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As ‘Girls5eva’ Moves to Netflix, Its Cast and Producers Hope More People Finally Watch: ‘We Almost Lost It’

Back in May 2021, singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles returned to the Hollywood Bowl to promote a new album. At one point, she invited her “Girls5eva” co-stars — Renée Elise Goldsberry, Paula Pell and Busy Philipps — to join her onstage. The quartet performed the song “4 Stars” from the comedy, marking the first and only time they’ve sung together in public.

But here’s the rub: This was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and all 17,500 seats around the Hollywood Bowl were empty. Bareilles’ concert was being livestreamed, and the cast had no idea what the fans at home felt about their performance.

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Which sounds a lot like the fate of “Girls5eva” itself. The comedy was one of the first original series on Peacock, but on a nascent streamer, the audiences weren’t huge. Critics and a small cadre of fans embraced the Tina Fey-produced comedy, but it never caught on with a broader viewership.

“Peacock made it possible for us to shoot in the midst of a pandemic before there were even vaccines,” Philipps says. “But I do think that it was really hard for the audience to find it there.”

By the following year, Peacock had canceled most of its sitcoms, including “Girls5eva,” and had turned its attention to true crime, mostly.

But “Girls5eva” is all about second chances, and its story did not end there. Created by Meredith Scardino (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), “Girls5eva” takes on the absurdity of pop culture through the lens of four women who enjoyed fleeting fame as an early-aughts girl group and are now trying to mount a comeback as older women.

“One of the fun things about the show is when you see people you know one way in a whole new way,” Scardino says. “People know Sara’s beautiful songs and being a pop star and they know Renée from ‘Hamilton’ and then to see them both be hilarious is so surprising. And then similarly to hear Busy Philipps and Paula Pell sing, it’s like, oh my gosh, they all have all of these moves!”

Bareilles is Dawn, who gave up dreams of fame to raise her family. Goldsberry’s character, Wickie, is the diva whose attempt at a solo career didn’t pan out. Philipps’ Summer is the spacey wannabe influencer who belatedly realizes her marriage is a lie. Pell plays Gloria, who gave up music to become a dentist. When one of their long-forgotten songs resurfaces as a sample on a hip-hop tune, they reunite.

It’s an ambitious series that mixes a “30 Rock”-level density of jokes with a deeper storyline about what it’s like to pursue a passion after you thought the opportunities were gone.

“It’s so smart and funny and it’s that Tina Fey brand of joke on top of joke,” Philipps says. “Sometimes there are so many jokes, our heads are sort of spinning. Meredith Scardino is one of my favorite writers of all time. I think people really love ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and I think that they’re gonna really love this too.”

And then there’s all the original music — both hysterical and farcical (as created by the writers and music director Jeff Richmond) and sometimes profound (when written by Bareilles).

Even before Peacock pulled the plug on “Girls5eva,” exec producers including Fey, Robert Carlock and David Miner (as well as WME’s Richard Weitz) were on the phone to Netflix to gauge their interest in saving the show. They believed “Girls5eva” would hit big — it just needed an audience to find it.

And Netflix has had a knack for acquiring little-seen shows like “Schitt’s Creek” (first on Pop TV), Lifetime’s thriller “You” and “Cobra Kai” (which began as a YouTube Original) and turning them into monster hits, given its wider reach as a streamer. Helping their cause, much of the Netflix team used to work at NBCUniversal and have a long relationship with the execs at “Girls5eva” studio Universal TV.

“It’s a show that we all talked about,” says Netflix comedy head Tracey Pakosta. “It has an emotional center, the cast is incredible, and the characters were very distinct. Universal did an incredible job with the show, but frankly, you didn’t hear much about it.”

Adds Scardino: “There were a lot of friendly faces over at Netflix that already liked what we were putting out there. It felt like an easy match.”

With Netflix on board, the cast was all in too, even if it meant their existing show deals wouldn’t be renegotiated. “I remember getting a call from my agent saying, ‘It looks like there will be a Season 3 on Netflix. Are you up for doing it without revising your contract?’” Bareilles remembers. “And all four of us girls were an immediate yes. Whatever we have to do to get the show up and running again, it was a no-brainer.”

Says Pell of the Peacock-to-Netflix transition: “I have a spidey sense about anything in show business. And if you’re waiting too long, something’s up usually… [but] it didn’t feel like there was a big breakup period. I didn’t have to get depressed and play Joni Mitchell and stare off at a wall.”

Philipps, meanwhile, is no stranger to network swaps, having starred on “Cougar Town,” which went from ABC to TBS. “When I heard it was going to be Netflix, it made so much sense to me. It feels like that’s exactly where these girls belong,” she says.

GIRLS5EVA. (L to R) Busy Philipps as Summer, Paula Pell as Gloria, Renee Elise Goldsberry as Wickie and Sara Bareilles as Dawn in GIRLS5EVA (Season 3, Episode 02). Cr. Emily V Aragones/Netflix © 2023
Busy Philipps as Summer, Paula Pell as Gloria, Renee Elise Goldsberry as Wickie and Sara Bareilles as Dawn in “Girls5eva” (Emily V Aragones/Netflix)

Things were a little more complicated when it came to renegotiating the show’s maze of international deals, but Netflix eventually was able to pick up nonexclusive runs of the show’s first two seasons, plus the exclusive run of Season 3’s six new episodes.

All 22 episodes will premiere at once, on March 14, giving new viewers an immediate full plate to devour. “They’re packed to the gills,” Scardino says.

The notes from Netflix were scant. One minor request was to trim the runtimes slightly. “There were episodes that were in the high 20s, and so then we just sort of tightened them up a little bit,” Scardino says. “But not too much. And this season is six episodes. It was a little bit tighter, it’s a more strategic arc of them on tour. But, creatively, I feel like they’ve been wonderful partners. They’re very supportive. I mean, it kind of helps they already liked the thing.”

Simultaneously, the studio and streamer agreed to a lower license fee (around $4 million an episode). That required cutting the show’s budget, which was already tight. To save money, Season 3 was shot in a rapid clip over six weeks, and in a “block” fashion — which meant filming several scenes from different episodes in the same location. Kimmy Gatewood directed all six episodes.

That’s never easy on the talent, who are asked to act in back-to-back scenes from different episodes, where their characters might be in a very different mindset.

“The whole thing felt a little bit like a fever dream because we did it all very quickly,” Scardino says. “And in a short burst because it was all pre-written. Everyone was just so grateful to be there, because we like almost lost it, and so we were all just grateful to be reunited. I think it did feel like art imitating life with the comeback.”

Indeed, “Girls5eva” has experienced a bumpy road then most, having launched and shot during the early days of the pandemic. And even more recently, production on Season 3 wrapped just as the Hollywood strikes shut down production across the industry. That meant the episodes had to sit in a can for months until post-production was ready to resume.

The actresses say shooting “Girls5eva” is a lot like participating in a boot camp — and they’re kind of proud of that. Goldsberry remembers Fey pulling her aside early on and saying in the nicest way possible that scene changes would be at more of a quick “Saturday Night Live” pace than, say, at a normal TV show production style.

“When you’re working with such a tight budget and schedule, part of the most insane challenge is the hair, makeup and wardrobe changes,” Philipps says. “You have 10 minutes to make a changeover that normally would take an hour and 45 minutes. You’re constantly getting into things, getting out of things, having your hair pulled in different directions.”

But instead of bemoaning all of that penny-pinching, everyone involved with “Girls5eva” share their astonishment at the relative ease of pulling off such a resurrection despite the usual business challenges. “We’re impatient people here in entertainment,” says Universal TV president Erin Underhill. “But I feel like we’ve been in negotiations on a single script for longer than it took to get this entire deal put together.”

The cast, too, never seemed to doubt that the Netflix deal would happen. Even though they all work in a business where disappointment is common, for some reason this felt different. “Every time in my life, when something big was about to happen and somebody said, ‘You’re about to blow up,’ I just never believe it,” Goldsberry says. “I always keep my hopes down. Yet at the end of ‘Girls5eva’ Season 2, I felt exactly the opposite. I have so much belief in this show — it’s such an undeniable bolt of joy and humor and aspiration — I never had a worry.”

GIRLS5EVA -BTS- Busy Philipps as Summer in Episode 302 on the set of GIRLS5EVA. Cr. Emily V. Aragones/Netflix © 2023
Busy Philipps as Summer, “Girls5eva” (Emily V. Aragones/Netflix)

Or maybe it’s the profound impact “Girls5eva” has had on its stars, who can all relate to the show’s storytelling. For Bareilles, playing Dawn in flashback scenes has been tremendously emotional, reminding her of what it was like to navigate the music industry back in her 20s. “It’s been really interesting to see how quickly what feels like very young insecurities get stirred up — like when we’re doing our costuming for the flashbacks,” she says. “I’ve had many days on set crying. Just like, ‘I’m in a little black dress, and I feel awful.’ You don’t really age out of that. You don’t get so wise that you’re not susceptible to this.”

Philipps gets it too: “It’s rare that you get a show that really is about what it is to be a woman who is over the age of 40 in this world and and the kinds of real life things that you deal with,” she says. “Day-to-day it’s so relatable in so many different ways.”

But Bareilles and her co-stars feel protected by one another. “There is something about this show that I think feels exceptionally safe to go to those tender places,” she says. “These women have now become very close friends of mine. We’ve gone through loss and divorce, all kinds of shit together at this point. It does feel like what’s happening on-screen is in relationship to the very real chemistry that’s happening off-screen.”

Because “Girls5eva” walks a fine line between making fun of the characters’ heightened actions and celebrating their ambitions, Goldsberry says, “when I first heard about the show, I was worried. Are we going to be making fun of women in this age group who continue to redefine what it means to be powerful and sexy? I just wanted to make sure that our take on this was a celebration, and not like a tearing down and making fun of. And boy, am I glad I took the job, because that’s what we do: We make fun of ourselves, but we never make fun of the idea that we deserve to dream.”

On to this season. When we last saw the Girls5eva quartet, they had decide to go on tour, and as Season 3 opens, we find they have left New York to head to the only place they have any heat: Ft. Worth, Texas. That’s because the savvy group realized that Ft. Worth was the biggest city in America without its own hit song — and the pandering worked.

“They they get a little seduced by the warm bath of being popular in this smaller city,” Scardino says. “And so Wickie ends up pulling a huge move to just light a fire under their butts to get them to really go for it and do a proper tour. I won’t spoil what it is. But that creates the arc of this season. Can they can they pull off this this massive swing that Wickie pulls at the end of Episode 1?”

And again, if life imitates life, why can’t Bareilles, Goldsberry, Pell and Philipps actually go on tour together — or at least do a few shows — as Girls5eva? It’s something they have talked about. “I want that to happen,” Goldsberry says. “We’re so ready.”

Bareilles is also game: “I would do it in a heartbeat. Get on a tour bus with these gals. We brought that up a few times. The truth is just schedules and cost. But if that could get sorted out, it would be so much fun.”

First though, those audiences need to find “Girls5eva” on March 14. This being Netflix, the measurement of success will come down to not only how many people watch — but whether they watch all 22 episodes and complete that initial run. From there, in success the stars say they’re eager to keep the show going… pretty much 5eva.

“I just hope we get to keep making this show,” Bareilles says. “It is a real bright spot. A deep, creative joy. I’m someone who consumes a lot of comedy shows, but I’ve never been a part of making one and it just reminds me the value of laughing and the buoyancy in our life. In times when things do feel so bleak, and it’s really easy to slip into a hopeless kind of state of mind, it isn’t completely frivolous to be making people laugh. It is actually of service and I really I take that to heart. I do think there is intrinsic value in that. I want a ‘Girls5eva’ movie. I want to ‘Sex and the City’ this shit. What a delicious dream.”

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