Why Paula Pell Is the Most Distinct, and Hilarious, Part of ‘Girls5Eva’

·4-min read

Hardly a minute goes by on “Girls5Eva” without at least three jokes sharper than some comedies manage in an entire episode. And yet, the funniest moment of the Season 2 premiere (“Album Mode”) is a series of nonsensical words sung over a single close-up on a person struggling to remain on this earthly plane. In this moment, Paula Pell doesn’t actually say a word — but she doesn’t have to in order to steal this scene and most every other that follows.

In its second season, which premiered May 5 on Peacock, Meredith Scardino’s quick-witted comedy explores the “what now?” stage of aging girl group members Dawn (Sara Bareilles), Wickie (Renée Elise Goldsberry), Summer (Busy Philipps), and Gloria (Pell) trying to make it on their own terms decades after Girls5Eva first became one-hit wonders. As befits a series produced by “30 Rock” alums Tina Fey, Robert Carlock, and composer Jeff Richmond, the show’s punchlines fly fast and furious, especially when taking aim at celebrities and overtly ridiculous pop culture trends.

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Goldsberry, playing a close cousin of Jane Krakowski’s “30 Rock” egomaniac Jenna Maroney, makes the most of these riffs, with a pitch perfectly showy performance of a woman so utterly convinced of her talent that she can barely walk a foot without reminding everyone of her worth. (That she’s also right, given Goldsberry’s truly staggering voice, is almost beside the point, just as it was for Krakowski.) Wickie’s tendency to grab the spotlight becomes a bigger sticking point in Season 2, especially as Dawn, the group’s songwriter, starts to push back. Summer and Gloria, though, are basically just happy to be there, and so they watch Wickie and Dawn’s futile power struggles with more amusement than any desire to assert themselves, too.

In that respect, it’d be easy for Summer and Gloria to take a backseat to Dawn and Wickie’s back-and-forth, a possibility the show resists. For Summer, “Girls5Eva” tries to mine more material from her reluctant divorce and subsequent Christian mingling, but neither the scripts nor Phillipps can quite break the character out of her supporting role to become much more. The opposite, however, holds true for Pell’s Gloria, who’s become the show’s most reliable comedic weapon.

At first glance, as the show is well aware and leans into every chance it gets, Gloria is the most unlikely member of Girls5Eva. With her gray hair and omnipresent frown, and standing a good several inches shorter than everyone else, she immediately goes against the visual grain of the group. Dawn, Wickie, and Summer haven’t changed so much from their younger selves that they’ve become unrecognizable. Gloria, though, has not just aged, but settled into herself as the straight-talking lesbian she always was underneath all the painfully heterosexual girl group glam. She’s evolved so much from her 2000s era self, in fact, that when an episode includes her in a flashback, Gloria’s played not by Pell, but by another actor entirely (Erika Henningsen, making the most of it). As far as character journeys go, Gloria’s is simply the most varied and compelling — though it helps, of course, to have someone like Pell playing her, too.

If Bareilles’ hesitant Dawn is a comma, Philipps’ ditzy Summer an ellipsis, and Goldsberry’s flashy Wickie an exclamation point, Pell’s Gloria is a blunt, declarative period. Pell’s singular Midwestern affect — used to such solid effect on “Saturday Night Live,” “Big Mouth,” and more — cuts through every hyperbolic scenario that “Girls5Eva” throws at her, giving each of her scenes a different comic texture from the rest.

As good as her line delivery is, though, Pell has proven she can be just as riveting even when she’s not cracking a joke. For proof, look no further than that Season 2 premiere scene in which Gloria, desperately trying to deny just how badly she needs a knee replacement, starts to feel the effects of her quadruple dose of Percocet. As the sound of her bandmates fades into the background, the soundtrack weaves in Gloria mentally belting a John Lennon-esque psychadelic riff to spell out the word “Percocet” (i.e.: “PINK-EYED RABBITS CHARGING ON CLAWS…ETERNALLY TENDER”). As the music swells into unhinged madness, the camera closes in on Pell manipulating her face muscles to twitch and relax into a benign smile that also manages to be terrifying, like a serial killer fondly remembering their finest murder.

As you can probably tell, it’s the kind of moment that’s hilarious on a pure kneejerk level, making it even harder to describe than it might be to just repeat a joke. But that ineffable quality is exactly what makes Pell’s performance so different, so good, and so worth watching for yourself.

“Girls5Eva” is now available to stream on Peacock.

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