Television

A Complete Guide to Firefly Lane’s Extremely Goofy Timelines

Netflix’s Katherine Heigl hit never lets you forget when you are.

Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke in '80s style wardrobe and hair in the show Firefly Lane.
Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke in Firefly Lane. Netflix

In Netflix’s soapy new Katherine Heigl–Sarah Chalke show, Firefly Lane, the story begins in the ’70s, when bell-bottom-wearing, Leif Garrett–worshipping teenagers Tully and Kate become neighbors on the show’s eponymous street and, before long, best friends. The audience follows Tully and Kate through college and the early days of their careers in the ’80s, before catching back up with them in 2003. But we don’t have to wait for the end of the season to arrive in the new millennium; instead, the episodes jump around in time, employing Gen Z actresses Ali Skovbye and Roan Curtis to play the girls as teens but otherwise letting Heigl and Chalke, along with a whole lotta hairstyling and costuming, handle college through middle age.

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In reviews, critics have questioned whether it was a good idea for the show to trade in the chronological simplicity of its source material, a novel of the same name by Kristin Hannah, for a structure that skips back and forth through time. Oh, so it only works for you people when Greta Gerwig does it? OK, maybe Firefly Lane isn’t exactly Little Women, but to its credit, it knows it; a better comparison might be the decade-spanning drama of Beaches, crossed with the gimmicky decade-hopping of the still-fun Definitely, Maybe. NPR’s Linda Holmes wrote that “it’s hard not to suspect [the structure’s] actual purpose is to make sure the famous actresses who take over in the roles are in the show from the beginning,” a convincing argument especially given Netflix’s emphasis on hooking audiences in the first two minutes. So how does the show make sure the viewer knows what time period we’re supposed to be in during any given scene, without the aid of Florence Pugh’s bangs or whether [redacted sister] is alive to help us muddle through? The answer, of course, is through occasionally very clumsy cultural references to the year we’re supposed to be in. Here, we’ve rounded up some of our favorites.

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Katherine Heigl as her character in Firefly Lane in a blue coat signing autographs.
Netflix

“I can’t believe we’re doing another makeover show. There’s a war on!”

When are we? 2003, of course.

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In her 40s, Tully is a famous talk show host, Seattle’s answer to Oprah, with a show called The Girlfriend Hour. But she’s conflicted about it—is she really doing fluffy makeovers when there’s this whole quagmire of a situation in the Middle East!? Her producer is even considering leaving the show to cover the war. Later that day, Tully tells a story on air about a woman who collapsed buying a Christmas ham: “The fast-paced world of 2003 almost killed her.”

Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke sitting at a desk, looking bewildered, with Farrah Fawcett–style hair
Netflix

Farrah Fawcett hair

When are we? The ’80s.

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With Heigl’s character, Firefly Lane gave us the small mercy of having 2003 Tully wear her hair in a bob, to make it easier to distinguish her from ’80s Tully. No such luck with Sarah Chalke as Kate, who has long blond hair in both decades. Eighties Tully’s hair is curly and a little overdone but not unsightly by today’s standards, which I think is why ’80s Kate takes one for the team and rocks a full Farrah Fawcett mane. Don’t worry, she accents it with some hideous pussy bows and, at one point, an even hideous-er pink bridesmaid’s dress with history’s poofiest sleeves.

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Young Tully and Kate in Firefly Lane
Netflix

Mood rings

When are we? The ’70s.

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Hey, just because Firefly Lane drew the line at letting Heigl and Chalke play actual teenagers doesn’t mean its ’70s references are any more elegant than its callouts to other time periods. For instance, can you think of a more perfect way for a teenage girl in the 1970s to communicate to her date that she is getting cold at an outdoor kegger than by telling him her mood ring is turning purple? No, because there isn’t one. At the same party, Tully tells said date admiringly that she thinks he looks like Ryan O’Neal.

Compact discs (and casual racism)

When are we? The ’80s.

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When Tully and Kate toil together in local news in their 20s, they work on a segment about CDs, described as a “solution coming straight from the exotic Orient”—Japan, where players cost $1,000—that “might look like something from the year 2000.” To further lay on the irony, a newscaster they both loathe calls the discs “scratch-proof” and “practically indestructible.”

Barely there hair

When are we? The ’70s.

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Nair kicked off its famous “Nair for Short Shorts!” campaign in the ’70s, so any show about teenagers in the ’70s would be incomplete without a depilatory bonding scene.

Frusen Glädjé

When are we? 2003, believe it or not.

Kate and Tully don’t actually enjoy Frusen Glädjé, a premium ice-cream brand whose heyday was the 1980s, in 2003—they just reminisce about it while on a rare night on the town, one that’s intercut with scenes of their more frequent partying in the ’80s.

Pledge Week 1980

When are we? Duh, 1980.

The problem with introducing the girls’ college years into the narrative a few episodes in was that the show would now be adding a third time period when it was already kind of difficult to tell whether we were supposed to be in the girls’ 20s or 40s. The solution? Slap a “Pledge Week 1980” sign onto a bulletin board Tully and Kate walk past: totally transforms any actors in the vicinity into convincing college students.

MySpace, Napster, and “In Da Club”

When are we? 2003.

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When middle-aged Kate gets separated from her husband after having spent the last decade or so out of the workforce, she decides to pursue a job at a local magazine, Seattle Digest. The editor interviewing her, who is of course several years her junior, is dubious, claiming that the journalism biz has changed since the ’80s and that she wants someone who’s “in the mix.” You can’t argue with Kate’s response: Would someone who’s not “in the mix” be hip enough to reference MySpace, which didn’t even become popular until the following year? I think not.

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Young Tully and Kate in the 1970s in Netflix's Firefly Lane
Netflix

“Pressure for Nixon to resign is mounting … ”

When are we? The ’70s.

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When you’re not confident that a color palette consisting mostly of browns will do the trick on its own, nothing like some good old newscaster blather about the most ’70s event that ever ’70sed in the background to set the scene.

Axel as a baby name

When are we? The ’80s.

When Kate is pregnant, her husband insists they are not naming their kid after a character from Beverly Hills Cop—but she meant Axl like from Guns N’ Roses, she clarifies. However, they’re not sure it’s going to be a boy; “Madonna” is also suggested.

“This little baby is state of the art. It looks like a regular cellphone, but with one very special addition. It takes photos!”

When are we? 2003.

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In The Girlfriend Hour’s knockoff of “Oprah’s Favorite Things,” Tully tells her audience members to look under their seats for their very own rhinestone-encrusted flip phones—that you could … take! Photos! On! “I know! Can you believe that?”

A Jazzercise shoot in Netflix's Firefly Lane.
Netflix

Jazzercise

When are we? The ’80s.

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Kate and Tully are determined to move up the ranks in their local news jobs, and they finally think they’ve found a story strong enough to get on air. How do they do it? One of the biggest workout crazes of the decade provides a crucial assist when a friend from class gives them a tip.

Sarah Chalke's character in Firefly Lane shopping for Spanx
Netflix

Spanx

When are we? 2003.

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As Kate’s quest to find herself while she’s separated continues, she visits a department store and is sold on the greatest shapewear innovation of the 2000s (though they were technically invented in 1998). As a saleswoman explains, “They’re amazing. They even have a little slot for you to pee through.”

“I’m trying to be a go-getter woman of the ’80s, and I’m going exactly nowhere and I’m getting sick of it.”

When are we? The ’80s.

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Like any good ’80s Lady, Tully has big hair, big career ambitions to go with it, and the on-the-nose dialogue to prove it. Another choice example from a different episode: “Everyone’s always coming up with reasons why you can’t have what you want. It’s on you to just keep coming up with better ones for why you can. That’s what it takes to make it in the ’80s.”

“Do you wanna come over? Watch American Idol?”

When are we? 2003.

When it’s the early 2000s and your relationship with your husband suffered because you “stopped kissing sometime after 9/11—[you] both got too depressed,” so you’re having an emotional affair with one of the fathers from your daughter’s school and you want to take things to the next level … well, there’s really only one thing to say.

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