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Arts & Culture

'Girls5eva' Is Just Catchy Enough

The ladies of <em>Girls5eva</em>: Gloria (Paula Pell), Dawn (Sara Bareilles), Wickie (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and Summer (Busy Philipps).
The ladies of <em>Girls5eva</em>: Gloria (Paula Pell), Dawn (Sara Bareilles), Wickie (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and Summer (Busy Philipps).

In 2000, MTV dropped the made-for-TV movie 2Gether, a parody about a fictional boy band of the same name and its rival, Whoa. 2Gether consisted of five members, each cast to fit a very specific type, including "the bad boy" and "the heartthrob." The not-a-real-boy-band boy band eventually became real enough – or rather, popular enough – to spawn a short-lived TV series spin-off and a second album, 2Gether Again. They even did a stint opening for Britney Spears.

It seems doubtful the ladies of Girls5eva, the fictional late-'90s girl group in the new Peacock series Girls5eva, will be touring with Olivia Rodrigo anytime soon, but they nevertheless share quite a bit of DNA with 2Gether. Created by Meredith Scardino (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) and starring Sara Bareilles, Renèe Elise Goldsberry, Busy Philipps, and Paula Pell, the comedy follows the group members as they attempt to stage a comeback and rekindle the magic of their heyday 20 years later. It's steeped in flashbacks poking fun at the same transparently manufactured bubblegum pop scene as that MTV predecessor, and the bonkers Girls5eva song lyrics are kindred spirits of 2Gether – compare "Gonna be famous five-ever/ 'Cause for-ever's too short" to, say, "I know my calculus/ It says you + me = us."

The first of eight episodes kicks off when a young rapper named Lil' Stinker (Jeremiah Craft) samples an old Girls5eva song and invites the defunct group to perform with him on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. The reunion comes at a time when the four remaining members – we learn that fifth member Ashley (Ashley Park), who appears in flashbacks, died in a freak accident involving an Infinity Pool – are in various states of mid-life crises. Dawn (Bareilles) is feeling unfulfilled working in her brother's restaurant; Gloria (Paula Pell) is a dentist reeling from divorce; Summer (Philipps) is a brand influencer trapped in a one-sided marriage; and Wickie (Goldsberry) has tried desperately to keep up the façade of a glam diva despite secretly being broke and out of work.

At first, Girls5eva relies too heavily on well-worn fodder; unlike 2gether – and later, Josie and the Pussycats and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping –this satire is 20 years removed from the music genre it's parodying, and sometimes, that's more of a flaw than an asset. If silly bits about 9/11, Total Request Live, and eccentric Swedish music hitmakers were the only things Girls5eva served up, the enterprise would seem unnecessary, like a sophomore album arriving two decades too late.

Yet as the season carries on and the writers really latch on to the comedic tension between the past and the present, Girls5eva blossoms into something beyond a blatant tool for nostalgia aimed squarely at millennials and Gen-Xers raised on a diet of Tina Fey and Fey-adjacent humor. (She and her husband/ frequent collaborator Jeff Richmond serve as two of the executive producers, and their DNA is all over this, too, from the extremely high joke density to the quirky interstitial music to the very New York City-centric observations.)

The Fallon appearance inspires the group to give music another go, but they quickly realize their former manager Larry (Jonathan Hadary) was a controlling, exploitative sleazeball cut from Lou Pearlman cloth, and they don't own the rights to any of their old songs. They're also forced to reflect on the content of those songs – which, the show emphasizes, were written by men – and how they may have helped promote misogynistic ideals. One song we hear a brief snippet of is a sexy anthem about being jailbait.

And so they set off on their own to write and record a new song, with the goal of performing it at the iHeartRadio Jingle Ball (because why not?), going viral, and putting Girls5eva back on the map.

As the women embark on their quest, it's easy to hop along for the ride. There's an oddly specific yet accurate running gag in one episode about boys who grow up as only children in New York City, and it gets more ridiculous with every repeated instance. Much of the soundtrack packs a comedic punch and is convincingly catchy, particularly the theme song, which you will not be able to stop singing if you binge multiple episodes in a row.

Between the earworms and an array of pitch-perfect guest stars and cameos including Vanessa Williams and Bowen Yang, the central performances by the Girls5eva actresses are the glue. Each character is calibrated to just the right levels of wacky and sincere, and they play off of one another fluidly, embodying their individual "types" – Dawn as the plucky de facto leader, Summer as the group's clueless Posh Spice whose only job is to "end songs with a sultry feminasty phrase," Gloria as the uptight workaholic who is openly gay now but was firmly in the closet during Girls5eva's peak – while finding notes and beats far surpassing shtick.

This is especially true of Wickie, the show's scene-stealer who possesses all of the vanity of 30 Rock's Jenna Maroney, but with a bit more heart and warmth. Goldsberry delivers gold anytime she belts out her sentences rather than speaks, which is often; or opines about her celebrity encounters and grand adventures, which is often; or dates a much younger guy, which is brief, but a delight to witness.

In the end, Girls5eva will feel familiar in ways both underwhelming and comforting, but the good outweighs the clichèd here. It's just breezy enough, just sharp enough, and just catchy enough to have you rooting for a comeback.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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