Meredith Scardino Makes Girls5eva Sing

We talk to the series creator about everyone’s favorite turn-of-the-millennium pop stars as they mount a Returnity on Netflix
Meredith Scardino Makes Girls5eva Sing

After washing out as pop stars in the very early aughts, the Girls5eva — ’cause 4eva’s too short — get a second chance at the music industry when rapper Lil’ Stinker (Jeremiah Craft) samples one of their old songs. Life has moved on for all of them: Dawn (Sara Bareilles) manages an Italian restaurant that’s one of many businesses her brother Nick (Dean Winters) owns; Wickie (Renée Elise Goldsberry) has been clinging to whatever remnants of fame remain available to her but is basically unhoused; Summer (Busy Philipps) has parlayed her romance with boy bander Kev (Andrew Rannells) into an unsatisfying marriage and motherhood to surly daughter Stevia (Penelope Richmond); Gloria (Paula Pell as an adult; Erika Henningson in her youth) is a successful dentist; and Ashley (Ashley Park) is… dead, in a mysterious infinity pool accident. But the chance to do music stardom over again on their own terms is too enticing to resist.

For the show’s first two seasons, the girls of Girls5eva reconsidered the misogynist messages of their old songs, opportunities they should have passed on (like a prank show with just one victim, John Lutz’s Percy, to whom they really need to make amends), and relationships that didn’t serve them. One relationship the show had to end off-screen was with Peacock, the original home of Girls5eva’s first two seasons — but in classic Girls5eva style, they had another comeback at the ready, and today, the show débuts on its new streaming home, Netflix, with an all-new third season.

When we last left the band, Dawn had just found out she was unexpectedly pregnant, inconveniently just in time for the group to cut ties with its label — and the Property Brothers, said label’s proprietors. As we pick back up, they’ve embarked upon an extremely grassroots tour, unofficially sponsored by Marriott Divorced Dad Suitelets, where they can stay for free thanks to Gloria’s credit-card points. The tour takes them to some places they expect, like Fort Worth, an anthem to which they released in Season Two; it also takes them places they don’t expect, like back to Maryland, where Wickie’s hardscrabble upbringing took place. 

Along the way, they meet characters played by comedy icons like John Early, Richard Kind and Catherine Cohen; Gray, a Harry Styles-ian pop megastar played by (new) Gossip Girl alumnus Thomas Doherty; and eat countless starchy dinners at roadside chain restaurant Macaroni Rascals. It all builds to a final tour stop at Radio City Music Hall… or does it?!

Last week, I spoke to series creator Meredith Scardino about how she keeps her music industry references current, the process behind a joke pile-on and how she did not want Dawn’s pregnancy story to be portrayed.

Warning: Contains spoilers for Season 3, including the finale

These can be uncertain times for creators working in streaming. As a fan, I’m happy that the show went from one platform that doesn’t tend to delete original shows to another. Was this a consideration when Girls5eva was in between streaming partners after Season 2?

I just feel very fortunate to be able to do the next chapter in the show. I know it's tough out there, and the business is shrinking — peak TV, seemingly, has peaked. So I certainly don’t take anything for granted. I’m really grateful to be able to make this show with all these talented people. 

The disappearance of Batgirl and Coyote vs. Acme happened after your first season premiered. Is securing the future of your work something that you and your team have front of mind now, more than you might have in the past?

I’m a beneficiary of shows getting rehomed by a platform that can take care of it. I think everybody is more aware of how ephemeral things are. You want to make sure you have your own copies, so you don’t lose it.

Your first season shot during early COVID, and I think your third wrapped seconds before strikes were called. Were there lessons that you learned from the first catastrophe that you could adapt to the next one?

Yeah, the show started under wild circumstances, and I was just always so impressed by our crew, and by everybody, top to bottom, from EPs to PAs — the adaptability, the problem-solving. We had an amazing COVID team that kept everybody safe. I mean, I met the cast, and I felt like a Stormtrooper. I was wearing so much PPE, and I would be screeching, like, “Okay, that was great, but what if we tried….” It felt like such a miracle that we pulled off Season One with four extras or whatever we were allowed to shoot with.

So we have a very nimble crew that we work with. It’s the realities of life — what are you going to do? We had a strike. We had to have a strike. You figure it out, you brush yourself off, you try again, you keep going. I feel like it’s so one-to-one to the spirit of the girl group. I so feel like them. Oftentimes, I’m just like, “Keep going, just keep going and keep trying, you’re going to fail a million times, but just what’s the alternative? Not doing anything? Be terrible.”

Last season ended with Dawn finding out she’s pregnant. Now we’re seeing her experience that on the road. Were there stories that you always knew you wanted to tell about (a) someone who’s pregnant in her 40s, and (b) someone who’s pregnant in a pop group?

It felt like a natural story in the time that we’re living in. What is it like when Dawn tries to get health care in a place that’s not so great (Texas)? What does that look like? In other ways, as a woman who’s been pregnant, I wanted to give Dawn more stories than just about being a mother or just about being pregnant. So it comes up, and it’s certainly an engine for story and jokes and all that, but we tried not to just define her as Pregnant Lady.

But it’s challenging. Right off the bat in the first episode, Dawn’s been go-go-going and putting others before herself for so long that when she is in Fort Worth and she’s in a hotel — I mean, it’s just the Marriott Divorced Dad Suitelets — she doesn’t have the restaurant to deal with. She doesn’t have her kid running around. She doesn’t have an apartment or her husband or any of the million things that she’s dealing with on a daily basis, plus the group. So she is paralyzed: “Oh my God, I have downtime.” She’s kind of enjoying it and leaning into it and has to get rattled out of that vacation behavior to get her focus back and be the Dawn that handles things

I feel like I’ve gleaned more about the contemporary music industry from your show and from The Other Two than I have from anywhere else. What are your research sources?

I love watching documentaries. There's just so many. One that really opened my eyes initially was The Boy Band Con, on YouTube, about NSYNC and a bunch of the other groups that were managed by the same person (Lou Pearlman), who was very toxic. Just seeing the human side of a lot of these artists — those were just starting to come out when our show was starting, and I was very inspired by them. 

Now, I read a lot, and there’s just so much in the news. The Ticketmaster story is something that was very much in the news when we were in our writing period, and it just felt like that would absolutely be another obstacle that’s up against these artists, and especially artists at Girls5eva’s level — it could crush them. Obviously, we have a hyperbolic take. It’s not an exact one-to-one of how it would happen in real life. 

But yeah, we all take in the news. I have such a muscle memory from working in late night for so long. Every day, I would come in with pitches based on the news, based on politics, based on pop culture, entertainment, whatever. Because I worked at The Colbert Report for six years, and I’ve worked at SNL and a bunch of other shows, and a lot of the writers that I work with have some of that background too, we’re all just constantly looking at the news. So you just glean things. 

Little things too: Before the season started, I asked my assistant Julia, “Can you just do a little look into what people do when they’re on the road?” And she found this really interesting detail about Grimes, that she ended up having to go to the doctor because she only ate spaghetti for two years when she was on the road, because it felt familiar, and she would always just get it everywhere. And also, before this season started, I had a drink with Sara and I was like, “Can you tell me some stuff about some challenges that you face on the road, some things that you love about the road, some things that are hard, whatever?” That was kind of how the Macaroni Rascals chain was born, because she was like, “You do seek comfort and familiarity on the road,” and so a chain does make sense. 

So we were like, “That’s interesting, and then maybe if there’s a pop star who’s doing the same thing, they might interact.” That’s kind of how this web ends up becoming stories.

Dawn’s also stressed about politics this season. It’s come up before — things the band did the first time around, when they were young and had no agency at all. Tina Fey talked about this when she was on Late Night recently, about watching some of her old SNL sketches with her kids and feeling like, “Ooh, yikes. That did not age well.” Has it affected your work, watching audience sensibilities change?

Of course. Everybody who’s been working for long enough knows: Comedy, notoriously, ages terribly. Yeah, you look back and cringe in the same way that I think the group Girls5eva might look back like, “Okay, I want nothing to do with that.” 

But one of the things that I found interesting about that storyline is, I read this book called Exit Stage Left, about what life was like for rock stars after their bands disbanded. And there was this part of the book that was about nostalgia, and it was so interesting. You dance harder when you love those old songs so much, when you sing karaoke, when you go to a festival with an old band that you loved — you just love it, you love it, you love it. Very little has to do with the music itself. So much has to do with it connecting you back to your younger, dumber, more naive, wilder self that you miss a little bit.

So I liked this idea that even though Dawn has a wholesale rejection of the toxic messages — “My stepson is hot,” or whatever she was singing in the old days — I think that she finally does have to admit, “Yeah, there is a part of me that loves that old stuff, but it’s not necessarily the stuff I’m singing, it’s the fearlessness I felt at that time in my life before the other shoe dropped.” I liked exploring that and finding an appreciation for the past, even if it’s that you’re embarrassed by it.

Every season has tremendous guest stars. When you’re deciding how to use someone like John Early, for example, is it ever a concern that he’s going to be great in this part where you wouldn’t have a reason to bring him back? Or do you just think, “If we want to use him again we’ll just say he’s the other guy’s brother”?

It’s funny, I try not to think about a door getting closed. Writers and producers, we just try to think about who would do the best job with the part, and then you never know how it could come back, because there are so many things that end up happening if you’re just open to them and follow a weird storyline. You never know.

Like Percy.

Yeah. So I don’t ever get a sadness like, “Oh, that story’s done” with somebody who is hilarious or great. I just feel like, “Oh, maybe there’s another chance. Who knows?”

Is the order of operations more often that you see someone you love and think, “We have to get him,” or does the part come first and then you find the person who’s right for it?

I’m a huge fan of John Early, but usually — and especially also because of the economy of six episodes — we need to get where we need to go. So unless it perfectly fits in the thing, there’s not a lot of “Let’s just write a tangent for someone that we love.” So we wrote that part, and then we were like, “Oh, John Early would be incredible.” And he was kind enough to do it. 

But speaking of the word “kind,” Richard Kind was someone that we wrote the part for before we knew if he would do it, and just hoped he would. I really like the idea of him in the final episode being the person who kind of gives Dawn that lesson about where the strike zone is to make a career sustainable.

We used to live in New York, and I feel like everyone I know had a story of just seeing him on the street. He went to my husband’s gym.

Yeah, he’s around. He’s great. He’s the best.

And it’s exactly what his character says about his fame level: “I don’t get bugged in delis.” I’m sure he doesn’t!

Yeah. He’s moving through the world and doing his thing.

I mentioned Percy: I certainly wouldn't have thought, based on his character introduction in Season Two, that he would be so central in Season Three.

Tina and Robert and Paul know John Lutz incredibly well. I didn’t know him as well, but I had certainly met him. He was so funny when he came in to play that part last season, and it just kind of felt like alchemy. It’s just like, okay, they had this great little episode, and his dream was to be a limo driver. Then, later, when we were figuring out how the tour was going to work, we thought they might at least have a driver, and they’re like, “Oh my God, he has his dream. This is another way they could make it up to him.” Then he can be a joke bag and he has a lot of heart and he’s happy to be there, and he seems like the right kind of person who would say yes to that probably very unpaid gig. I mean, we paid him, but in the show, they probably borrowed money from him.

Speaking of jokes, we meet Wickie’s parents for the first time this season and find out she’s been misleading about the details of her childhood. How many days did you and the other writers spend on the run of claims that she had made over the years, and how they are technically true?

A lot of writers like to do that math. It’s super-fun. It’s like puzzle solving. 

There was a minute in an earlier iteration of the story where I think the pitch was something like Wickie telling stories about her life, and then someone realized, “Wait, I read that on the back of a Cap’n Crunch box” or something. So she had borrowed them from lore she had read in various places. Then I think it was “hardscrabble” — we started playing with real things that were exaggerated so that she wasn’t technically lying, but she was kind of playing into what she thought Hollywood might want. Then we were like, “What if we just keep it all stretched truth?” And then we had a zillion, just a zillion. Renée’s performance of that run is so funny. Dawn remembers Wickie saying her lawyer mom dropped out, and Wickie says, “I never said of what. Because it’s airplanes!” It’s great.

Every time there’s a pile-on like that, I always imagine how many jokes get discarded in the course of picking out the exact right 14.

Yeah, 14 sounds about right. That was a fun run.

From the start, this has been a very specific story about women in their 40s. What’s been particularly fun and insightful about the third season is how running their own tour is giving each of the characters more agency in deciding to be a different kind of person than they were assigned to be the first time around. How did you map out this growth for the characters?

That’s always been the evolution of the show. Season One, they were kind of trapped in amber from this crazy experience. They get a chance to do it again. And of course, their knee-jerk reaction is, “Let’s do everything the same way we used to do it.” And then they realize, “Wait, oh God, no, let’s not do that.” So it’s about them learning how to break out of that routine of how they thought everything worked. It’s like, “Hey, these are the songs we were given.” But now, as adults, their eyes are opened, and they get to question it: “I don’t want to sing that. I don’t want to do that.” And that opens Dawn up into saying, “Maybe I’ll take a swing and be our songwriter.” They all kind of basically break out of their old molds. 

So in terms of Summer this season, she’s taken some steps to be independent and she’s finding her worth a little bit, and what she can contribute to the group. But then she still realizes, “Oh my God, am I just a building built by men? Is everything about me just to appeal to them? Who am I? Is there a me in me?” She has an existential crisis, and of course, when you’re trying to find yourself, you’re vulnerable to multi-level marketing campaigns. Which is why she gets pulled into that. 

The writers and I really try to think, what does each character need? What’s holding them back? How can the others help push them out of those habits or behaviors? And then they’re just going up against a pretty ageist, sexist business anyway, so it’s going to be hard. But yeah, they’re all bending toward being the more fully realized versions of themselves that have some agency, which is nice.

That’s part of what’s so lovely about the finale, too: When the only people in the Radio City audience, other than the two guys from Goldman Sachs, are the five men who are important to the group, but even they aren’t as important as the tour — and the journey — has been over the arc of the season.

And also, that’s such a validating moment for the group as performers — to be up there — and you realize it’s really about their love of doing it, and they're putting on the show they’ve always wanted to do. There’s no one in the audience, but it helps them double down to say, “This is who we want to be. We’re artists, we’re musicians and we’re going to keep doing it no matter what level we’re at.” I wanted them to just have this badass concert for no one except for themselves.

Dawn loves prestige dramas. Gloria loves true-crime podcasts and veterinary dentistry reality shows. What do you wind down with?

This is always a hard question, and I don’t know why, because I watch so much. I devour stand-up. I devour sketch, obviously, like I Think You Should Leave. I love The Righteous Gemstones. There’s a live show, Stamptown, that I really like right now that’s super-funny. 

Outside of comedy, I loved Succession — Business Throne, in our world. I definitely get sucked into cult documentaries, things like Love Has Won. I just watched American Nightmare, the Gone Girl story, and I watched that not knowing what happened, and it was just shocking to see this woman, not being believed. It’s infuriating.

Oh, you know what I watched that I liked not that long ago? Deadloch.

What was the last stand-up show or special that really blew you away?

I just watched Jenny Slate’s and enjoyed it quite a bit. Her joke about her B cups being like a small bowl of pasta at a nice place that you don’t think is enough, and then you’re like, “Wait! That was surprisingly satisfying.” That joke made me laugh really hard.

How close are we to having full Girls5eva songs available to do at karaoke?

Why aren’t they?! We have three albums, okay? The third season has a new album coming out, with 12 tracks. I don’t know the karaoke pipeline. Are there other gatekeepers that I need to talk to? I don’t know, but I feel like it should absolutely be in the rotation.

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