What would you get if you applied the multiple-timeline formula of “This Is Us” to a story of a decades-long friendship?
Something exactly like “Firefly Lane.”
The emotionally satisfying and soul-nourishing if somewhat-drawn-out dramedy series debuting on Netflix this week is an adaptation of the 2008 book of the same name by prolific novelist Kristin Hannah, who’s credited as a co-executive producer.
The series stars Katherine Heigl (“Knocked Up,” “Grey’s Anatomy”) as outgoing-and-assertive TV news reporter-turned-hugely famous daytime talk show host Tully and Sarah Chalke (“Scrubs,” “Roseanne”) as Kate, her charmingly awkward and extremely loyal best friend.
However, there are three major timelines, and while Heigl and Chalke are convincing enough as the younger adult versions of themselves from their college days to the early part of their careers, as well as the early 2000s-set present day, we also get a good helping of Ali Skovbye (“The Gourmet Detective,” “The Man in the High Castle”) and Roan Curtis (“The Magicians,” “Before I Fall”) as the teen versions of Tully and Kate, respectively.
The performances of the four actresses, along with showrunner Maggie Friedman (“Eastwick,” “Witches of East End”) and other series writers, contribute to make this a friendship well worth experiencing.
This friendship isn’t all that out of the ordinary in many ways — the women share successes and failures, challenges and accomplishments and are there for each other when it comes to the opposite sex — even if they let at least one man come between them.
However, what stands out about “Firefly Lane,” again and again, is that while Tully is the bigger success — and the woman more likely to turn heads when the pair walks into a room — she doesn’t take Kate for granted. This isn’t the popular girl with the completely adoring sidekick. At least, not exactly.
If anything, Tully is needy and knows it. In the present-day timeline, Tully lovingly scolds Kate for not being reachable by phone for an entire day. It was too much for her, she says.
But Tully also is there for Kate, again and again, through the years, from defending her from bullies in the school hallway to trying to help her with her frustrated teen daughter, Marah (Yael Yurman, “The Man in the High Castle”).
Marah blames her mother for the fact her parents are heading toward a divorce.
The multiple-timeline format results in us knowing early on Kate eventually will marry the tall, dark, handsome and Aussie-accented Johnny Ryan (Ben Lawson, “13 Reasons Why”). Always longing to be a real newsman again, the compelling Johnny first serves as Kate and Tully’s boss at a Seattle TV station and later as the producer of Tully’s show. He flirts with both of them at various times in the TV-news days, but we know he’ll land with Kate.
Perhaps that’s the downside of this type of storytelling. The upside is the thematic ideas and echoing incidents the writers can explore inside an episode with the way they play the timelines off each other.
Plus, all the jumping around in time — including to the furthest chronological point we see, when a major event is taking place — allows for suspense to be built. From the moment this event is shown — briefly, in the fourth episode, “Love Is a Battlefield” — we’re desperate to know the details surrounding it.
The show is named after the street where the girls lived and became the closest of friends. It’s where Kate worries her mother, Margie (Chelah Horsdal, “The Man in the High Castle”), is cheating on her father, Bud (Paul McGillion, “Stargate: Atlantis”), and where Tully’s hippie mom, Cloud (Beau Garrett, “The Good Doctor”), grows increasingly dependent on drugs.
“My mom was the (expletive) mom in the entire world — look how I turned out,” middle-aged Tully jokes as Kate worries she’s failing Marah.
The initial days of their friendship bring with them some very cute moments, by the way — if also a traumatic experience for one of the girls.
As “Firefly Lane” proceeds, its universe expands to include Max (Jon Ecker, “Queen of the South”), the handsome EMT with whom Tully becomes entangled despite the fact he’s much younger than she, and Travis (Brandon Jay McLaren, “Ransom”), a single dad with whom Kate’s developed a chemistry from PTA meetings.
Speaking of chemistry, both tandems — Chalke and Heigl, Curtis and Skovbye — play nicely off each other. The standout of the series, however, is Chalke, so perfectly cast as a woman who can project strong and sexy, as well as insecure and clumsy. Her version of Kate has a knack for turning many a simple situation into a complete disaster, and you simply love her for it.
Despite all it has going for it, “Firefly Lane” grows a bit repetitive.
Ten episodes feels about two too many — especially considering Netflix obviously hopes to squeeze out at least another season out of the book. (Reading a synopsis of Hannah’s novel suggests there’s plenty more meat on this bone and, seemingly, explains the shrouded-in-mystery cliffhanger we’re left with at the aforementioned major event.)
It’s hard to believe “Firefly Lane” wouldn’t have been a tighter, better show had the whole book been poured into one stand-alone season. That said, it’s also hard to dislike the idea of more Tully and Kate down the road a bit.