Peacock’s new comedy “Girls5Eva” features, naturally, a number of musical performances throughout its eight-episode run, but given pandemic filming restrictions, those numbers look a little bit different than your typical late-’90s, early-’00s pop concert.
“I put one performance in an abandoned mannequin factory because I thought it would give us a few more bodies in crowd shots, which was kind of cool,” series creator Meredith Scardino said in an interview with TheWrap. “It was definitely like throwing me into the deep end as a first-time showrunner, but I was really always amazed at how everybody rallied and made things happen, and I’m really proud of the product that we made.”
The series, which counts Tina Fey and Robert Carlock among its executive producers, centers on a one-hit wonder girl group from “an entire Zendaya” ago who reunites to take another stab at success. Boasting a cast of heavy-hitters including “Waitress” star Sara Bareilles, “Hamilton’s” Renee Elise Goldsberry, “Cougar Town” star Busy Phillips and longtime “SNL” writer Paula Pell, the series is the latest in a string of comedies to mine the turn of the millennium for laughs, riffing on cultural touchstones like MTV and 9/11.
“All of our flashbacks are within ‘TRL,’ or within ‘MTV Cribs,’ or camcorder footage, or some crappy bridge and tunnel network that did a piece on their manager, Larry,” Scardino said. “I came of age kind of around Y2K … So it just seemed like a good way to tell stories about how you felt about life back when you were a young idiot, but also super optimistic and didn’t know any better.”
The show’s rapid-fire jokes and off-kilter sensibility calls to mind other projects from Fey and Carlock, including “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the latter of which Scardino also wrote on. “Girls5Eva’s” surprise appearance by Fey on as a hallucinatory Dolly Parton, at least, would not have been out of place on either show.
“Tina played her during the table read and was hilarious doing this great impression with no preparation,” Scardino said. “She just did it. And her impression is amazing. Just seeing her in that outfit playing one-on-one basketball with Sara Bareilles. Like, I can’t believe someone’s letting us do this.”
Read TheWrap’s full interview with Scardino below.
I imagine it couldn’t have been easy to put together a show where performance is a key component, at a time like this. What was the timeline like for these episodes and how did it all come together?
So I’ll tell you maybe too much, but basically I pitched this series in, I think it was September, before the pandemic. And I was writing on “Mr. Mayor,” and we all flew out there and did a bunch of pitches and sold it and then it was like, OK, great. I’ll start it up after I wrap this season of “Mr. Mayor.” And then in March, obviously the world shut down. And we were just like, OK, well, we’ll just wait. And wait. And then a certain point, we decided we were going to make it a virtual room. One silver lining that was kind of cool, was that it opened me up to be able to work with L.A.-based writers who I hadn’t normally worked with. And then we went into production in October and wrapped in February. So, to my knowledge, we were one of the first shows to go back, and it was definitely – everyone was so grateful to go back to work, which was wonderful. We had an amazing COVID team that just tested us constantly, but it definitely was a challenge. We would lose our permits or we would have a location and then we suddenly would lose that location, have to pivot. We constantly had to pivot and change locations. It was very challenging to be like, OK, how do we shoot this so we don’t need a huge crowd? I put one performance in an abandoned mannequin factory because I thought it would give us a few more bodies in crowd shots, which was kind of cool. [Laughs]. But you know, everybody rallied in such an amazing way to pull off the season. It was definitely like throwing me into the deep end as a first time showrunner, but I was really always amazed at how everybody rallied and made things happen, and I’m really proud of the product that we made.
How different is the final show from what you had envisioned in September?
I always had it planned to have sort of a handheld feel when we could. We had a really amazing DP, John Inwood, who worked on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and, I think, “30 Rock” as well. And he would always just make things look beautiful, and he was always very useful in working with me to figure out which scenes we could give that kind of energetic handheld feel. Yes, ideally, I would have loved to have more crowd feedback, more interaction with fans more just just populate the scenes with humans, with bodies to make them feel a little bit more authentic. But I do feel proud of the work that our directors did, I don’t think it would look wildly different from how it came out.
In terms of the ’90s/Y2K nostalgia aspect of the show, what were the elements of that time period that you really wanted to riff on, or saw a lot of opportunity to play with?
Well, all of our flashbacks are seen through a camera. That was a style that we thought of very early on, that seemed like it would be a nice way to delineate the past from the present. So if you look at it, all of our flashbacks are within “TRL,” or within “MTV Cribs,” or camcorder footage, or some crappy bridge and tunnel network that did a piece on their manager, Larry. Or, you know, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” celebrity edition or “Larry King Live.” Some of those are still around, but using those pieces of archival footage just felt like a fun way to look back.
You know, I’m in my 40s and like I came of age kind of around Y2K, turn of the century. Like, I was in my late teens, early 20s kind of thing. So it just seemed like a good way to tell stories about how you felt about life back when you were a young idiot, but also super optimistic and didn’t know any better. And then also where we are now, the things I’m going through now.
Were there any experiences that you had personally that you really wanted to be part of the show?
The most personal thing in the show for me, I think, is just the “New York Lonely Boy” story. I have a 3-and-a-half-year-old son, and he’s just the best. And people are always asking me, “Are you gonna have another?” and I’m like, “No, he’s a New York Lonely Boy, he’s great.” I’ve been calling him that – I called him that in the “Mr. Mayor” room and the “Kimmy” room. That’s just always been like my shorthand for it, this kid who’s great around adults and, you know, makes friends with the super and all that stuff. And when it came time to figure out that story, it was like, yeah, we should talk about this, about her worrying about it. And then I happen to know that John Slattery had an only child – I actually saw him walking around the city one time, I think it might have even been Father’s Day. And it was just him and his adult son, and they looked like they were best friends. And I was thinking, “Wow, that seems like a great relationship.” I do feel like I’ve noticed it – I don’t know why – that it’s more common with sons. I have no idea if that’s true, but it felt very personal to write that song. And have Jeff arranged it and help shape it and have The Milk Carton Kids cover it. That was just, such a wonderful experience.
Sara Bareilles has done some acting before, in “Waitress” and a few other things, but this does feel like something different than we’ve seen from her before. How did you settle on her as the center of the show?
When I wrote the first episode and Tina and I were talking about who should play Dawn, Sara was top of our list. Because Tina had not seen her in “Waitress” – I’ve seen the show, but I didn’t get to see it with Sara in lead role. Tina was just like, “She’s so good. She’s amazing.” And, actually, when she co-hosted the Tonys with Josh Groban, they did a little bit of comedy. And she’s a natural, she’s really, really good. She just has this super-natural delivery and great timing. And, obviously, she’s like, the most monstrously talented musician. And Tina somehow convinced her to do it, but it is so cool to see her in the show and always see, like, “Oh my God that she can do this and this and this. We can write to that, and we can write to that” – just like discovering all of this as we were going. Like, she’s a really good physical comedian. She can fall down in an amazing way.
Renee Elise Goldsberry is also a hugely accomplished actresses and singer, but I don’t think that we’ve seen anything quite like this from her before either. How much fun is it to write for that character knowing that you can throw anything at her and she’ll be able to deliver it?
It’s amazing. She’s so committed. And she’s so good. She always knows — I mean, everyone in the cast was always really prepared, which I so appreciated especially when we really under the gun shooting-wise, but Renee was so fun to write for. There was a line in the pilot where she just sings the end of a line, “because of the voice God put in my mouth.” And it became an invitation for us to just let her like, bust into song more often because she’s so proud of her amazing voice. And that became really, really fertile territory for us as writers. She’s such a gift to write for, because she can also bank a lot of emotional turns within a line. She’s great.
So aside from “New York Loney Boy,” do you have a favorite song?
So, we did nine full songs, and Sara wrote “Four Stars,” which is the end of the season. That’s the one that could make me cry it’s so beautiful. And I can’t believe she wrote a song for the end of the series, and it’s just the perfect anthem for these four women. The stupidest song that I love is “The Splingee,” which is their dance-craze song and you see it at the top of Episode 7, but if you listen to the credits it continues and it’s just kind of this absurdly difficult, long dance sequence. That was really fun to write. Like, I was just sitting there trying to think of difficult dance moves to cram into a song and Jeff Richmond, who composed the music and shaped so much of it, he really – it’s insane. When you read it, the lyrics are insane, but he made it into a really fun, earworm-y song. I think that’s my favorite behind “New York Lonely Boy.” And then I also love “Famous 5eva,” the theme. So I guess I have four favorites. [Laughs]
I also wanted to ask about Tina’s Dolly impression, how did that come about?
It’s so funny. She has this amazing voice. She’s such a good mimic that she can unlock people and really make these amazing impressions. So we had the idea in the script that a hallucination of Dolly Parton is Dawn’s mentor for an episode when she follows the Dolly Parton method of not eating and not sleeping to write a song. We went out to Dolly Parton – we’re all huge fans – and we were like, “Is there any world where we could get Dolly Parton during a pandemic while she’s in another state?” I’m not even sure that request got to her. I truly have no idea. But we tried really hard to get the real Dolly to play Dolly Parton, and then it just kept getting closer and closer shooting. So Tina played her during the table read and was hilarious doing this great impression with no preparation. She just did it. And her impression is amazing. Just seeing her in that outfit playing one-on-one basketball with Sara Bareilles. Like, I can’t believe someone’s letting us do this.
All eight episodes of “Girls5Eva” are available to stream on Peacock.