It’s almost impossible not to review creator Meredith Scardino’s new Peacock comedy Girls5eva without referencing FX and Hulu’s February smash documentary Framing Britney Spears.
That film, which was directed by Samantha Stark, looked at the bizarre conservatorship status that the pop star’s father currently has over her. It also offered interview after interview with talking heads who discussed how Spears’ skyrocketing success in the ‘90s and ‘00s capitalized on both her budding sexuality and that of the fans who were slaves for her. (These sources included members of her team, who frequently avoided acknowledging their own culpability or plausible deniability in the matter).
Like Framing Britney, Girls5eva is an exploration of how the media exploits young women who are caught in the pop culture ouroboros that is fame: they are bred on it and are taught to do anything to get it; once they achieve it, their success feeds the next generation.
Except in this version, fame is fleeting.
Scardino’s series, which is also executive produced by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock—her bosses from Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—focuses on the four remaining members of a one-hit wonder ‘90s girl pop group. Thrown together then by a lecherous and demoralizing manager (Jonathan Hadary, also known as Veep’s answer to Sheldon Adelson), they had nothing in common, no autonomy over their talents or their bodies, and no idea what they were getting into. They sang songs entitled “Jailbait” and “Dream Girlfriends” (which included lyrics like “We’ve got the kind of birth control that goes in your arm. And tell me again why Tarantino’s a genius”). Now Wickie (Renée Elise Goldsberry), Dawn (Sara Bareilles), Summer (Busy Philipps) and Gloria (Paula Pell) have all but been forgotten by anyone beyond a bored Wikipedia editor.
Girls5eva is a cautionary tale about the era of low-rider jeans and sateen “going out tops”; about a time when young girls were supposed to giggle when their boyfriends compared them to the women in Maxim magazine and didn’t flinch if their professors offered to buy them drinks after class.
And, honestly, I would be fine with the show if it were just that. But Girls5eva also has a special present for the Gen Xers, late Millennials, Xennials, and anyone else who read (or didn’t read, but heard about because lol, who has time to read?) Ada Calhoun’s 2020 deep dive, Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis. The series is also a commentary on aging and the frustration and rage one can feel over being ignored and underappreciated—especially the frustrations we have with ourselves for not being “better.”
The Girls5eva women decide to get the band back together after a young, hot rapper (Jeremiah Craft’s Lil Stinker) samples their only hit in one of his new tracks—a song Dawn hears during a mammogram appointment. But he doesn’t want them to tour with him because they’re olds. More importantly: the quartet realize that no one should have heard them sing that other, demeaning garbage. (“Oh my god. Are we part of the problem? Did we cause Hillary to lose Pennsylvania?” Gloria panics upon this epiphany).
But what’s there to write about now that’s relatable, catchy, and not skeevy? The women have to crack this code if they’re going to get a chance at the exclusive Jingle Ball. During the five episodes made available to the press, they find some creative ways to get there (with or without the help of some stunt casting, naturally).
Although its title is annoyingly styled and therefore prone to typos, Girls5eva is a show that fits in with Fey’s oeuvre. (Her “A Mother’s Prayer” excerpt from her best-selling 2011 memoir Bossypants includes the line “May she be Beautiful but not Damaged, for it’s the Damage that draws the creepy soccer coach’s eye, not the Beauty.” Her movie Mean Girls is an hour-and-40 minute anti-bullying PSA. Kimmy Schmidt is a discussion of assault and PTSD). Coming from Scardino, whose resume also includes sardonic variety/talk shows like truTV’s At Home with Amy Sedaris and Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, there seems to be an awareness and willingness to skewer cultural events (Philipps and Rannells’ characters are heads of a Hillsong-like church group where they preach to their flock by comparing The Office characters to Jesus and his brethren). Add in executive producer Jeff Richmond’s music and Girls5eva is already an easy sell for the devout fan base of programming in the Fey-Carlock universe.
Then there’s the acting. All the women understand the role they’re playing and know how to hit a punch line, but it’s Pell’s character that really stands out. She seems to get the best dialogue, as evidenced for this review. But Gloria also represents the inherent sexism that we still see today. Pell is the only one of the leads who doesn’t play herself in the flashbacks (Broadway actress Erika Henningsen gets that honor), meaning she’s the one who looks the most physically different from her past. And hers is a heartbreaking story of a young woman trying to come to terms with her sexuality right in front of a TRL audience (those pre-packaged girl groups can have Sapphic members, but only if it’s “like not totally real” and only there to appeal to a porn-fed man’s fantasy). Her avoidance tactic to dive into work instead of dealing with her issues is something that carries with her even as she ages and embraces her sexuality.
Look, I understand that Girls5eva is not going to be for everyone. It doesn’t give you joke whiplash with 50 pages of one-liners like Fey and Carlock’s 30 Rock, and doesn’t use blasts of magenta and purple-hued positivity to mask a story of trauma like Kimmy. But I started writing this piece at 10 p.m. on a Thursday night after my kids were asleep and as my post-shower hair turns into a frizzy hornet’s nest because I don’t have time to blow it out. Girls5eva makes me feel seen. Let me have this one.
PS: There’s also a stellar joke about FX’s The Americans in the first episode.
Girls5eva premieres May 6 on Peacock.
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.
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