“Girls5eva” divides up the foursome into pairs locked in a cycle of affection and weariness, with Dawn and Wickie as one duo and Gloria and Summer as another. Pell is the only actress whose younger version of her character is played by another performer, which causes some noticeable discontinuity. But Pell’s blend of sarcasm and sincerity works so well because of the protectiveness she also exudes, especially toward Summer, who Philipps plays as a sort of spiritual sister to Michelle Williams’ baby-voiced girl boss Avery LeClaire in “I Feel Pretty” (co-written and co-directed by Philipps’ husband Marc Silverstein) and Annie Murphy’s resilient, neurotic, charmingly self-obsessed Alexis Rose from “Schitt’s Creek.” While Dawn and Wickie’s plots are mostly about their contributions to the group and their desires as performers, Gloria and Summer’s are more about their romantic frustrations, which makes for some solid counterbalance. Is anything more tragic than the dejected way Philipps delivers the line “I’ve tried out for the Housewives, like, eight times”? Perhaps only how underdeveloped the fifth member of the group, the late Ashley (Ashley Park), ends up being. Given how Fey/Carlock have been called out for their insensitivity toward Asian characters before, it would have been nice if Ashley’s characterization was more than just “dead girl the others miss.”
On the flip side, though, it wouldn’t be a Fey/Carlock-produced show if there weren’t some heel-digging. The social mores they often target receive their ire again here: “mandatory sensitivity training” is mocked, as is Dawn’s concern about the “history of the word” negroni and Wickie’s refusal to change the name of her piano from Ghislaine. Sly asides nod to their various shows work their way in, such as a shout out to Nicole Richie, who costarred on the Fey/Carlock show “Great News”; someone describes her as the only person alive to “get more normal as they age.” And, unsurprisingly, a few ongoing feuds come up, too: a line about “women supporting women” immediately brings up Taylor Swift’s post-2013 Golden Globes lambast of Fey and Amy Poehler, while a dig against culture critics seems like a purposeful rebuke of the messy way “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” handled issues of race and ethnicity.
Even if you’re not deeply invested in the self-referencing minutia of this kind of comedy, there’s so much else about “Girls5eva” that works. There’s the agreeable bizarreness of the show’s recreation of Internet culture (Lil Stinker starting off his rap by doing bird calls, including the “common-ass kestrel”; Wickie holding onto her prized “Wettest Mouth” award from Napster; Bowen Yang as a TikTok personality famous for lip synching), and references to our pop-culture understanding of New York City (John Slattery, Talia Balsam, and their son Harry show up to assure Dawn that her “New York lonely boy” son, with all his grown-up quirks, will turn out just fine). There are pointed observations on the struggle women over 40 face in just being noticed in the world (“I do not recognize you, which means you are Girls5eva,” says Stephen Colbert in a guest role), and how the omnipresence of reality TV has changed the way we consume media (Summer’s daughter trying to make it as a YouTube unboxing star). “Girls5eva” hits the same marks as so many other movies and TV series of this generation of female comedians—Poehler’s “Wine Country,” about a group of 40something friends trying to reconnect, will come to mind more than once—but the cast here is so well-selected, the songs so infectious, and the stakes so refreshingly recognizable that the series becomes the first must-watch comedy of the year.
First season screened for review.