Girls5Eva does for girlband pop what Spinal Tap did for heavy metal

‘Girls5Eva’ is an underrated gem has enough energy and emotion to fill stadiums  (Heidi Gutman/Peacock)
‘Girls5Eva’ is an underrated gem has enough energy and emotion to fill stadiums (Heidi Gutman/Peacock)

What happens to a one-hit-wonder girlband when their allocated 15 minutes of fame comes to an abrupt end, and they’re no longer the hottest young things in coordinated but subtly different outfits?

It’s a question answered in all-singing, all-dancing style by effervescent sitcom Girls5eva, which debuted on US streamer Peacock in 2021 but is now finally available to stream on Netflix, where a third season will arrive later this year. Created by Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt writer Meredith Scardino and exec-produced by Tina Fey, this underrated gem has enough energy and emotion to fill stadiums, and more Nineties-style pop treats than an ancient Now That’s What I Call Music disc. It’s This Is Spinal Tap for turn-of-the-millennium girl groups, turning the synths up to 11.

Wickie, Dawn, Summer, Gloria and Ashley make up Girls5eva, a Spice Girls knock-off who peaked in the late Nineties. The band’s name – and many of their lyrics – stem from that era’s philosophy 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 up as the show’s theme song, they’re Girls5eva “because 4eva’s too short” to capture a) their era-defining fame and b) their ever-lasting friendship. Sadly, real life is rarely as simple as song words. Twenty years later, the group is barely a footnote in pop culture history, and the now fortysomething “girls” aren’t exactly living the dream.

Dawn (Sara Bareilles) is assistant manager at her family’s Italian restaurant, where her brother is her boss. Gloria (Paula Pell) is a dentist and “one half of the first gay couple to divorce in the state of New York”. Summer (Busy Phillips) formed a Christian pop duo, singing pro-purity anthems like “Can’t Wait 2 Wait” with husband Kev (Andrew Rannells in a blonde wig, looking like an off-brand Ken doll), but now spends her days unsuccessfully auditioning for Real Housewives franchises. Wickie (Hamilton star Renée Elise Goldsberry) fakes a private jet lifestyle for Instagram. And tragically, five has become four, after Ashley (Ashley Park) died in a freak infinity pool accident.

When rapper Lil Stinker samples a hook from “Famous 5eva” on his new track, though, their fortunes change. The quartet reunite as a nostalgia act on The Jimmy Fallon Show and decide to grab their second shot at relevance with both hands. Soon they’re performing at derelict malls, blagging their way onto the bill at the Jingle Ball and dealing with recurrent knee injuries triggered by ill-advised death drops. Eventually, it’s time to engage “album mode” – which, as perma-OTT resident diva Wickie puts it, “is a state of mind that started when our [record] deal was announced and ends when I am at the Met Gala in a catheter because my dress is too complicated”.

They soon discover, of course, that it’s much easier to keep reaching for pop stardom when you’re naive twentysomethings who don’t have to worry about joint pain, mortgages and biological clocks. The latter concern plays out in one of the show’s brilliant genre-hopping songs, written by Scardino and composer Jeff Richmond, who is married to Fey and has written songs for 30 Rock, Kimmy Schmidt and Mean Girls: The Musical. As Dawn frets that her son will never have siblings if the band hits the big time again, the Simon & Garfunkel parody New York Lonely Boy strikes up in the background, affectionately skewering the niche phenomenon of Manhattan’s super-sophisticated, hyper-articulate, only children (sample lyric: “Forget the Power Rangers/ He prefers small talk with strangers”).

A musical comeback makes for great TV, a cocktail of bruised egos, long-simmering resentments, dormant camaraderie and, of course, assembly-line pop bangers. Just look at Bros’s After The Screaming Stops documentary, which melded the Goss brothers’ preparations for their O2 Arena reunion show with philosophical musings on conkers, Stevie Wonder and “the letters H. O. M. E.”. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, ITV2’s Big Reunion reality format, which brought groups like Atomic Kitten and 5ive back for a UK tour, and later threw together Gareth Gates, Dane Bowers, Kavana, Adam Rickitt and Kenzie from Blazin’ Squad in the Mizz magazine supergroup of dreams.

Girls5eva plays out like an even funnier fictional version. It is, as Richmond put it in an interview with Slate, a love letter to the era of “team-driven pop music”, when everybody was allowed to “have their turn and sing their verse, and their verses come from their character… The sassy one, the hot one, the sporty one.” You get the impression that Summer was very much the group’s Victoria Beckham: her remit, we learn, was to “end songs with a sultry femi-nasty phrase” rather than do too much vocal heavy lifting.

Busy Philipps, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sara Bareilles and Paula Pell in ‘Girls5Eva' (Zach Dilgard/Peacock)
Busy Philipps, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sara Bareilles and Paula Pell in ‘Girls5Eva' (Zach Dilgard/Peacock)

But although there’s plenty of room for nostalgia, Scardino’s show also sharply satirises the grim misogyny of the Nineties pop machine. Their creepy manager Larry locked them into a contract that gave them zero freedom and almost no royalties. They were leered at by talk show hosts. “Let’s talk about your music career – are you a virgin?” asks one presenter in a flashback segment that echoes similar clips from the documentary Framing Britney Spears. And their songs were exclusively written by older men, resulting in some seriously questionable (but somehow weirdly believable) lyrics in 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 in your arm,” the group trills in the latter, “Tell me again why Tarantino’s a genius.”

Even in the present day, things aren’t much better. When the group visit Swedish songwriting guru Alf Musik (a cameo from a practically unrecognisable 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 “spooky” track he composes after being haunted by their “sad” existence.

Eventually, all four women get to sing songs that better reflect their messy, resilient, endearing selves, culminating in “Bend Not Break”, a track that’s ostensibly about Gloria’s knee surgery but also an ode to sticking together and supporting each other. Everyone loves an underdog story, and these obstacles just make you root for Girls5eva and their tentative assault on the music industry all the more. The punchlines land especially hard if you grew up over-identifying with one particular Spice Girl, or trying to learn complex choreography in front of the telly. Girls5eva’s new home on Netflix will hopefully win over legions of new members for the group’s fan club. So, in the words of the girls themselves, “What are you waiting five?”

‘Girls5Eva’ is available now on Netflix