The brief and undistinguished career of the girl group Girls5eva ran aground when the quintet’s new album was released with the single “Quit Flying Planes in My Heart” on September 10, 2001. It was just as well: Girls5eva proclaimed they’d be young, famous and friends “five-ever,” but it was clear to all but its members that the group had a faster expiration date than the bandana top one of them wears on MTV’s TRL. But when their one hit is sampled by a present-day rapper, the surviving quartet — now in their forties — reunite for another chance at pop stardom.
At least in its first five episodes, Peacock’s Girls5eva doesn’t make clear how delusional we’re supposed to find these women, who scattered to the winds (though within the tristate area) after the band’s breakup. Dawn (Sara Bareilles) works at a restaurant owned by her oafish brother (Dean Winters), Summer (Busy Philipps) has tried out for the Real Housewives eight times and Gloria (Paula Pell) became a dentist and made history as one half of “the first gay couple in the state of New York to get divorced.” Wickie (Renée Elise Goldsberry) is the only one who seems to have maintained the glamour and mystique of their youth, which of course means that her life is the most depressing of all.
Yes, their dreams of recapturing their flash-in-the-pan success are dumb: A Swedish hitmaker (guest star Stephen Colbert) notes, “It has been an entire Zendaya since you recorded music.” But their celebrity isn’t necessarily what we’re rooting for; rather, it’s their joy, especially in performing with each other.
It’s impossible not to think of executive producer Tina Fey’s other shows when watching Girls5eva — its best moments recall the inspired silliness, pointed feminism and scathing showbiz satire of Fey and her collaborators’ best work (30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Great News). Created by Kimmy Schmidt alum Meredith Scardino, Girls5eva feels more like a Tina Fey show than Fey’s current show Mr. Mayor, brimming with so many cutaways, parodic music videos and densely packed jokes you’re almost afraid to laugh lest you miss a half-second gag. Wickie is this show’s Jenna Maroney and Philipps its Jacqueline White, but the one-liners feel specific to this universe, which is populated by YouTubers named Stevia and institutions like Eric Trump Casino University.
Girls5eva hits just the right note between nostalgia and side eye for late ‘90s pop, with frequent flashbacks to the turn of the millennium when they were still a quintet. (The cast mostly play the younger versions of their characters, save the closeted young Gloria, who’s embodied by Erika Henningsen. Ashley Park plays the deceased fifth member.) But if there’s jokes for days, there’s plenty of heart here, too. As the women plan for a comeback at a major show — while figuring out the basics of musicianship, like how to write a song — they learn how to be friends again, this time with the complications of middle age. The dead-broke Wickie moves in with Dawn and her small family in their cramped apartment, while Gloria gently attempts to get Summer to admit that her marriage to her probably gay ex-boy-bander husband (Andrew Rannells), whom she sees once a month, is a sham.
Philipps seems born to play the role of Summer, while the lengths to which Goldsberry will go to mock her character is Krakowski-esque in its fearlessness and endless inventiveness. Bareilles is a bit listless and Pell too one-note, but overall Girls5eva boasts a stellar core and supporting cast, including Jonathan Hadary as their exploitative former manager. None of the songs in the first five screener episodes (out of eight) are as instantly earwormy as Kimmy Schmidt’s “Peeno Noir,” but “New York Lonely Boy,” a Simon & Garfunkel-esque bittersweet ode in folk-rock harmonies to Manhattan’s precocious only children of older parents (“The Strand is his Disneyland”), is a particular highlight.
At this juncture, it’s not saying much to declare Girls5eva Peacock’s best original series — there’s not much competition for the title. But it’s certainly the kind of too-funny-not-to-share show that should proliferate by word of mouth. The 40-somethings of Girls5eva might never reach the spotlight again, but their journeys toward it are already delightful and deliriously witty. So what are you waiting five?
Cast: Sara Bareilles, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Paula Pell, Busy Philipps
Creator: Meredith Scardino
Showrunner: Meredith Scardino
Premieres Thursday, May 6, on Peacock