‘Girls5eva’ Is a Sharp, Surreal and Delightfully Nutty Joke Machine

GIRLS5EVA — Pictured (l-r) Busy Philipps as Summer, Sara Bareilles as Dawn, Renée Elise Goldsberry as Wickie, Paula Pell as Gloria — (Photo by: Heidi Gutman/Peacock)

NBC Universal’s smaller, startup streaming service Peacock is, so far regarded by most as that place where The Office now lives after Netflix lost the rights. Since its April 2020 launch, Peacock has released some noteworthy original programming, including a better than expected Saved By the Bell reboot and continuations of canceled NBC sitcoms like AP Bio. There have also been some pretty solid late night talk shows and documentaries available exclusively on the service, but nothing has really stood out in the crowded world of streaming like the show I’m going to be talking about today.

Girls5eva, the latest sitcom from executive producers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, feels much more like a spiritual successor to 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt than Fey’s current show, Mr. Mayor. It’s a return to the wacky, surrealist comedy she’s known for but it’s also a surprisingly sincere story about female friendship and the relationships in life that endure, elevated by a pitch-perfect cast with impeccable comedic chemistry.

Girls5eva tells the story of a one-hit-wonder girl group from the late ‘90s/early ‘00s who were brought together by talent managers and didn’t really know each other at all. In the present day, a rapper samples the hit that defined their short career. This brings Girls5eva’s four remaining members (one died a hilarious death) back together in an effort to give their dreams of stardom one more shot.

Dawn (Sara Bareilles) is the grounded, stable one of the group – a frazzled small business owner, wife and mother who’s the first to suggest the gang get back together. Summer (Busy Philipps) is still married to boy band mate of the same era, the super closeted Kev (Andrew Rannells), and this relationship has some serious issues. Gloria (Paula Pell) currently works as a dentist and has been taking care of her elderly father ever since her divorce. And Wickie (Renee Elise Goldsberry) creates the illusion she lives a very glamourous life on social media, meanwhile she works at an airport in suburban California.

The fact that none of the women of Girls5eva have seen each other in 20 years and also they never knew each other that well to begin with, allows for some great comedy as the gang gets re-acquainted and start going after potential gigs. Each woman brings something very distinctly funny to the group and they complement each other very nicely. The writing seems to have just the right amount of affinity for teen pop music of the early 2000s, with a bit of an eye-roll as well. A big part of the show is about how the pop culture industry finds young women disposable, and it’s interesting to watch in contrast to the recent Britney Spears and Paris Hilton documentaries. The late-90s media satire is really biting and clever but sometimes quite bleak.

This is Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles’ first screen acting gig, previously taking the lead on Broadway in the musical adaptation of the 2007 film Waitress, for which she composed the music. I saw Bareilles perform this on Broadway back in 2017 and was thoroughly impressed with her comedic timing and stage presence, beyond the singing, which she obviously nails. She has a fairly strong screen presence as well. You get the idea Tina Fey herself would be playing Dawn if she could sing, because the character has a pretty strong Liz Lemon energy that Bareilles has some fun with. Being the most grounded and ‘relatable’ character, Bareilles isn’t given quite as many weird zingers to work with, but she’s also adding to what’s on the page. I’m hoping to see her continue this in a potential second season, because she definitely appears to have settled into the character by the time we reach the end.

Renee Elise Goldsberry is a Tony winner for Hamilton, a performance the whole world was lucky enough to witness when the show premiered on Disney+ last summer. I hadn’t really seen Goldsberry onscreen very much, so I’m completely amazed by how hysterically funny this woman is. She’s kind of playing the Jane Krakowski in 30 Rock type – the diva with the voice of an angel and intense delusions of grandeur. She’ll end a conversation by standing up, saying something dripping with melodrama and doing a hair flip before strutting away. I’m not sure how heavily written this show is and how much of it is improvised, but Goldsberry has the comic timing only stage performers do, and she’s an absolute hoot.

Busy Philipps has kind of played this role before – Summer reminds me a lot of Laurie from Cougar Town. However, that’s definitely not a bad thing and this character works to Philipps’ strengths as a comedic actor very well. However, she also does a really nice job with the moments where Summer has to be vulnerable – mainly in scenes where her sham marriage becomes obvious. Also, Andrew Rannells, who I always love to see, is kind of doing a caricature here, but that’s all this character is, so I can’t be too mad about it.

The standout of this fantastic group, however, is Paula Pell’s Gloria. Pell, who was a writer for Saturday Night Live for over twenty years, only recently made the transition to screen acting and I don’t know where she’s been all my life but now that she’s here I never ever want her to go away. Gloria is feisty, weird, deeply unhappy and riotously funny. The role was written with Pell in mind, and I’m so happy she took on this project. She falls into the trappings of the wacky one of the group, but Pell always knows exactly when to bring this character back down to earth. She’s doing truly outstanding work.

In the supporting cast, we have Ashley Park, who shows up in flashbacks as the deceased fifth member of Girls5eva. The show provides a stealth reunion for Fey’s Mean Girls musical, as Park is reunited with her costar Erika Henningsen, who plays a younger Gloria in flashbacks. Broadway vet Jonathan Hadary is also very funny as the group’s sleazy manager Larry, who nobody in the group wants to deal with anymore. We also have people like Vanessa Williams and SNL’s Bowen Yang popping up in guest appearances, and also the absolutely insane addition of Tina Fey playing Dawn’s hallucination of Dolly Parton. According to Fey, this was something that just kind of happened by accident on set that day, but I’m so happy it did. This episode allows for some of the show’s nuttiest laughs.

Courtesy of NBCUniversal/Peacock

This foursome is incredibly well-matched, but none of this would’ve come to life without the dizzyingly hilarious writing. The show is packed with the wall-to-wall zingers Tina Fey projects have become known for, continuing the tradition of 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Girls5eva is another case of maybe not every single gag landing, but the joke-machine writing style prevails over all, meaning that if one doesn’t hit you, the next probably will. Personally, I had to watch every episode twice because it’s all moving so fast, it’s impossible to catch every joke the first time.

Fey’s husband and 30 Rock and Kimmy Schmidt music composer Jeff Richmond returns to write the show’s music, and again, we’ve got some deeply catchy music including a theme song you won’t be able to get out of your head. Bareilles, however, is the solo credited writer of 4 Stars, a lovely tune that’s the culmination of all these characters work for all season. There is a soundtrack available for streaming on Spotify and I can’t imagine anyone watching this whole series and not wanting to download the music.

I deeply hope Peacock decides to renew Girls5eva for a second season. Part of me thinks, what else does it have? It would be crazy to dump a show with this kind of potential, but I’ve seen shows this great die after just one season. These women work so well together, it would be crazy not to see where they go next. And it’s also worth pointing out this show is absolutely worth getting a new streaming service for. There’s an infinite amount of laughs to enjoy, you’ll get your money’s worth from this show alone. You almost leave the show hoping these women form an actual girl-group and start performing together in earnest. I’d go see them on tour.

Girls5eva is streaming on Peacock now.

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