The first time we see Katherine Heigl in the new Netflix series “Firefly Lane,” she’s bemoaning a makeover. Playing an Oprah-adjacent host of her own wildly popular daytime talk show, she resents doing yet another hour of television dedicated to a woman coming out the other side transformed.
The exasperation is well-earned given Heigl herself has been at the center of many such a montage. During her reign as the mid-aughts rom-com queen, the actress was put through the genre’s gantlet: mastering the pratfall, breaking out into song, falling in love and, yes, even becoming prey to a pair of vibrating underwear.
But for all that she gave us ― I dare anyone not to be the slightest bit charmed by this “27 Dresses” scene ― Hollywood quickly tooketh away. Long before the Hathahate, Heigl was an early victim of a particularly misogynistic strain of what we’d now most commonly refer to as cancel culture. She was branded a villain for reportedly being “difficult” during her time on “Grey’s Anatomy,” a reputation that was compounded by comments she made about “Knocked Up” being a “little bit sexist.” Essentially shunned for being outspoken and, in retrospect, absolutely correct, Heigl never found the same level of success in film again, as public approval soured and box office returns dwindled.
Appearing most recently in a string of short-lived procedural dramas, the sun had mostly set on her rom-com career, until “Firefly Lane” came calling.
Based on the bestselling book of the same name, the series is first and foremost a love story ― except this time it’s between two best friends, Tully and Kate, played by Heigl and “Scrubs” alum Sarah Chalke. Tracing their relationship over three decades, “Firefly Lane” takes a “This Is Us” approach to storytelling, dropping in on pivotal moments in the characters’ lives and mapping an emotional landscape for their passions, failures, struggles and triumphs. The result is a hugely satisfying, albeit frequently cheesy, viewing experience that gives Heigl her best role in years.
“There was no saying no to this one for me,” Heigl recently told HuffPost in an interview. “If I had said no, it would’ve kept me up at night for years, so I had to sit down with my family and explain that I’m gonna uproot their lives once more because I have been waiting for a long time to tell a story like this.”
The series, which Heigl also executive produced, “felt to me like it had the heart of the best parts of a romantic comedy,” she said, “but with the depth of what I feel like being in my 40s.”
“A perspective and experience that changes how you see things, what you value and where you’re gonna put the time and energy in,” she added. “That’s Tully.”
A career-driven news woman who’s largely uninterested in love, Tully could easily be mistaken for a carbon-copy of Heigl’s prior roles ― she played an aspiring E! News host in “Knocked Up” and a morning show producer in “The Ugly Truth.” But “Firefly Lane” dedicates just as much screen time to getting the guy as it does getting the job over its 10-episode season, serving almost as a meta-progression of her past rom-com protagonists. It’s like the creators plucked one of Heigl’s thinly drawn heroines from their relatively one-dimensional existences and dropped them into a show that’s constantly questioning what happily ever after looks like for women.
“We all worked really hard to keep these characters as realistic and honest as possible and not too shiny, glossy and perfect,” Heigl said, with Chalke adding that they both “got out of our comfort zones because we wanted to make [the show] as authentic as we could.”
“[Tully] is so unapologetic and just so openly ambitious,” Heigl continued about her own character. “It’s one of those things that we’ve innately been taught as women that that’s unattractive or makes you not appealing. Tully just doesn’t care. I think that’s so refreshing and exciting.”
While men come and go (in various states of undress, may we add), Tully and Kate’s friendship is forever. Since finding love isn’t the fulcrum at which their worlds turn, the series instead grafts the will-they-won’t-they stakes of a typical rom-com onto their relationship. Will finding fame and success drive them apart? Can they stay just as close when one has a baby? How will they bounce back after a devastating lie? The season even ends (spoiler alert!) with a cliffhanger about the state of their friendship, as it’s revealed in a flash-forward that the two are no longer on speaking terms. Presumably, a yet-to-be-ordered second season will continue to answer many of these questions by examining the characters’ wants and needs apart from a simple romance plot.
While we’ve seen female friendship explored on-screen in this vein before ― think “Beaches” or “Now and Then” ― it’s still far too unusual, which proved to be a major selling point for both the leads.
“For me, this one was a no-brainer because it’s so rare that you find all the elements,” Chalke said. “I love that the whole show was based on these women and their incredible friendship. It’s not a story that we see told on television.”
And, ultimately, who better to tell it than Netflix? The streaming giant has spearheaded the rom-com resurgence after Hollywood largely abandoned them over the past decade. By remixing old conventions, Netflix has made the rom-com cool again thanks to films like “Someone Great,” “Always Be My Maybe” and “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.” Like “Firefly Lane,” each relies on well-worn pleasure centers, but presents them in new, genre-busting ways.
While Heigl may be considered the old guard, she’s perhaps more primed than anyone to join the rom-com revolution, especially at Netflix, which already caters to nostalgia-driven tastes. And despite the genre’s every-changing tides, let it be known it was never her choice to jump ship in the first place.
“Taking a step back from romantic comedies was more because the fans were over it,” Heigl said, laughing. “I was gonna do them forever, man. That’s my jam.”
“Firefly Lane” begins streaming on Feb. 3 on Netflix.