REVIEW: “Girls5eva”

I’m gonna be honest—the only reason I watched Girls5eva is because Sara Bareilles and Renée Elise Goldsberry were in it. I never watched Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and I’m not the biggest fan of Tina Fey comedies (they’re well-made but the humor tends not to be my particular cup of tea). But, I gotta say, I enjoyed Girls5eva. To be clear, based solely on its writing, it’s a pretty standard comedy. I’ve seen similar premises done in similar ways before, and the jokes are a bit hit or miss. But Girls5eva’s special sauce is its cast. Bareilles, Goldsberry, Paula Pell, and Busy Philipps are so good that they frequently pick up the writing’s slack. Plus, there’s a whole host of entertaining guest stars that join them, making Girls5eva worth watching for its outstanding cast, alone. (3 out of 5 wands.)

Girls5eva
(created by Meredith Scardino)
When a one-hit-wonder girl group from the 90’s gets sampled by a young rapper, its members reunite to give their pop star dreams one more shot. They may be grown women balancing spouses, kids, jobs, debt, aging parents, and shoulder pain, but can‘t they also be Girls5eva?

For what it is, Girls5eva is enjoyable enough. The plot doesn’t quite support the show’s eight episodes, leaving some of the middle episodes feeling very filler-y and easily cutable, but it’s hard to say the show’s not enjoyable. It’s just very… average. Every aspect of the show feels like it’s been done before, and probably done a little bit better. The jokes come lightning-quick, but they’re very hit or miss. It’s hard to tell if the songs are supposed to be so bad they’re good (whether in an ironic way or a funny way) or if the characters are just clueless about how bad the songs are (this idea ends up being very similar to Quibi’s Royalties, a show I was frequently reminded of while watching Girls5eva). Even the premise isn’t super original—how many different films and TV shows have been made about one-hit-wonder groups reforming decades after their brief stardom?

What does make Girls5eva unique, though, is its focus on these middle-aged former girl group singers, with a lot of reflection on the sexism they would’ve faced as teenagers/young adults in the music industry. For as nostalgic as the show and its characters are for the early 2000s, there are constant references to how awful their original career was. It was filled with skeevy managers, questionable labor practices, and a lot of toxic behavior. These moments come so close to saying something interesting about how toxic the music industry can be, but then they fall a bit short as though the show is too scared to criticize the music industry too seriously. It’s a shame because I think a show like this is the perfect vehicle to offer that kind of criticism; I mean, other shows have done it very well (including the previously-mentioned Royalties on Quibi). 

The problem is that Girls5eva doesn’t seem convinced it wants to be a satire. It’s simultaneously a story that tears apart the artificiality of the music industry while also feeling like a love letter to it. Many of the characters are so thinly sketched that you’re never sure if the writers are asking you to sympathize with them or laugh at them. There are these beautiful, heartfelt moments that are surrounded by moments of complete idiocy, and it’s often hard to see what the show is going for. The heartfelt moments do land very well, but they were often immediately undercut by a joke that didn’t land. To be fair, the show does work more often than it doesn’t, but the lack of focus robs it of a lot of the bite it could’ve had. And without that bite, it just feels like any of those other stories I’ve seen before.

However, the four main characters (and their actresses) save this show from being completely forgettable. Bareilles’s Dawn is the grounded heart of the show, and it’s an important role that Bareilles plays well. Goldsberry leans into the ridiculousness of the self-absorbed Wickie, stealing almost every scene she’s in and coming the closest to truly lambasting the music industry. Paula Pell and Busy Phillips are equally wonderful, but the show doesn’t give them as much to work with. Phillips’s Summer comes across as the perfect example of the archetypal ditzy blonde character. You’d hope a show like this would seek to satirize that trope, and maybe it is trying to do that. But that satire never landed for me. Phillips does her best with the role but it’s just not an archetype I’m fond of. The two episodes that focus on her (and her relationship with her husband) are nice, but I wish they’d done more along those lines and hadn’t leaned so hard into this trope. Pell’s Gloria is one of the most reliable laugh getters, but her character arc isn’t as defined as everyone else’s and she is only given one episode that truly focuses on her (and her relationship with her ex-wife). Pell delivers a superb, often heartfelt performance, but the character just doesn’t get the same limelight afforded to everyone else.

Still, these four women work brilliantly together and are immediately believable as their characters. Even if I don’t always love what the show gives them to do, I can’t help but love them. Their performances buoy the show through its weaker moments. Each actress is so dedicated to what they’re doing, so committed to breathing life into these characters that it’s hard not to be enraptured by their performances. Plus, they’re joined by an impressive cast of guest stars. I mean, there’s Andrew Rannells as Summer’s husband, Stephen Colbert as a Swedish songwriter, Dean Winters, Vanessa Williams, Bowen Yang, Tina Fey, and a ton of others. Every episode has some guest star that’ll thrill you to the core, and everyone involved with this show is having such a good time with it. If there’s one reason to watch Girls5eva, it’s so that you can see all of these deeply funny people fully committed to being as ridiculous as possible.

Ultimately, I’m just not sure what Girls5eva wants to be. At times, it’s a satire of the music industry, making fun of some of its ridiculous, artificial quirks. But it never really commits to being a true skewering of the industry, so the satire feels a bit middling. At times, it’s a very heartfelt show, bordering on being enjoyably cheesy. Either one of these approaches would’ve been good ones to take, but the show tries to have it both ways and it never ended up working for me. I found myself constantly wishing it would just pick one of those lanes and excel at it. By the end of the first season, it seems like it’s figured out what direction it wants to go, but it’s kind of too little too late after sitting through some of the midseason filler. However, when Girls5eva works—and it does work more often than it doesn’t—it’s a fun show that’s worth a watch. All of the performances are fantastic and there are so many brilliant guest stars that you’re bound to find someone you’re excited to see in every episode. It’s not the kind of thing I’d rush to find, but if you’re a fan of any of these actresses, you’re in for an enjoyable, if a bit average, watch.

(3 out of 5 wands.)

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