A Tina Fey/Robert Carlock show speaks its own language: elaborate references to the ‘90s and the aughts; absurd non sequiturs and one liners; barbed commentary on sexism and the patriarchy; tongue-in-cheek jabs toward “political correctness” and “wokeness,” which these creators continue to be strangely threatened by. Those rhythms, peculiarities, and delights helped build and define “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and they give form to “Girls5eva,” which Fey and Carlock executive produce alongside show creator Meredith Scardino. With a wonderful core four of Sara Bareilles, Paula Pell, Busy Philipps, and Renée Elise Goldsberry and a leap-frogging comedic style that relies on nostalgia, callbacks, sight gags, and Philipps doing an array of preposterous line readings, “Girls5eva” is the latest—and inarguably best—original offering from NBC’s streaming service Peacock.
Over its first season’s eight episodes, which airs on Peacock May 6, “Girls5eva” tracks the attempted comeback of the same-named one-hit wonder girl group. Back in the late 1990s, early 2000s, Girls5eva was a clearly manufactured, incredibly mismanaged collection of young women baring their midriffs and singing songs clearly written by men. (The series’ best recurring jokes are the ludicrousness of these lyrics, including “We’ve got the kind of birth control that goes in your arm/And tell me again why Tarantino’s a genius,” and how they’re performed in music video flashbacks, like Philipps ripping off a graduation gown to reveal a shimmery gold bikini while singing “Jailbait/Great at sex!”) They appeared on a number of different MTV shows, like “TRL” and “MTV Cribs,” when the network was more interested in fawning over celebrities than crafting reality-TV empires around pregnant teenagers. But then the group’s next big single about airplane safety happened to drop the day before Sept. 11, 2001, and member Wickie (Goldsberry) left to pursue a solo career. Girsl5eva both burned out and faded away, the ultimate fear of all celebrities.
Twenty years later after their brief relevance, up-and-coming rapper Lil Stinker (Jeremiah Craft) is searching for samples for his next single when he stumbles upon the group’s only bona fide hit: single “Famous 5eva.” (Another recurring gag: that the group was trained to replace the words “for” or “four” with the number “five” in not just songs, but also casual conversation, and the marketing gimmick stuck.) By choosing to sample the “old school” song that “makes me think of my mom’s boobies,” Lil Stinker reawakens the dreams of the remaining Girls5eva members. Each of them is struggling in her own way. Dawn (Bareilles) toils at her brother’s (Dean Winters) restaurant and dreads confrontation. Gloria (Pell) is a workaholic dentist fresh off her divorce from her wife. Summer (Philipps) is married to boy band singer Kev (Andrew Rannells), who lives in Tampa for his job as an entertainment reporter and barely ever comes home to Summer or their daughter. And Wickie, who had left the group to make it on her own, seems to be successful, if one believed her luxurious Instagram posts—but since Fey has spoken openly about never trusting social media, you can guess how Wickie’s character arc is going to go.
Now that Girls5eva is famous again thanks to Lil Stinker, should the group give it another shot? That is the very broad question posed by the series, which is less interested in a complicated plot than it is in getting these women in the same room and letting their different energies and vibes bump off each other. Bareilles is excellent as Dawn, the straight woman who realizes she can control her own life and rekindle her old passions if she wants; she has a real standout episode in “Cease and Desist,” in which Summer encourages her to create an alternate onstage persona. The diva version of Dawn, all cocked hips and assertiveness, is a reminder that Bareilles comes into this with real stage experience. Similarly, wonderfully believable is Goldsberry, whose years of Broadway work (including that Tony Award for “Hamilton”) have given her inimitable stage presence. Her Wickie is a sort of wannabe Beyoncé who believes that saying words like “fempire” is enough to generate success, but once Goldsberry peels back the character’s layers of self-delusion and self-protection, you see her dedication to the work.
“Girls5eva” divides up the foursome into pairs locked in a cycle of affection and weariness, with Dawn and Wickie as one duo and Gloria and Summer as another. Pell is the only actress whose younger version of her character is played by another performer, which causes some noticeable discontinuity. But Pell’s blend of sarcasm and sincerity works so well because of the protectiveness she also exudes, especially toward Summer, who Philipps plays as a sort of spiritual sister to Michelle Williams’ baby-voiced girl boss Avery LeClaire in “I Feel Pretty” (co-written and co-directed by Philipps’ husband Marc Silverstein) and Annie Murphy’s resilient, neurotic, charmingly self-obsessed Alexis Rose from “Schitt’s Creek.” While Dawn and Wickie’s plots are mostly about their contributions to the group and their desires as performers, Gloria and Summer’s are more about their romantic frustrations, which makes for some solid counterbalance. Is anything more tragic than the dejected way Philipps delivers the line “I’ve tried out for the Housewives, like, eight times”? Perhaps only how underdeveloped the fifth member of the group, the late Ashley (Ashley Park), ends up being. Given how Fey/Carlock have been called out for their insensitivity toward Asian characters before, it would have been nice if Ashley’s characterization was more than just “dead girl the others miss.”
On the flip side, though, it wouldn’t be a Fey/Carlock-produced show if there weren’t some heel-digging. The social mores they often target receive their ire again here: “mandatory sensitivity training” is mocked, as is Dawn’s concern about the “history of the word” negroni and Wickie’s refusal to change the name of her piano from Ghislaine. Sly asides nod to their various shows work their way in, such as a shout out to Nicole Richie, who costarred on the Fey/Carlock show “Great News”; someone describes her as the only person alive to “get more normal as they age.” And, unsurprisingly, a few ongoing feuds come up, too: a line about “women supporting women” immediately brings up Taylor Swift’s post-2013 Golden Globes lambast of Fey and Amy Poehler, while a dig against culture critics seems like a purposeful rebuke of the messy way “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” handled issues of race and ethnicity.
Even if you’re not deeply invested in the self-referencing minutia of this kind of comedy, there’s so much else about “Girls5eva” that works. There’s the agreeable bizarreness of the show’s recreation of Internet culture (Lil Stinker starting off his rap by doing bird calls, including the “common-ass kestrel”; Wickie holding onto her prized “Wettest Mouth” award from Napster; Bowen Yang as a TikTok personality famous for lip synching), and references to our pop-culture understanding of New York City (John Slattery, Talia Balsam, and their son Harry show up to assure Dawn that her “New York lonely boy” son, with all his grown-up quirks, will turn out just fine). There are pointed observations on the struggle women over 40 face in just being noticed in the world (“I do not recognize you, which means you are Girls5eva,” says Stephen Colbert in a guest role), and how the omnipresence of reality TV has changed the way we consume media (Summer’s daughter trying to make it as a YouTube unboxing star). “Girls5eva” hits the same marks as so many other movies and TV series of this generation of female comedians—Poehler’s “Wine Country,” about a group of 40something friends trying to reconnect, will come to mind more than once—but the cast here is so well-selected, the songs so infectious, and the stakes so refreshingly recognizable that the series becomes the first must-watch comedy of the year.
First season screened for review.