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Girls5eva Brings That 30 Rock Magic to Early Aughts Bubblegum Pop

Executive producers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock are at it again with a stellar cast.
  • Busy Philipps, Sara Bareilles, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Paula Pell in Girls5eva. (Photo: Heidi Gutman/Peacock)
    Busy Philipps, Sara Bareilles, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Paula Pell in Girls5eva. (Photo: Heidi Gutman/Peacock)

    Few TV shows this century have been as influential as 30 Rock. Created by Tina Fey and run by Fey and Robert Carlock, the show's joke-dense delivery, its insidery takes on celebrity and media, and its elastic approach to reality have been a clear influence on so many of the great comedies of the last decade and a half. Fey and Carlock themselves have continued to bring that sensibility to shows like the short-lived Great News and the loony Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Now one of the writers from Kimmy, Meredith Scardino has created the latest Fey/Carlock production: Girls5eva, which follows the four surviving members of a fictional all-girl pop group from the early 2000s as they attempt a comeback.

    First and foremost, Girls5eva nails the vibe of the kind of group it's parodying, while at the same time refusing to take the easiest shots at the TRL era of pop. The many flashbacks we see of Girls5eva put them in the same general genre as groups like Dream (of "He Loves U Not" fame) and Danity Kane (the group Puff Daddy put together on Making the Band), and the show has the fashion, attitude, music video aesthetic, and Swedish-concocted pop beats exactly right.

    Also in keeping with the era-appropriate girl band vibe are the personalities of the group members. Dawn (played by Sara Bareilles in present day and in flashback) is the chill one, overshadowed even at the group's height by the flashier members of the group, now living a deeply ordinary life in Queens with a husband (Daniel Breaker), a kid, and a job managing her brother's restaurant. She's also just starting to feel her age; she's in the middle of her first mammogram — literally — when she hears the familiar strains of the group's big hit "Famous 5eva" sampled in a hit rap song. Momentarily back in the spotlight, the girls of Girls5eva get an invite to perform on The Tonight Show, but they have to get back together first.

    Girls5eva then: Sara Bareilles, Busy Philipps, Ashley Park, Erika Henningsen and Renée Elise Goldsberry (Photo by: Heidi Gutman/Peacock)

    Elevating the usual "getting the band back together" sequence is the escalating delight every time we meet a new member of the band: Gloria, once the Sporty Spice-esque workhorse of the group is played by the great Paula Pell; she's unhappily divorced from her wife and even more unhappily working as a dentist. Summer (Busy Philipps) is the most fired up to get the group back together, as she's never quite stopped living as a pop princess, even while doing low-level influencer stuff and practicing her slap game to get cast on a Real Housewives franchise. A staple of the Fey/Carlock series since 30 Rock has been the Jenna Maroney archetype — the egomania, shallowness, and performer's instinct of a Hollywood star, weaponized to dangerous levels. All the duo's subsequent series have had some version of Jenna, from Jane Krakowski herself playing Jacqueline on Kimmy Schmidt to Nicole Richie on Great News. Girls5eva smartly tweaks this and spreads some of those Jenna qualities to both Summer and Renee Elise Goldsberry's Wickie, the would-be Beyoncé of the group, who left Girls5eva to build her own solo career but who, by the time "Famous 5eva" is trending again, has been reduced to working at an airfield shooting geese (and getting paid by the goose).

    The conflict between Dawn and Wickie provides the backbone of the series, and Bareilles and Goldsberry are fantastic in their respective roles. Known primarily as a singer-songwriter, Bareilles has recently branched out into TV and theater, earning an Emmy nomination for her performance in Jesus Christ Superstar Live and executive producing the Apple TV+ series Little Voice with J.J. Abrams. She has the least acting experience of the four leads, so it makes sense to give her the straight role, but she proves to be a solid hub for the other characters to spin around. Goldsberry, meanwhile, is a Tony-winning stage and screen actress who isn't known for comedy, but as Wickie — in all her ostentatious diva behavior — she's making good on the promise she showed in the Documentary Now! episode, "Original Cast Album: Co-Op." That episode also starred Paula Pell, who's note-perfect as the cranky Gloria. She and Philipps in particular have great comedic chemistry together, with Philipps finding a thousand ways to make lip-acting a commodifiable skill.

    Girls5eva now: Paula Pell, Sara Bareilles, Elise Goldsberry and Busy Philipps. (Photo by: Heidi Gutman/Peacock)

    As great as the four lead actresses are, they're locked in a dead heat for best in show with the original songs from Scardino and Jeff Richmond. The realization that the group's hit songs — all courtesy of the group's shady manager (Jonathan Hadary) — had terrible messages for young girls spurs Dawn to try and write the group's next hit song the right way. Meanwhile, though, the audience is gifted with hearing SO many of the bad songs, each one a gem of trash pop goodness, not to mention "Famous 5eva," an earworm of lethal potency. (There's also a stone-cold classic of a song that has nothing at all to do with Girls5eva that's a masterwork of a very different genre.)

    If Girls5eva were just an excuse to watch Bareilles, Goldsberry, Pell, and Philipps all bounce off of each other, their seemingly incongruous comedic sensibilities meshing in some delightfully unexpected ways, that would truly be enough. But once the show clicks into its comedic stride, right around its third episode, the joke density increases, and the song parodies put the whole endeavor over the top. Whether or not the show is destined to become famous 5eva like 30 Rock, I'm confident Girls5eva and I will be very happy 3gether.

    The entire eight-episode first season of Girls5eva drops on Peacock May 6th.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Girls5eva, Peacock, Busy Philipps, Jeff Richmond, Paula Pell, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Robert Carlock, Sara Bareilles, Tina Fey