Content Warning: The series (but not this review) contains graphic representations of sexual assault. The constant switching between time frames was often difficult for my brain to process and may be a problem for other people as well.
I’ve never been inside a glitching time machine, but I’m guessing it would feel a bit like the mental whiplash I experienced while watching Firefly Lane flit back and forth between the seventies, eighties, and early aughts. And look, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the way the series shines a light on the value and importance of an intimate multi-decade friendship between two women. It’s the kind of story that so often gets shunted aside as unimportant or fluffy or chick lit or some equally derisive thing when really these mundane stories are both deeply meaningful and the fabric of women’s lives, which is why I was disappointed that I didn’t love this series.
Tully Hart (Ali Skovbye) and Kate Mularkey (Roan Curtis) meet at the often miserable age of fourteen when Tully and her constantly stoned, counter-culture, single mother, Cloud (Beau Garrett ) move into a house on (you guessed it) Firefly Lane right across the street from Kate’s very conventional family. (I could never decide if Cloud was supposed to be putting on an act or if it just felt that way because she was such a caricature of a hippie.) Tully, who spent most of her childhood living with her grandmother, has only recently (and resistantly) started living with her mother. She’s a quick-witted, independent, attractive, and utterly traumatized teenager who wants to be both rebellious and adored. Kate, on the other hand, has lived in the same house in the same town with her parents (Chelah Horsdal and Paul McGillion) and older brother (Quinn Lord) for her entire life. She’s nerdy, awkward, smart, and lonely since her friends abandoned her for the more popular crowd. Her life is clearly more even-keeled than Tully’s, but there are the less outwardly apparent problems of unspoken family troubles, secrets, and the difficulties in maintaining the facade of perfection. Kate is, of course, immediately smitten with Tully’s reckless attitude, her penchant for trouble, and her ability to smoke in front of adults. And Tully is drawn to Kate’s steady kindness, her loyalty, and her openness. They forge what appears to be a friendship that will stand the test of time. They’re there for each through all the successes and failures. They cheer each other on and prop each other up. And they squabble and disagree.
We watch them grow, go to college together (where they’re now played by Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke), and eventually secure jobs at a small television station working for Johnny Ryan (Ben Lawson ), a man with big dreams of doing real reporting who’s stuck producing mostly local news fluff pieces for reasons that I never fully grasped. He’s also pulled between Kate, who develops an instant crush on him and his extremely bad hair, and Tully, who shares his zeal for adventure and dedication to getting the story out no matter what. Tully dreams of becoming an anchor with Kate as her producer. It’s unclear if Kate is really in on the dream or is just pulled along in Tully’s wake. Kate spends an inordinate amount of time bringing Johnny food, coffee, and packages.
Is it strange that Heigl and Chalke play the characters from age 18 onward? Definitely, though I get the choice from a star power perspective. (Though it has nothing on Beau Garrett, who is 38 in real life—so, younger than both Heigl and Chalke—still playing Tully’s mother in the scenes set in the 2000s. Her face looks stiff with all the aging makeup they used.) A lot of the scenes in the 80s feel a bit like watching sketch comedy where forty-something-year-old Tully and Kate are playing their younger selves in over-the-top costumes and wigs.
There’s also a lot of focus in this time period on Kate’s unresolved jealousy toward Tully. She’s hurt by how fascinated her family is with Tully’s achievements while they seem to overlook Kate’s. On the one hand, I love the honesty that long-term friendships can be turbulent and difficult as people’s needs and boundaries grow and change. But, on the other hand, I wanted to reach through the screen and beg Kate to just be honest about her feelings. Tully seems so blithely unaware of why Kate might be envious or hurt by her actions—like when she and Johnny end up dancing together at a bar—that I started to wonder how attentive a friend she really is. Honestly, Tully and Kate harbor enough secrets and resentments that perhaps their friendship could do with some couples therapy.
During this time period there’s also the matter of Tully’s affair with Chad (Patrick Sabongui), her journalism professor. They first hook up after he explains how, and I’m paraphrasing here, she needs to eye-fuck the television audience and then tells her that he ignores her in class because she’s so smart and he’s attracted to her, which OH MY FUCKING FUCK, NO, TULLY DO NOT FALL FOR THAT BULLSHIT LINE, AND IF IT’S NOT A LINE THEN IT’S A CLEAR SIGN THAT HE IS NOT QUALIFIED TO TEACH. The relationship is pitched as consensual and that Tully is so sure of herself that the age and power difference doesn’t matter, but come on! We live in an era where we’re constantly reckoning with the ways in which men have gotten away with abusing their positions of power, usually to the detriment of women. And they’re just going to drop this relationship into the plot without even trying to reckon with its larger societal ramifications except for a few comments from Kate? He and Tully have an on again off again relationship for years past college, and he eventually reappears in her life happily married with children. And the point isn’t if this fictional relationship could have been consensual and good (which, in my opinion, it actually couldn’t have been because see above about his reasons for not calling on her), the point is what it represents, and what it represents is—and I’m saying it again for the people in the back—men abusing their positions of power.
Eventually, Tully makes it big as the host of the national talk show “The Girlfriend Hour.” Kate marries Johnny Ryan and leaves work to raise their daughter. By the early 2000s Kate and Johnny’s marriage is failing, their now fourteen-year-old daughter is rebelling, and Kate is still unsure of who she wants to be. Tully is wealthy, but seemingly miserable with her show, which she is somehow surprised to find focuses more on makeovers and less on war. Tully ends up falling for a younger man (Jon-Michael Ecker)—with, please do note, a Genetically Blessed Face ™—who she thought would only be a one night stand, and reconsiders her commitment to never commit to a romantic relationship. Kate and Johnny seem to have separated because they’re both trying to live out some excitement they feel they missed during the last fourteen years. Kate’s connection to Tully lands her a job working for a younger boss named Kimber (Jenna Rosenow) who seems to think the only thing grosser than aging is…Nope. I’m pretty sure she thinks aging is the grossest thing.
They’re in that middle-age space where they’re trying to figure out what will make them happy. They’re looking back and wondering what they could have become if they’d made other choices, and they’re looking ahead to decide what they want going forward. All of which I like to see in a series so much, but was undercut here by the frenzied timeline.
For sure, I think the show could have worked better if they hadn’t made the choice to chop up all the various storylines into tiny pieces and then pelt them at the viewer like confetti. It makes it extremely difficult to connect with the characters. Every time I felt like I was getting a grip on a certain aspect it would slip away only to maybe pop back up again without any context. So, even though there were some really touching moments addressing things like miscarriage, sexual assault, sexism, marriage, sexuality, and relationships they all felt disconnected and isolated. Like they were so many very short films strung together. Or a movie made of advertisements for greeting cards or yogurt or arthritis medicine or trailers for other series. It never felt like we got to really explore and understand Tully and Kate as the complete, messy, flawed, interesting, and devoted women that the series keeps promising they are. We just kind of have to take their word for it? And, even though I find both Heigl and Chalke appealing actresses, that’s ultimately not enough for me.
Honestly, I feel like my thoughts on this show are as scattered as the storyline. I’ve been banging my head against this computer screen for hours and hours trying to figure out how to put into words how I liked the idea of the series more than the execution. About how I liked that it brought in important issues, like sexism in the workplace and sexual harassment and assualt, but was disappointed that, aside from pointing them out, it never really did anything with them. About how excited I was for a series that would focus on how vital and affirming women’s deep friendships can be, but that what I got was a story built entirely around the idea that Tully and Kate are “Firefly Lane Girls Forever,” which just isn’t enough. (And also gets to be a super annoying phrase when used as many times as it is in this series.) About how I liked the ways they needed each other and grew and changed together, but was irked by the number of ways I felt it also danced too close to some negative stereotypes about women’s friendships. It did have enough substance and intrigue to keep me watching, but the finale left me with even more questions and frustrations. Obviously, if there’s a second season (which is likely) I will watch it and I will want to like it, but I’m not sure I can withstand another ten episodes of time travel whiplash and half-filled promises.