How Paula Pell’s Knee Replacement Led to Girls5eva’s Property Brother Beatdown

Photo: Peacock

The season-two finale of Girls5eva finds the titular girl group — Sara Bareilles as Dawn, Renée Elise Goldsberry as Wickie, Busy Philipps as Summer, and Paula Pell as Gloria — shaking off the bonds of music-industry machinations to navigate fame on their own terms. All it required was Gloria and Property Brother Drew Scott beating the crap out of each other.

“Every now and then I feel like I’m getting away with something,” says Girls5eva creator, showrunner, writer, and executive producer Meredith Scardino. “Is a lawyer from Universal gonna come in like, ‘Shut this all down! What is this lady up to?’ But when we first saw them punch each other, I was just delighted.”

In an episode full of grounded moments of self-actualization (Dawn’s pregnancy, Wickie admitting she’s in love, Summer standing up to her clingy ex), Gloria sending her reconstructed titanium kneecap into the HGTV heartthrob’s groin is an absurdist delight that encapsulates what Scardino describes as the series’ “heightened reality”: arch dialogue, endless tongue-in-cheek pop-culture references, outsize characters and personalities, and satirical treatment of celebrity. She wanted a brawl that felt brutal as well as believable, grounded in the characters’ season-long arcs. “Everyone’s going through their own period of growth,” Scardino explains, and for Gloria that means defending Girls5eva against their detractors. “She fantasizes about being the hero, and at the end of the season, she becomes the hero to get the truth out of them,” Pell says. “And the hilarious thing is the truth is not that exciting.”

When Scardino began the second season’s virtual writers’ room on August 1, 2021, real life quickly intruded: Pell, who had double-knee-replacement surgery in July 2016, needed to have a second procedure on her right knee after the implant collapsed earlier that summer. The months of recovery required meant she would still be healing when production started on season two that fall. “I thought, Oh my God, I’ve just screwed up the best thing that’s ever happened to me in my career,” says Pell, who “absolutely loved” singing and dancing in the first season’s performances and worried her injury would preclude her from doing that again.

But for Scardino and executive producers Tina Fey and Jeff Richmond (both of whom Pell worked with for years on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock), it was a narrative boon. “This is the exact thing that would happen to someone in the group. When you’re really hard on your body, it all comes back to bite you,” says Scardino. So as Pell went through the surgery and recovery process, the writers sketched out a season that involved Dawn, Summer, and Wickie rallying around Gloria after her knee injury, postponing a promotional cycle in favor of “album mode.” But their new label, run by home-improvement entrepreneurs Jonathan and Drew Scott, wants the album in six weeks, so the group hunkers down to frantically write and record, all while attempting to navigate personal dramas and debating whether an unforgiving industry deserves their talents and effort.

The decision to make Girls5eva sign to Property Records was born of Scardino’s long fascination with the HGTV mainstays and writers’ room discussions about which celebrity brands could believably venture into music (the twins also write and perform country music as the Scott Brothers). Though the room began drafting without knowing whether the brothers would actually appear on the show, Girls5eva executive producer Eric Gurian soon connected with the twins, who agreed to guest spots partially because of Jonathan’s affection for season-one song “I’m Afraid.” Scardino had a backup plan in case they declined, though: “No offense to Drew and Jonathan, but there’s a lot of guys that kind of look like them. We could try Adam Scott; we could try John Mulaney.”

Once Jonathan and Drew signed on, the latter sent a sampling of his talents, including a stunt reel that captivated Scardino. “My mouth was on the floor, like, I can’t believe I’m watching one of the Property Brothers destroy multiple assailants in a stuntman’s backyard for two minutes,” Scardino says, laughing. “I was like, ‘Can we license this somehow? How do we use this? It’s gold.’”

Girls5eva did in fact license the video, and it reorganized the end of the season to include appearances by the Scotts. In the finale, they tell Girls5eva via Zoom that they’ve lost a tour spot to labelmate Co-Z Boi (Alex Hazen Floyd) despite the four putting their “blood, sweat, and knees” into the album. An unsympathetic Drew tells them, “Life isn’t a wish machine. You don’t always get to do the exact thing you’re best at. For me, it’s this,” and subjects them to his “fight reel.” Infuriated and unconvinced, Gloria decides to get to the bottom of the brothers’ refusal. Using clues from their video call to determine that “Mr. and Mr. Property” are not in Toronto as they claim but actually filming in New York City, she rushes to their set and challenges Drew to a fight for the truth.

Once the finale script from Scardino and co-writer Sam Nulman was drafted, Scardino shared it and Drew’s reel with Pell. Her initial response to learning that she would fight one of the Property Brothers — after “Ha ha ha ha ha” — was, “I should lift him up by the groin. He’s got skills.” (Scardino reads this text exchange with unbridled excitement.) The script also went to Kimmy Gatewood, who directed two episodes of the first season of Girls5eva and returned for the final two of season two. The director is used to the creative challenges the show inspires — she speaks fondly of working with Sesame Street, which shot in the studio next door, to create an operational hermit-crab-with-baby-doll-head puppet for the Tampa apartment of Summer’s ex Kevin (Andrew Rannells) — and jumped at the opportunity presented in the script’s “half-inch” description of the fight scene. A self-described “huge Tom Cruise action-movie fan” who did her own stunts when she acted on GLOW, Gatewood had long wanted to branch into directing action, and here was a sequence wide open to her interpretation.

Gatewood and her crew spent five days preparing the set for the single day the Property Brothers would film. Production designer Teresa Mastropierro designed and built the kitchen where Gloria ambushes Drew and Jonathan in the middle of a renovation reveal; props included a candy-glass window, plastic oranges, and a foam charcuterie board and cookbook (titled Salt Fat Gristle Sinew, Nulman’s parody of Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat). Gatewood pulled on her GLOW experience to feed stunt coordinator Derrick Simmons fight details — the headlock was her idea, while Scardino suggested weaponizing the boom mic — and Simmons turned around a video tutorial of the choreography in 48 hours. Storyboard artist Wes Simpkins provided a 39-shot illustration of the sequence for Gatewood to use day-of as guidance, with a few details (like who should throw the first punch) remaining flexible until Pell met Drew for the first time on set.

Photo: Wes Simpkins/StoryboardNYC/NBCUniversal
Photo: Wes Simpkins/StoryboardNYC/NBCUniversal

After four seasons of doing her own stunts on A.P. Bio, Pell was determined to perform in the fight scene. (“It’s probably why I’ve had a series of three knee replacements, because I don’t listen to the safety of my body,” she jokes.) She spoke with Gatewood about how the camera could emphasize that she was really doing the punching, shoving, and knife brandishing. “As an actor, I love working with actors [on stunts] because the more an actor can own a moment, the better the scene will be,” Gatewood says.

When the day arrived, “there was a buzz on set because the whole season has led up to this moment,” Gatewood says. Pell and the Property Brothers (“They’re six-four, so it’s like I came up to their testicles,” says five-two Pell) went over the scene with Pell’s stunt double, Tina Mckissick, and Drew’s stunt double, Scott Hoffman, and walked through how to divide the action between the actors and the stunt doubles. Pell and Drew decided to do most of the work themselves — “I would say 90 percent,” Gatewood says of Pell’s contributions — and Simmons, who cameoed in the scene as the boom-mic operator, was on hand for questions. Gatewood consulted with the camera operators and cinematographer John G. Inwood to confirm a handheld shooting style would closely track the action. Then it was time to film the scene the Girls5eva crew had worked so hard to make a “dirty bar-room kind of thing and not a comedy fight,” Scardino says.

The result is funny but not in the slapstick-y, Three Stooges way Scardino feared. The fight’s humor comes from Pell’s and the Property Brothers’ chemistry: Pell’s pointedly aggressive tone, the long pause before Drew punches her back for the first time, and the way Jonathan, observing from the side, mutters, “Kill him, do it, please.” The camera moves smoothly around the kitchen, tracking Drew as he flies backward from Gloria’s uppercut, and McKissick as she rolls over the kitchen island in place of Pell. There’s a helpless silliness to Gloria throwing an orange at Drew, then a glint of real danger when she grabs a knife from a drawer that flies out of a cabinet. Though the sequence was tightly plotted, both fighters found opportunities for improv: Drew snarling “Do you yield?” as he pushes Gloria against the kitchen island and her “Eat shit, modern Jesus!” response. (“He had that kind of dark, cute beard, and he’s kind of beloved, and I just thought: Jesus,” Pell deadpans.)

At the end of the fight, after Gloria triumphantly knees Drew with a “That’s titanium, motherfucker!” rejoinder, she learns the Property Brothers passed over Girls5eva for a tour spot not because of sexism or agism, but because they were too good. Drew and Jonathan want the crowd to be bored by the opener so they buy drinks and Property Brothers merch like cedar-plank-salmon-scented hammers, and unlike Girls5eva, who are pursuing their dreams, “this is a business venture for us,” the Scotts explain. (“All she cared about was getting the answer. She got the answer and then she probably shook their hand when she left,” Pell says. “She was probably like, ‘You’re very, very handsome in real life.’”) The truth at first disappoints but ultimately inspires Gloria, Wickie, Summer, and Dawn to organize their own tour, and the season concludes with them singing “Big Pussy Energy” as they hit the road. It’s the next step in what Pell describes as a “joyful” journey of friendship and camaraderie, and it wouldn’t have happened without Gloria getting the opportunity to “beat up some very tall men.”

“That fight scene really reminded me that bodies heal, emotions heal. In life, I’ve learned that lesson many times. My tattoo is ‘No feeling is final,’ from a Rilke poem,” Pell says, pointing to her arm. “It felt very uplifting to, after the first episode coming in with the cane and trying to write in the fact that I was still rehabbing my knee, at the end flying across the room like, Yeah, I’m sturdy and strong, and so is my character, and we’re going out with a bang.”

How Girls5eva Tackled Paula Pell’s Property Brother Beatdown