re about to meet.” Meanwhile, the show wants us to think that Kate is mousy and undesirable. We mostly know this because young Kate is forced to wear gigantic glasses throughout the entire series. I’m not sure I’ll ever agree that Chalke is frumpy and in need of Spanx, but she does her best to sell that narrative.
In their first job, Tully and Kate meet Johnny Ryan (Ben Lawson), a former war correspondent who now is the producer of a local news show. With his sexy Australian accent and smoldering good looks, Kate falls for him immediately. In 2003, Johnny is the producer of Tully’s talk show but yearns for more. (Sidebar: Is The Girlfriend Hour a nationally syndicated show? It seems that way because Tully has an amazing penthouse condominium and Johnny’s house is right out of Architectural Digest, but Tully’s level of fame is never quite confirmed.)
The show truly fumbles when it tries to take on bigger issues. Kate’s brother Sean (Jason McKinnon) is gay and struggles with how to come out to his family and not live a lie. Johnny is haunted by his time reporting on the atrocities in El Salvador in the 1980s. Both story lines are too serious to be an afterthought, which is how the show treats them.
The other problem is the lack of investment I had in the show’s central love triangle. I can’t tell you how little I cared who Johnny ended up with.
The series evokes This Is Us with the way it jumps back and forth through time. And like This Is Us, the show teases a few mysteries that bounce in and out of episodes. The biggest frustration I found after watching all 10 episodes is that it ends on a major cliffhanger. That’s fine for a show like This Is Us, which knows that it’s been picked up for more seasons and that viewers, even if they are frustrated, will eventually get an answer to questions posed. But Netflix is capricious. There’s no guarantee Firefly Lane will return, which will leave viewers having invested in 10 hours of television with no satisfactory resolution.
Still, the music is top notch. Songs like “Magic Man” by Heart, “Never Tear Us Apart” by INXS, and “Coming Around Again” by Carly Simon provide the soundtrack. As the girls go from swooning over Leif Garrett to watching watch American Idol, the pop-culture references are fun. In 2003, there are the obligatory shout outs to the technology wastelands of Napster, My Space, and Blackberry.
The strongest part of the show is the ones with the girls as teens in 1974. Skovbye and Curtis have a natural rapport, and their narrative moves forward in delightful and compelling ways. Skovbye portrays the perfect note of insecurity mixed with bravado. I would have watched a whole show just about them.
As for the rest of Firefly Lane… there’s no need to pack your bags and move in just yet.
All 10 episodes of Firefly Lane premiere Wednesday, February 3 on Netflix.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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