In the case of some TV moguls, it’s instantly clear when they created a show versus when they’re just producing someone else’s work. There’s a marked difference in tone and style, for instance, between ER and the early seasons of The West Wing, even though John Wells was executive-producing both of them at the same time on NBC. (For that matter, the Wells-run later seasons feel like a wholly different show from the ones written by Aaron Sorkin before the two had a falling-out.) Then there are the moguls like Shonda Rhimes or Tina Fey, who tend to work with people so well-schooled in their own style that you’d have to check the credits to identify who created what.
Case in point: the new Peacock comedy Girls5Eva, about the surviving members of a Y2K-era girl group reuniting in their forties to chase the fame denied them as young women. It is created by Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt alum Meredith Scardino, and produced by her and that show’s creators, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. And with its absurd tone and densely-constructed jokes, it feels much closer to Kimmy Schmidt or 30 Rock than the most recent series actually created by Fey and Carlock, NBC’s Mr. Mayor.
We first meet the titular group in a TRL appearance during their brief heyday, where Wickie (Renée Elise Goldsberry) explains that the five of them — including Dawn (Sara Bareilles), Summer (Busy Philipps), Gloria (Erika Henningsen), and Ashley (Ashley Park) — have been “best friends ever since we auditioned for a man in a motel in New Jersey.” The group implodes shortly thereafter, Ashley dies in an infinity pool accident, and the four survivors go off to very different lives: Dawn as a wife and mom who manages an Italian restaurant owned by her brother Nick (Dean Winters), Wickie as a social-media influencer, Summer as an aspiring Real Housewives cast member, and Gloria (played as an adult by Paula Pell) as a dentist with the distinction of being part of the first lesbian divorce in the state of New York. When a rap star wants to use one of their old hits as a backing track on his next single, the women decide to chase fame once again, even though the music business has contempt at best for women their age. As their old songwriter Alf Musik (played by Stephen Colbert, who worked with Scardino on The Colbert Report) notes with skepticism when they ask him for new material, “It has been an entire Zendaya since you recorded music!”
That joke is one of many throughout Girls5Eva that wouldn’t have felt out of place on 30 Rock, Kimmy Schmidt, or Great News (produced by Fey and Carlock, but created by Tracy Wigfield). It is a show built for the age of streaming interfaces that allow you to jump back 10 seconds at a time, because the punchlines can be so layered or unexpected that second, third, and even fourth replays will come in handy. In one episode, Nick drives the group to a gig in his van — though, as he explains, “For tax purposes, it’s 10 wheelchairs.” In another, Wickie says that she met her latest boyfriend “at the Instagram wall in the vape lounge of the Sriracha Museum.” The group’s misogynist ex-manager Larry (Jonathan Hadary) keeps trying in vain to convince them to let him book gigs in places like “Eric Trump Casino University,” and there’s a running gag about Wickie owning a transparent-bordering-on-invisible piano that she named Ghislaine years before Ghislaine Maxwell’s involvement with Jeffrey Epstein came to light.
Goldsberry, in her first leading TV role since she won a Tony for playing Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton, takes to Scardino’s off-kilter writing like a duck to water. She’s essentially playing the Jane Krakowski role: desperate for attention and blessedly immune to shame. She embodies the detached overconfidence with joy, and is also great at isolated bits of slapstick, like a scene where Wickie has to scoot on her butt up the wheelchair access ramp to a Duane Reade pharmacy because her heels are too steep for the incline.
The role of Summer — who admits she’s not much of a singer, but is great at delivering sultry spoken-word line readings for the ends of songs — fits Philipps like it was tailored to her, exaggerating the persona she’s perfected on past series like Cougar Town without ever fully selling her out as too dumb to function. (“Your knowledge base is so inconsistent!” Wickie complains after one of many instances where Summer shows unexpected insight.) Pell, a longtime SNL writer who’s acted more in recent years (including on NBC-to-Peacock transplant A.P. Bio), displays great versatility here, used as the one sane voice in a scene as often as she is to panic about her pit stains right before a TV appearance. Bareilles is largely new to sitcoms (though she appeared briefly both on 30 Rock and in the puppet episode of Community), and the show functions best with her as the straight woman for the others rather than when she’s the comic engine of a particular story. (Though she is at the center of one of the series’ more inspired bits of business: Dawn fears her son Max is becoming a “New York Lonely Boy,” an old-before-his-time kid who’s happiest in museums or hanging out with his building’s doorman.) Bareilles also wrote one of the new Girls5Eva songs, though most of the show’s irresistible earworms were penned by composer Jeff Richmond in collaboration with Scardino and the show’s other writers.
It’s all endearingly daffy, even if keeping up with the logic behind each joke can sometimes feel like work. Though Fey and Carlock aren’t the creators, their stuff generally takes a while to gel, and that’s the case here — the show is just figuring itself out when the finale arrives. (Compressed streaming season lengths have mostly been good for dramas and bad for comedies, which need room to stretch out a bit.) And on the whole, Girls5Eva is mostly lacking the faint whiff of honest human emotion that kept 30 Rock and Kimmy Schmidt just grounded enough to allow all its ridiculousness to fully flower.
But the show nicely scratches a particular comic itch, even before Fey herself pops up for a cameo, doing a celebrity impression that rivals her best SNL work. Fey didn’t create Girls5Eva, but it feels enough like her work to get by.
The first season of Girls5Eva premieres on Peacock May 6th. I’ve seen all eight episodes.