tv review

Let’s Hear It 4 Girls5eva’s Triumphant Second Act

Now that Summer (Busy Philipps), Wickie (Renée Elise Goldsberry), Dawn (Sara Bareilles), and Gloria (Paula Pell) are established in their quirks and priorities, Girls5Eva adds texture by challenging them in season two. Photo: Zach Dilgard/Peacock

When F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “There are no second acts in American lives,” his observation was shaped by the forward movement of linear time, the gossamer-thin permanence of fame, and the intractability of first impressions. Make of this what you will, but Fitzgerald’s quote kept poking out of the recesses of my brain while watching the snappily paced and cheekily written second season of Girls5eva, which returns to Peacock on Thursday. “We’re gonna be famous for fun-hundred years,” sang the titular girl group in their 1999 heyday, but the series’s first season shared all the ways that didn’t turn out to be true. When given a second chance at selfhood or celebrity, which would you choose? In this highly satisfying sophomore season, Girls5eva says yes to both.

Under creator-showrunner Meredith Scardino (who previously worked on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt with Tina Fey, an executive producer here), Girls5eva digs back into everything that made season one such an amusing watch. Per Fey’s brand, that means endless pop-culture references and digs, Jeff Richmond’s winking compositions, and an exploration of what it means to be a woman cresting 40, all delivered at a rapid-fire clip that makes each half-hour episode breeze by. Two of Girls5eva’s greatest strengths are its discipline regarding the sitcom format — compact drama on an episodic basis but slow transformation on a longer timeline — and its belief that comedies need jokes, and those undergird this successful second season.

We’re increasingly living in a post-haha time for the half-hour sitcom, when series like Atlanta and Barry skew far closer to surrealism than realism. In that landscape, Girls5eva’s endlessly silly moments are a relief. Renée Elise Goldsberry’s Wickie wailing her way through her Riff Rolodex and Busy Philipps’s Summer purring of her new hairstyle, “I’m a villain now — it’s why I got lowlights,” are triumphs of comedic timing. Paula Pell’s Gloria getting high and slipping into an impression of Liam Gallagher when the group appears on a podcast, and Sara Bareilles’s Dawn cathartically writing a revenge song against the group’s abusive former manager, inject some unapologetic brazenness into the trust and pride these women feel for each other. These characters are so incisively conceived and performed that even when Girls5eva’s myriad nods at cancel culture, Internet phenomena, true crime, and music feel a little stale, the core foursome and their loyalty to each other keeps the narrative barreling along.

Girl5eva reentered the D-list in season one thanks to up-and-coming rapper Lil Stinker (Jeremiah Craft) sampling one of their songs and inspiring the women to give music another go. After crashing the stage at a Jingle Ball concert, delivering a well-received performance of their new song “4 Stars,” and securing a record deal from a label owned by HGTV mainstays the Property Brothers, the women begin season two in “album mode.” They have six weeks to produce a dozen or so songs — but, of course, life gets in the way. As the group’s primary songwriter, Dawn worries she won’t be able to deliver and spars with label-provided producer Ray (Piter Marek). Gloria decides to win back her ex-wife, Caroline (Janine Brito), and suffers an injury that might derail Girl5eva’s comeback plans. Summer wants out of her unfulfilling marriage to former boy-bander Kevin (Andrew Rannells) but worries how it will affect their reputation as Instagram influencers and famous Christians. And after a few disappointing experiences on celeb dating app Raya, the delightfully self-absorbed Wickie wonders if she’ll ever find love.

Those arcs stretch out over the eight-episode season, allowing each of the women a couple of episodes that are primarily theirs: Dawn fights for the inclusion of dads in a moms-only school parents’ email chain in the first episode; Summer questions her parents’ overbearing ideas about purity and chastity in the fourth. Each of those plots plays into the series’s broader question about having it all, which Girls5eva smartly complicates with a standout fifth episode that directly wonders what the women should hold on to from their failed past. Are we doomed to forever remain who we once were? In answering that, the episode pairs off the women in unexpected ways. It’s usually Dawn and Wickie butting heads while Gloria and Summer vibe with each other, but pairing off Wickie with Gloria and Summer with Dawn is an effective change of pace that reveals tender connections between these characters.

Now that the four women are established in their quirks and priorities, Girls5eva adds texture by challenging them in season two. A karaoke sing-off between Wickie and Dawn’s husband, Scott (Daniel Breaker), whom Wickie is shocked to learn “has a voice like Lenny Kravitz’s penis,” probes Wickie’s competitive spirit, while new characters played by Grey Henson, Heidi Gardner, and Chad L. Coleman illuminate different aspects of Girls5eva’s intragroup dynamics. (Coleman is a revelation as a gentle romantic hero after so often playing rougher, tougher characters on The Wire, The Walking Dead, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.) And because the women in Girls5eva spend the season working on their album, Richmond and Scardino get more room to play with the group’s original songs. Goldsberry belts out the sort-of-cringey, mostly invigorating “Big Pussy Energy” with gusto and verve, while singer Ingrid Michaelson adds a sense of wistfulness to “New York City Moms,” a sequel to season-one standout “New York Lonely Boy” that again soundtracks Dawn walking around the city. An eight-minute-long song in which Dawn tries to use every single definition of the word set feels like a recycled 30 Rock bit, but that doesn’t make the actual lyrics, which take the song in a sci-fi opera direction, any less creative.

Aside from the season’s light touch and well-rounded ensemble work, there are some reminders throughout that Scardino and Fey’s similar comedic voices don’t always land when they stretch too far. See jokes that center “empowerment” but are shaped by a certain narrow definition of what feminism is or flatten liberal politics into continued hero worship of Ruth Bader Ginsburg — neither of those feels particularly fresh. Girls5eva is better when it stays close to these women, to the ups and downs of their romances, professional collaborations, and friendships, and to what a second chance at success looks like. “Life isn’t a wish machine. You don’t always get to do the exact thing you’re best at,” a detractor snarks, but Girls5eva once again finds the humor and tenacity in daring to do exactly that.

An earlier version of this review misidentified the singer of “New York City Moms.” It has been corrected.

Let’s Hear It 4 Girls5eva’s Triumphant Second Act