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‘Firefly Lane’: Flashback gimmicks mar Netflix’s well-acted saga of friendship that lasts

Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke are terrific together as childhood BFFs who keep bonding and bickering through adulthood.

Katherine Heigl (left) and Sarah Chalke play their characters in their 20s in some “Firefly Lane” scenes set in the 1980s.
Netflix

The flashback has been an integral instrument in the filmmaker’s toolbox since the early 1900s and has been famously used in movies and TV shows from “Citizen Kane” to “Pulp Fiction” to “Twin Peaks” to “Lost,” but it can be overused to the point of distraction — and unfortunately that’s the case with the Netflix series “Firefly Lane,” which careens back and forth between three main timelines with such frequency and often with such heavy-handed stylistic touches, it actually undercuts the dramatic impact of this well-made, well-acted and well-intentioned emotional rollercoaster of a story.

Another problem with the plethora of flashbacks: The transitions are often clunky and obvious, e.g., a character wipes the steam off the bathroom mirror and studies her face — and we see the same character performing the same bit of physical business 20 years apart.

Based on Kristin Hannah’s bestselling 2008 novel of the same name, “Firefly Lane” expands upon the original material over the course of 10 episodes (I’ve seen all of Season 1) but remains faithful to the core story about Tully (Katherine Heigl) and Kate (Sarah Chalke), two women who have been best friends since they became neighbors as incoming high school freshmen in the 1970s. In each episode, we witness pivotal moments in their lives when they were teenagers, when they were in their early 20s, and in the year 2003 when they’re in their 40s and facing multiple existential crises — some bringing them closer together, others threatening to end their bond forever.

(Ali Skovbye plays the teenage Tully while Roan Curtis is the younger Kate. Heigl and Chalke play the characters in ‘present day,’ i.e., 2003, and in the flashbacks when they were just starting their lives as adults — and we believe them in both timelines. In an interview with Parade magazine, Heigl credits “some decent CGI and … pretty filters” with helping her to convincingly look 20.)

Tully (played as a teen by Ali Skovbye) and Kate (Roan Curtis) meet as incoming high school freshman.
Netflix

In the 1970s sequences, complete with spot-on wardrobe and interior design, Tully Hart is a seemingly self-confident, beautiful wild child who lives with her irresponsible, often drugged-out hippie mother who has renamed herself Cloud (Beau Garrett), while Kate Mularkey (yes, her last name sounds just like “malarkey”) is a wallflower nerd with comically oversized glasses and what appears to be a much more stable home environment — though there are a couple of monumental secrets in the Mularkey household that will eventually come to light. Tully barely notices Kate when she and her mother move in across the street, but Tully soon learns Kate has a big heart and a fierce protective streak, and the seeds of a lifelong bond are planted.

For most of their adult lives, Tully is the career-driven star — first as a Seattle TV reporter, then as the host of an Oprah-esque daytime talk show titled “The Girlfriend Hour,” which has brought Tully fame and fortune but has hardly satisfied her desire to make a difference. (“I can’t believe we’re doing another makeover show, there’s a war on,” laments Tully.) In the meantime, Kate has put her own journalistic ambitions on hold for the last decade-plus to concentrate on raising her daughter Marah (Yael Yurman) with her husband Ryan (Ben Lawson), a dashing producer-correspondent who has known both women since their early days in the TV game. In the 2003 timeline, Tully surprises herself when a fling with a twentysomething EMT (Jon Ecker) turns into something more serious, while Kate is coming to terms with the fact her marriage seems to be over.

Scenes set in 2003 depict the two women (Katherine Heigl, left, and Sarah Chalke) in their 40s and still best friends.
Netflix

Heigl and Chalke are terrific together and convincingly depict a complicated, loving, sometimes rocky relationship in which they’re always there for one another — except for the times when they wound each other in ways only best friends can sometimes do. They’re three-dimensional characters in a series where many of the supporting figures, including Kate’s husband and Tully’s mother, are relatively thinly drawn and not particularly compelling.

This is a good-looking show that relies heavily on the kinds of cliffhangers we’ve seen on episodic network TV dramas for decades. The music budget alone is impressive, given we hear songs such as “Crazy” by Patsy Cline when things get crazy, “Never Tear Us Apart” by INXS when it appears Kate and Tully will be torn apart, and “The Air That I Breathe” when Cloud is getting stoned. But when I hear “This Woman’s Work” by Kate Bush, I immediately think of a climactic sequence in “She’s Having a Baby,” and when I hear “Coming Around Again” by Carly Simon during a pregnancy montage, I DEFINITELY think of “Heartburn,” the film for which Simon wrote the song. As is the case with the gimmicky and ubiquitous flashback transitions, we’re taken out of the story and feel removed from the proceedings, just when we should be deeply involved.