What happens to a one-hit girl band when their allotted 15 minutes of fame come to an abrupt end, and they’re no longer the most attractive young women in coordinated but subtly different outfits?
It’s a question answered with a song-and-dance flair on an effervescent sitcom. girls5eva, which debuted on American streamer Peacock in 2021, but is now finally available to stream on Netflix, where a third season is coming later this year. Created by Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt From writer Meredith Scardino and executive producer Tina Fey, this underrated gem has enough energy and excitement to fill stadiums, and more ’90s-style pop delights than an old-fashioned Now that’s what I call music disc. Is this is spinal tap for girl groups of the turn of the millennium, cranking up the synths to 11.
Wickie, Dawn, Summer, Gloria and Ashley make up Girls5eva, a Spice Girls knockoff that peaked in the late 1990s. The band’s name, and many of its lyrics, stem from the philosophy at the time of “why use a word when you could use a number?” (see also: Boyz II Men, “2 Become 1”). As we learn in their biggest hit, “Famous 5eva,” which doubles as the show’s theme song, it’s Girls5eva “because 4eva’s too short” to capture a) their era-defining fame and b) their everlasting friendship. Unfortunately, real life is rarely as simple as the lyrics to a song. Twenty years later, the group is barely a footnote in pop culture history, and the now forty-something “girls” aren’t exactly living the dream.
Dawn (Sara Bareilles) is an assistant manager at her family’s Italian restaurant, where her brother is the boss. Gloria (Paula Pell) is a dentist and “half of the first gay couple to divorce in New York State.” Summer (Busy Phillips) formed a Christian pop duo, singing pro-purity anthems like “Can’t Wait 2 Wait” with her husband Kev (Andrew Rannells in a blonde wig, looking like an off-brand Ken doll), but now she spends her days unsuccessfully auditioning for real housewives Wickie franchises (hamilton star Renée Elise Goldsberry) fakes a private jet lifestyle for Instagram. And tragically, five have become four, after Ashley (Ashley Park) died in a freak accident in an infinity pool.
However, when rapper Lil Stinker samples a hook from “Famous 5eva” in his new song, his luck changes. The quartet comes together as a nostalgia act in The Jimmy Fallon Show and decides to take his second shot at relevance with both hands. Soon they’re performing in abandoned malls, working their way up the bill at the Jingle Ball, and dealing with recurring knee injuries from misguided fatal drops. Eventually, it’s time to engage “album mode,” which, as perma-OTT’s resident diva Wickie puts it, “is a state of mind that began when our [record] The deal was announced and it ends when I’m at the Met Gala with a catheter because my dress is too complicated.”
They soon discover, of course, that it’s much easier to continue to rise to pop stardom when you’re a naive twenty-something who doesn’t have to worry about joint pain, mortgages, and body clocks. This latter concern manifests itself in one of the show’s brilliant genre-hopping songs, written by Scardino and songwriter Jeff Richmond, who is married to Fey and has written songs for 30 Rock, Kimmy Schmidt and Mean Girls: The Musical. As Dawn worries that her son will never have siblings if the band succeeds again, the Simon & Garfunkel parody Lonely boy from New York plays in the background, lovingly skewering the niche phenomenon of the super-sophisticated, hyper-articulate only children of Manhattan (sample lyric: “Forget Power Rangers/ Prefer small talk with strangers”).
A musical comeback becomes big TV, a cocktail of bruised egos, simmering resentments, simmering camaraderie and, of course, assembly-line pop hits. Just look at Bros’s AAfter the screaming stops documentary, which combined the Goss brothers’ preparations for their reunion show at the O2 Arena with philosophical musings on conkers, Stevie Wonder and “the letters HOME”. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, ITV2 big meeting reality format, which brought together the likes of Atomic Kitten and 5ive for a UK tour, and then brought together Gareth Gates, Dane Bowers, Kavana, Adam Rickitt and Kenzie from Blazin’ Squad at the mizz dream supergroup magazine.
girls5eva plays out as an even funnier fictional version. It is, as Richmond said in an interview with Board, a love letter to the era of “team pop music,” when everyone was allowed “to have their turn and sing their verse, and their verses come from their character… The cheeky, the hot, the sporty. She gives the impression that Summer was very much the Victoria Beckham of the group: we learned that her mandate was to “end songs with a sultry, feminine line” rather than do too much vocal heavy lifting.
But while there’s plenty of room for nostalgia, Scardino’s show also sharply lampoons the grim misogyny of the ’90s pop machine. Their creepy manager Larry locked them into a contract that gave them zero freedom and next to no royalties. They were subjected to leering looks from talk show hosts. “Let’s talk about your music career, are you a virgin?” asks a host in a flashback segment that echoes similar clips from the documentary. Framing Britney Spears. And their songs were written exclusively by older men, resulting in some seriously questionable (but somehow strangely believable) lyrics on songs like “Jailbait (Great at Sex But It’s Our First Time)” and “Dream Girlfriends.” “We’ve got the kind of birth control that goes on your arm,” the group trills at the latter, “Tell me again why Tarantino is a genius.”
Even today, things are not much better. When the group visits Swedish songwriting guru Alf Musik (a cameo by a virtually unrecognizable Stephen Colbert), he presents them with two potential hits. One is an identikit bop called “Side Pieces for Life,” the other is “Invisible Woman,” a “creepy” track he composes after being haunted by his “sad” existence.
Eventually, the four women are able to sing songs that better reflect their messy, resilient, and endearing personalities, culminating in “Bend Not Break,” a song that’s ostensibly about Gloria’s knee surgery, but is also an ode to sticking together and support each other. Everyone loves an underdog story, and these obstacles make you even more supportive of Girls5eva and her tentative attack on the music industry. Jokes are especially difficult if you grew up identifying too much with a particular Spice Girl, or trying to learn complex choreography in front of the television. girls5evaHopefully, Netflix’s new home will attract legions of new members to the group’s fan club. So, in the words of the girls themselves, “What are you waiting for five?”
‘Girls5Eva’ is now available on Netflix