Tina Fey Makes Sitcoms Great Again
Tina Fey didn’t write Girls5eva, the new Peacock series about a 1990s girl group trying to stage a comeback. But she serves as the show’s executive producer, and her fingerprints are all over it.
Fey and Girls5eva creator Meredith Scardino seem to have learned from the failings of their last show, Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Like many early streaming sitcoms, Kimmy Schmidt was often confused and gimmicky. Girls5eva, meanwhile, is reminiscent of Fey’s best work on 30 Rock. Focused and enjoyable but free from network censors, Girls5eva shows what streaming sitcoms can do.
The show follows the four living members of the titular group after they are catapulted back to fame when a popular rapper samples one of their songs. We watch them reunite with each other after 20 years while trying to break into the unfamiliar era of internet stardom and navigating a slew of personal problems.
Now in their 40s, the girls have all left show business and gone on to a variety of humdrum occupations. Dawn (Sara Bareilles) is a manager at her brother’s restaurant, while Wickie (Hamilton star Renée Elise Goldsberry) shoots geese off runways at an airport, and Summer (Busy Philipps) mooches off her influencer daughter while trying to get on Real Housewives.
The true star of the show is Gloria, now a hard-working dentist who has the distinction of being part of the first lesbian couple to ever get divorced in New York state. In a brilliant bit of casting, Gloria—the youngest member of the group—is played by the inimitable Paula Pell, who at 58 is nearly two decades older than Bareilles and Philipps.
The sight-gag of Gloria’s entrance is bound to get a laugh, as is her early proclamation that “Love doesn’t always win!” Her character prepares the audience early on for a show that makes good use of topical humor without worrying about offending the viewer or taking the “right” position on hot-button issues.
In particular, Girls5eva has plenty to say about the grosser elements of ’90s pop music, which have been thrust into the spotlight by the “Free Britney” movement. The group’s big hit, “Dream Girlfriends,” is a sendup of these tropes, with lines like: We are dream girlfriends/’Cause our dads are dead/So you’ll never have to meet them/And get asked why you left school.
Then there’s Larry, the girls’ manager. When we first meet him, he greets Dawn with the line, “I did mandatory sensitivity training, so let’s do a side-hug where none of our parts touch.” Later, he quotes “our greatest president” when he tells the group that “for ladies, 35 is check out time.”
Larry (played by Jonathan Hadary) is a caricature of a #MeToo villain. But the funny thing is, he’s supposed to be funny! There’s no reckoning, no feminist confrontation between him and the group. Vile as he may be, Larry is ultimately a punchline. The show makes similar grist of race, sexuality, vaccinations, and other hot topics. Like Saturday Night Live in its heyday, Girls5eva takes shots at everyone, gleefully and without reservation.
As befits a show about a girl group, some of the best punchlines are delivered in original songs, written by Scardino and Jeff Richmond, Fey’s husband. The Simon and Garfunkel-style “New York Lonely Boy” describes a type of urban child whose “playground is the lobby, [and] has a palate for wasabi.”
By far the funniest song is “I’m Afraid,” a raunchy ballad earnestly belted by Bareilles. It’s too hard to pick the best lyrics, and we probably can’t print them, anyway. Just listen to it.
The show does have its weak points. The last few episodes feel rushed and disjointed, and the series is speckled with uninteresting romantic subplots that are all left unresolved. Busy Philipps can’t match Bareilles’s and Goldsberry’s voices or Pell’s comedic timing, and often feels like she’s struggling to keep up with the rest of the cast. But her performance is ultimately charming.
The same can’t be said for Stephen Colbert, who makes a guest appearance as Girls5eva’s eccentric Swedish songwriter. Colbert, who hasn’t been funny since the Bush administration, distracts from the action with his bad accent and strange jokes, which fall flat and leave the viewer wishing he would stick to preachy late-night monologues.
Still, Girls5eva is a breath of fresh air for a genre dominated by self-serious political commentary. Its smart, cynical theatricality will delight fans of 30 Rock and may even mend some of the funny bones that were broken in the Trump era. After four years of safe, predictable jokes, irreverence has never been funnier.