Girls5eva review: A solid sitcom that could be more than a nostalgia trip
Nostalgia for the 2000s, really nostalgia for the year 2000, a mythic lost age between ironic detachment and ongoing collapse. Girls5eva (streaming Thursday on Peacock) begins with a TRL flashback to the titular quintet's brief fame. "We've been best friends ever since we auditioned for a man in a motel in New Jersey," says Wickie (Renée Elise Goldsberry), a soaring singer with fame-hungry eyes. It's a funny line that Goldsberry skyrockets into an outrageous mission statement: So synthetic, so so brazen, a true confession of the lie she's selling.
Wickie is "the fierce one," because the monoculture welcomed lame euphemisms for Blackness. Dawn (Sara Bareilles) is "the chill one," which means she's sorta hippie and sorta grungy but sings whatever the Swedes write her. Summer (Busy Philipps) is "the hot one," her persona porny and evangelical: Welcome to George W. Bush's America, kids! There's also Gloria (Erika Henningsen), who looks sporty and will become New York's first gay divorcee, and Ashley (Ashley Park), "the fun one" who winds up dead in an infinity pool accident.
Yes, the 21st century takes a quick dark turn for Girls5eva (and for everyone else). On September 10, 2001, they release a new song with an unfortunate chorus: "Quit flying planes in my heart!" One bitter break-up and two decades later, Dawn's a desperate Queens mom managing her brother's restaurant. Summer's a lonely Jersey housewife who dreams of being a Real Housewife. Gloria (now played by Paula Pell) has a solid dental practice but pines for her ex-wife. They only see Wickie on Instagram, where she advertises her high-flying entrepreneur's life. "Her shoe line is no. 1 in China," Summer says, "And they have the most feet!"
In the series premiere, famous rapper Lil Stinker (Jeremiah Richard Craft) randomly samples Girls5eva's only hit for his latest track. Their shady manager Larry (Jonathan Hadary) doesn't even bother sending them the resulting low-three-figure royalty checks. But The Tonight Show books them for a bit of viral nostalgia. Is this the start of a comeback?
There never was a famous girl group quite like Girls5eva. Picture an American Spice Girls, maybe, or an all-female Jive boy band. (Wickie's breakaway solo career aims for "Crazy in Love" and lands somewhere south of "Look at Me.") Creator Meredith Scardino cleverly wedges the fictional group into a farcical yet honest depiction of a whole generation's broken dreams. It helps that the leads are such different performers. Bareilles is an actual acclaimed musician with a busy Broadway second act, but her genial approachability makes Dawn the resident sane individual. Goldsberry won a Tony for Hamilton, and this is her long-overdue proper TV showcase, since Wickie's imperious vanity requires Goldsberry to successfully steal every scene. Pell's a legendary Saturday Night Live writer who exudes regular-person charm, whereas Philipps turns her spoof energy a few degrees too high as a vocal-fried celebrity goof.
Scardino won a couple Emmys in her Colbert Report days, and also worked on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Mr. Mayor. The latter two sitcoms both came from the long collaboration of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, who also executive produce Girls5eva. Any 30 Rock fan will appreciate the familiar fast pace, all those visual gags and one-liners stuffed between clever references and nifty cameos. Someone tells the band that "it has been an entire Zendaya since you have recorded music," and the ever-fashionable Wickie pronounces "Ibiza" and "Arizona" with the same soft "z." We see an old Cribs episode shot at Wickie's Malibu palace, complete with a glass piano named "Ghislaine." There's also a cutaway to a musical based on Jim Carrey's The Mask, and a nostalgia dance party called Y2Gay. And during an argument, Dawn has to whisper the word "negroni": "I don't know the history of the word!"
The catchy theme song by Scardino and Jeff Richmond features the line "So What Are You Waiting FIVE?" and I laughed every time I heard it, and I just laughed now writing it. (There are one or two original tunes per episode.) And the show celebrates the characters' self-nostalgia but also undercuts it. They are horrified by their old lyrics, so full of obvious wish fulfillment by sleazy males looking to attract an unabashedly sleazy nation. Can they rewrite their own story by writing their own hit song? Since one of them is literally Sara Bareilles, I assume the answer is "duh," but Girls5eva honors the candy-sweet excess of Y2K pop even as it challenges it.
At least, sometimes it challenges it. At one point, Gloria confronts her bandmates about their failure to help her when stardom forced her into performative heterosexuality. It's a moving subplot, but the episode also soft-pedals history. Summer was and remains a Christian, which would've made her one among many devout pop icons on early 2000s MTV. There was a dark side to that Purity Ring era; this was the brutal cultural moment when a very religious president was supporting a constitutional amendment against gay marriage. It's not hard to draw a line between Summer's belief system/brand and Gloria's internal struggles, and Girls5eva leaves comedy and drama on the table by ignoring that. Adding to the general jumble is Summer's mostly absent husband (Andrew Rannells), a former boy bander in an obvious closet. That character description is pretty much the entire joke, which feels years late.
Sometimes, Girls5eva is a lacerating showbiz satire about four women unfrozen from pre-internet fame into a strange new dimension of TikTok kids. This is Wickie's corner of the universe, as we discover embarrassing secrets of her glamorous Femperor lifestyle. The depiction of grasping stardom can be sharp. "Why am I never the one profiting off me?" Wickie asks, when the world finds another way to make money off her. But Girls5eva can also be a way less conceptual hang-out sitcom about forty-something friends with Manhattan-screenwriter problems. The latter strand produces an amazing running joke, when Dawn worries her only-child son will turn into a "New York Lonely Boy." You know: spiffy pants, fedora, the best friend who's a doorman. The ensuing song is just perfect, but the material with Dawn's family often moves far away from the music industry. And then Wickie becomes Dawn's perpetual houseguest — which is practically a whole other TV show about a celebrity crashing with unfamous people, a concept so obvious Harry Styles already produced a failed TV series about it. (Also: sitcoms are henceforth allowed just one Peloton joke per season.)
If Girls5eva were early in a 22-episode broadcast season, or had a 10-episode cable order, all these growing pains could be worked out by the finale. But the first season is only eight episodes long; god, the streaming era sucks. Still, the show generally succeeds with its throw-everything-at-the-wall mentality, and the season finale is a triumph of ridiculousness and pent-up emotion. Beyond the quotable zingers, there's an interesting paradox built into Girls5eva's comedy. Can these women move forward together? Or will their reunion leave them even more stuck in their wonderful, terrible past? B+