In a very early scene in Peacock’s new series “Girls5eva,” a rising rap star is looking for something he can sample inexpensively. His producer, before directing him to a forgotten hit by a pop quintet, suggests “anything by the Stones: Sharon or Oliver.”
It’s that kind of joke — so briskly delivered, it only registers as the next one arrives — that defines a Tina Fey-produced show. In the eight years since “30 Rock” ended, Fey and current or former creative collaborators have put together a long list of series with a special density. (Most recently, “30 Rock” writer Tracey Wigfield developed Peacock’s surreally witty “Saved by the Bell” reboot.) The combination of cerebral wordplay and exuberant strangeness in these programs is recognizable from 50 paces, and always welcome, even when the project doesn’t totally click.
Happily, “Girls5eva,” about a former girl group reuniting in middle age to attempt a comeback, is a promising offering in its early outings. Created by “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” writer Meredith Scardino, “Girls5eva” is a sophisticated joke-delivery machine that will hold special appeal to culture obsessives, and more evidence that NBCUniversal’s small-but-mighty streamer Peacock punches above its weight.
We see the titular group, a pop quartet, both in their heyday and in present tense. Having long since left (or been left by) stardom, they’re in versions of normal lives, with lead actor Sara Bareilles playing a character who’s stopped thinking too much about her past. When a sample of their signature song resurfaces, the members of Girls5eva — a quintet reduced when one member died in an accident — reunite and set out to reclaim past glory.
Given a hint of potential success, Bareilles’ character loses herself in a fantasy of saying what’s been on her mind: A standout episode has her in a nonstop songwriting jag. The other members, less concerned with songcraft, add new tones to the story. Paula Pell, recently emerging as an on-camera star, plays a character who’s pivoted to a life of quiet dignity; when rehearsals resume, she FaceTimes in from her dentistry practice. Busy Philipps and Renée Elise Goldsberry’s characters, by contrast, exist adjacent to celebrity — Philipps as a would-be influencer in the modern evangelical movement and Goldsberry as a relentless self-promoter who has constructed an image of wealth from limited circumstances. The show’s ensemble is split: Bareilles’ and Pell’s characters are vaguely embarrassed for the parasitic figures they encounter on the path back to the center of culture while Philipps’ and Goldsberry’s glitter with sheer ambition.
All four performances are quite strong. Goldsberry is most effectively committed to the part — she ends every performance with a vocal run that extends beyond reason — and, in flashback, her appearance on a home-tour series crystallizes the show’s sense of the early-2000s pop scene as vacuously extreme. (Noting that Missy Elliott famously slept in a car-shaped bed, Goldsberry’s diva shows off her bed-shaped car. It’s a funny visual, elevated to perfection by her character informing us that it was made by “Sealy Posturepedic for Alfa Romeo.”) And Bareilles roots the show in a human-scale reality, suggesting the ways in which an attempt to pull off an entertainment industry reemergence later in life might disrupt a comfortable rut.
The presence of these two performers — Goldsberry a Tony winner for “Hamilton,” Bareilles a prolific recording artist — speaks to the show’s interest in making the music genuinely credible, and it largely succeeds at skewering a certain stripe of proudly idea-free pop while imitating it too. (Jeff Richmond, Fey’s husband and the talent behind the music of “30 Rock,” serves as a composer for the show and an executive producer.) The comically trite tunes are written in a manner fairly cynical about the business and those who’d want to be a part of it. Acidity is nothing new in the universe of “30 Rock” successors, but “Girls5eva” seems on occasion scared of alienating. To wit: A shout of “hashtag Free Britney!” has been dropped into a scene (connected to nothing and not spoken on camera) in which the four pop stars perform a loving, barbed parody of Britney Spears’ distinctive vocal style. It’s not hard to believe the show is affectionate toward its object of fun, but this moment looks more than a bit performative coming in the midst of teasing Spears. “Girls5eva” seems to overcorrect in either direction, going at times woozily sentimental and at others a little too tough. Having the fifth member of the group (played in flashback by “Emily in Paris” actor Ashley Park) die goes harder than was strictly necessary. The show isn’t built for that level of darkness.
That feeling of a particular plot element being excessive exists in part because, like series within its extended lineage dating back to “30 Rock,” this show is driven more by jokes than by story. And what jokes they are! “Girls5eva” is most fully itself when puncturing the pretensions of its characters and the world around them, and its sensibility grows clearer over the course of the first season. Like its characters, the series is finding its voice, and doing so with style.
“Girls5eva” premieres Thursday, May 6 on Peacock.