Girls5Eva is a comedy about the members of a turn-of-the-millennium girl group attempting to reclaim success as middle-aged women, a demographic society often prejudges as having passed their prime. In keeping with that spirit, I must advise viewers not to prejudge Girls5Eva based on its pilot, which debuts today on Peacock, along with the rest of the first season.
That first half-hour wobbles a bit as it attempts to introduce its four main characters — that would be Dawn (Sara Bareilles), Wickie (Renée Elise Goldsberry), Summer (Busy Philipps), and Gloria (Paula Pell) — while also explaining the backstory behind their group and setting up the pieces that will bring them back together circa 2021. Once all that premise establishment is taken care of, Girls5Eva is able to do what it does best: crank out joke after joke about the sometimes degrading and always ridiculous exercise of attempting to work in show business.
Created by Meredith Scardino, former writer for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and co-executive produced by — among others — Tina Fey, Robert Carlock, and Jeff Richmond, Girls5Eva very much shares the same genetic material as other Fey/Carlock/Richmond collaborations, including 30 Rock, Kimmy, and Great News. The show’s pop-culture-infused jokes are deployed at high speed. The protagonists are quirky, bumbling, and/or self-involved underdogs who somehow become worthy of championing despite their flaws. And every episode provides ample proof that the entertainment industry is filled with delusional dum-dums and wannabes — and those are the nice, somewhat normal people.
The normiest of normal people on Girls5Eva is Dawn (Bareilles), who was known as “the chill one” back in the day and is now a wife, mother, and employee at her brother’s restaurant. Her ambitions as a singer-songwriter get reignited after Girls5Eva’s lone hit, “Famous 5Eva” — “Gonna be famous 5eva / Cuz 4ever’s too short” — is sampled in a new track by hip-hop artist Lil Stinker (Jeremiah Craft). After distributing the resulting royalty checks to two of her group mates — Summer, living a life of luxury in a less-than-ideal marriage to former boy-bander Kev (Andrew Rannells), and Gloria, who has since become a dentist — Dawn and the others learn from their shady former manager that Jimmy Fallon wants them to back up Lil Stinker on The Tonight Show. They agree and, to their surprise, so does their (seemingly) more successful former colleague Wickie. After the taping is over, the quartet starts plotting a comeback that they decide will culminate with the ultimate mark of relevance: a place on the bill at the next Jingle Ball.
(If you’re wondering if there was a fifth girl in Girls5Eva, the answer is yes. We learn in the first episode that Ashley, played by Ashley Park of Broadway’s Mean Girls, died years earlier in a tragic infinity-pool accident. She does appear in recurring flashbacks, though.)
The Girls5Eva plan for re-achieving stardom includes courting hip music producers, attempting to go viral, and writing their own new music. Mostly, though, it involves the four women getting into various shenanigans that provide space for riffs on ’90s/early millennial culture and absurd plot sidebars, like Dawn’s inspirational songwriting communion with Dolly Parton, brought to life by Fey doing a halfway decent Dolly Parton impression. Quality cameos — Stephen Colbert and Bowen Yang are among those who pop in for part of an episode — are just one of the elements in Girls5Eva that make it such a fun diversion.
While all the members of the main cast are game, it’s Goldsberry, best known for her role as Angelica in the original Broadway cast of Hamilton, who bursts forward with the funniest performance in the series. As Wickie, she has serious pipes and is not afraid to show them off at literally any time, even if that means doing a random vocal run just to finish a sentence. The character is admittedly cut from cloth of the same color and texture as 30 Rock’s Jenna Maroney and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Titus Andromedon. Like them, Wickie is pure audacity and narcissism molded into the shape of a human being.
Still, Goldsberry has such a naturally sophisticated presence that watching her subvert it with so much jackassery makes Wickie feel like a fresh creation. In a flashback to an episode of Cribs from back in the early ’00s, she sits at her translucent piano and faux-casually announces, “I love to just sit here and get ideas, like a duet with Prince that gives poor people a Christmas.” Her shamelessness has not waned in the ensuing years. When questioned by Dawn about her use of the Ace Ventura: Pet Detective catchphrase “Alrighty then” while starring in a production of The Mask-ical: The Musical, Wickie haughtily responds, “It was a pastiche of the Jim Carrey oeuvre,” sucking every ounce of French-ness out of pastiche and oeuvre. The writers give Goldsberry some of the show’s best lines — or as Wickie puts it, “My mouth is a T-shirt gun of wisdom” — and she sells every one with a conviction that can only be conjured by an artiste who takes herself hyper-seriously.
Bareilles brings her famously strong vocals to every number in the series and gives a solid performance, but as the most grounded member of Girls5Eva, she doesn’t get to indulge in as many silly gags. Pell, on the other hand, is brassy and hilarious as Gloria, an intense, lonely divorced lesbian who gets a huge charge out of her return to the pop scene, especially since she can be more open about her homosexuality than she could 20 years ago. (In flashbacks, Gloria is played by Erika Henningsen, a Sporty Spice doppelgänger pretending she’s interested in boys.) Gloria also goes out of her way to prove she’s still up for fun. When Wickie accuses her of being a prude, she retorts: “I power walk to ‘WAP.’” Philipps is in the toughest spot because Summer is written as such a familiar type: the dumb, wealthy blonde who’s always 30 seconds late, at least, to grasp what’s happening. It doesn’t help that Philipps is always doing the most, even in reaction shots, which can be distracting.
For every note that is just slightly off in Girls5Eva, though, another is perfectly pitched. Yes, I’m talking about the music. The songs, composed by Jeff Richmond and crafted in collaboration with Scardino and the writers, are infectious and hilarious. The throwback Girls5Eva tracks are Britney Spearsian concoctions of bubblegum heteronormativity that could easily be mistaken for real songs from the era. Also: catchy! The melancholy folk ballad called “New York Lonely Boy” that pays tribute to the only children of Manhattan — “His playground is the lobby / Has a palette for wasabi/ The Strand is his Disneyland / He’s just another New York Lonely Boy” — isn’t a Girls5Eva song, but it’s one of the highlights of the season.
As entertaining as Girls5Eva is, there are moments when one wishes it would push its satire closer to the edge. While it touches on the personally and socially damaging issues that the turn-of-the-millennium pop scene didn’t fully reckon with — lecherous managers, homophobia, a misogynistic dismissal of young women — the series doesn’t do much more than glide across those issues until it’s time for the next laugh. The show is smart enough to get away with baring its teeth more.
But in its first season at least, Girls5Eva seems content with just having a good time and aiming to make the audience have one, too, and it succeeds in that mission. If that is in line with your TV-viewing goals and you haven’t added it to your watch list, I can only ask the same question that Girls5Eva raises in “Famous 5Eva”: “What are you waiting 5?”