Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Hamilton’s Renée Elise Goldsberry steals the show in Peacock’s fun but uneven Girls5eva

Busy Philipps, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sara Bareilles, Paula Pell in Girls5eva
Busy Philipps, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sara Bareilles, Paula Pell in Girls5eva
Photo: Heidi Gutman/Peacock

The quirky humor of Peacock’s musical comedy Girls5eva is a hallmark of series creator Meredith Scardino’s ongoing collaboration with executive producers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. Scardino previously wrote on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and her work in Girls5eva serves up the same brand of highly specific absurdist jokes that powered the Netflix comedy, along with the rest of Fey’s oeuvre. The show’s frothiness is a welcome escape, its eight-episode first season a quick binge of amusingly ridiculous running jokes and witticisms (a hilarious one about a transparent piano named Ghislaine is an early standout). Girls5eva offers heightened scenarios and lets its four main actors—Sara Bareilles, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Busy Philipps, Paula Pell—revel in them, even if not all of the humor lands. Where Girls5eva struggles in matching its tone with cohesive storytelling.

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In the show, four members of a pop band called Girls5eva, which briefly achieved fame in 2000, try to stage a comeback. There is a bit too much emphasis on the bizarreness of this premise and not enough on fleshing out character dynamics. Girls5eva shines when it prioritizes the latter. Kimmy Schmidt found nuanced ways for its protagonist Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) to cope with her grief and trauma after being kidnapped and living in a bunker for years, while building out her friendships with other characters. Girls5eva’s main members—Dawn (Bareilles), Wickie (Goldsberry), Summer (Phillipps), and Gloria (Pell)—may not be reeling from such an ordeal, but they are going through their own set of individual challenges.

When the band broke up, the four women lost touch and set out on their separate paths. Dawn is helping run her brother’s restaurant, Wickie is trying to reclaim her diva status, Gloria is a dentist, and Summer married another pop star, Kev (Andrew Rannells), but refuses to see how rocky their marriage is. The fifth member is Ashley (Ashley Park), whose absence doesn’t inspire them to change their band name, but her presence is sporadically felt (she’s seen mainly in flashbacks). The happiest time of Summer’s life was when she was part of Girls5eva, so it’s no wonder she is the most excited when the band gets an opportunity to reunite. A quick performance on Jimmy Fallon’s stage reignites their fire, and they set out to recapture their glory days.

The first step is to reckon with the fact that their lyrics from 20 years ago, courtesy of a Swedish songwriter, were really inappropriate. Their manager, Larry, was also quite the perv (he still is, despite his “mandatory sensitivity training”). Over the course of season one, the four women rediscover their voices as Dawn takes on the responsibility to write new songs and the band slowly gains traction. In the process, Girls5eva delivers incredibly snappy original songs. The theme song by Jeff Richmond, who wrote the Kimmy Schmidt opening banger, is another instant earworm. There’s a track about the myth of a New York lonely boy, and no, it’s not about Gossip Girl’s Dan Humphrey. The show takes proper advantage of its New York City setting, familiar territory for Fey and Carlock’s collaborations (including 30 Rock), with jokes like Wickie’s comment about meeting a younger lover in the city at “the Instagram wall in the vape lounge at the Sriracha museum.”

Goldsberry is Girls5eva’s greatest asset. The Tony winner dazzles in her spirited performance as Wickie, whose only goal is to be a superstar. Goldsberry effortlessly brings that prima donna aspect to life, but with vulnerability and compassion when required. She easily pulls off the gags thrown at her, including Wickie’s lead role in Maskicle The Musical based on The Mask. Following Wickie’s journey as she reconciles with the rest of her friends instead of trying to be the breakout, all while delivering quips at the frequency of a mile a minute, is the most appealing part of Girls5eva.

Bareilles co-leads her first comedy, and while she’s endearing (especially when she sings), the rest of the cast—particularly Rannells and A.P. Bio’s veteran Pell—makes the most of the sitcom styling. Philipps is a talented actor who unfortunately gets stuck with the bimbo personality, and doesn’t get to stretch her comedic muscles beyond that stereotype. Her character Summer left school to pursue music. But even for a relatively silly show like this one, it’s hard to buy into the idea that even after all these years, Summer is just the dumb blonde who gets excited when her biggest tasks in the band sum up to making salad or delivering the “feminasty phrase” at the end of their songs. Her character does get moments of growth toward the end, but they come too late. Philipps does her best but deserves stronger material.

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Not all of Girls5eva’s storylines are developed equally. On one hand, the show empathetically depicts Gloria’s journey as a queer woman trying to find her place in this industry at an older age, but also resorts to (and outlandishly drags out) the played out “possibly closeted husband” trope with Summer and Kev’s relationship. The show’s commentary on female friendships is mostly explored in the realms of surreal comedy, and while the core ensemble delivers on that front, there just isn’t enough focus on their emotional dynamic as a group. The show is still enjoyable because of the effective physical comedy—the band filming their comeback video in an abandoned mall is tremendously well-executed, as is their rocky performance of a made-up dance move—smart one-liners, timely references (Gal Gadot’s “Imagine” video gets a snarky shoutout), Goldsberry’s stunning Jane Krakowski-esque comedic turn, and the music, which better get its own highly ranked Spotify playlist. Not every comedy needs to be subversive to succeed, and Girls5eva is another prime example of how effusive humor can be potent.