With the rise of the streaming era and decline of network television, poignant and effective satire can be hard to come by. Ultimately, what’s satirical on a network might not come across the same way on a streaming platform, and vice versa. But since former network scribes like Tina Fey or Mindy Kaling have started funneling their creativity into projects for Netflix, Amazon, and now Peacock or Paramount+, the end results have often been quirky but necessary comedy that also serve as social commentary, such as Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or Never Have I Ever. With Peacock’s new series Girls5eva, having been executive produced by Fey and released its first season this spring, a hilarious and heartwarming example has been made of network television’s apparent failure to sense what we sometimes need most: a campy, musical romp that recalls the pop culture of days past, for better and for worse.
Girls5eva brings together an ensemble cast of differing talents to create an accessible and loveable blend of characters. Sara Bareilles, Busy Philipps, Paula Pell, and Renée Elise Goldsberry star as adult members of a former girl group that managed to score one hit in the late 1990s. As most manufactured female pop groups do, they soon fell apart after a series of events prevented them from future success, including—but not limited to—a second album with a song about flying planes into hearts being released on September 10th and their fifth member Ashley (Ashley Park in flashbacks) drowning in an infinity pool accident in 2004. They went their separate ways and didn’t keep in touch as much as they promised until the day a current rapper decides to sample their one hit on a new track. The group, all in stagnant places in both their personal and professional lives, decide to bring Girls5eva (because 4ever’s too short) back to life—but they predictably run into trouble trying to find a leg to stand on in an industry that values youth above all else, especially for women.
The series excels not only because of the main cast’s standout chemistry with each other but because it forces the viewer to recall a time in the history of popular music and culture that was particularly aggressive in its plot against females and mainstream success. Think back, for just a moment, to a time when Britney Spears was both third-wave feminism’s champion and whipping girl and low-rise jeans were the chic look. Given Hollywood’s persisting patriarchal values it has always been more difficult for female stars to achieve anything, no doubt. But Girls5eva wants us to remember a time just before YouTube and social media, when the Internet was still a thing you could log out of.
Not only does it make a compelling case against the early days of MTV reality shows, but it manages to make it funny. Perhaps it’s comical in a “you had to be there” sort of way for viewers who came of age during that era, but the characters’ outlandish personalities and quips make it difficult to not outwardly chuckle, at the very least, once an episode. Summer (Philipps) in particular makes such perfect use of the actress’ Valley Girl speech that you just want to scream “protect this woman at all costs,” and Wickie’s (Goldsberry) surprisingly convincing efforts to still seem famous on the surface of Instagram makes for an eye-opening account of the narratives we get to choose for ourselves—especially when your actual job is shooting geese on an airport runway.
Girls5eva would not succeed on network television for multiple reasons (it would surely go unappreciated by anyone born before 1980, for one) which only continues the case for the artistic freedom that streaming services and paid cable have been able to provide over the last two decades. It’s not necessarily that “network TV is dead,” as the masses of pop culture have been shouting: it’s more that they seem to remain in a place that is unfit to serve the cultural entertainment needs of our increasingly digital lives. And if our digital era has taught us anything, it’s that what’s hot today will be nostalgic tomorrow, something that Dawn, Summer, Gloria, and Wickie must learn to embrace. Or, in other words, someone please tell Gen Z immediately to stop bringing low-rise jeans back in style.