Emmy spotlight: Renee Elise Goldsberry’s fierce and fearlessly funny ‘Girls5eva’ turn is something to sing about
The second episode of “Girls5eva” opens with a flashback to an early 2000s episode of MTV’s “Cribs” featuring Wickie Roy. The “fierce one” of the titular group shows off her Malibu beachfront property that boasts a “purple expensive” theme and a custom mantle for all her future awards now that she’s gone solo. At the time, only one trophy resided there (I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that did not change much over the next 20 years): the Napster Music Award for Wettest Mouth in a Girl Group. Wickie’s portrayer, Renée Elise Goldsberry, has a far more, well, illustrious résumé that includes a Tony and Grammy for “Hamilton,” and if voters do the right thing, she will next be able to call herself an Emmy nominee for Best Comedy Actress.
Wickie is a pop diva by way of Jenna Maroney, which makes sense since the “30 Rock” team, Tina Fey, Robert Carlock and Jeff Richmond, are executive producers on the Peacock series. She is delusional, narcissistic, will gladly show off the “voice God put in [her] mouth,” and doesn’t make her grand entrance until 15 minutes into the pilot with a dramatic over-the-shoulder hair toss seconds before the newly reunited Girls5eva is due on the “Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” stage. Wickie, we’ve been told, has been insanely successful, compared to Dawn (Sara Bareilles), Summer (Busy Philipps) and Gloria (Paula Pell), running a fempire, rubbing shoulders with the Dalai Lama and flying around the world in her own jet. You’re expecting to meet a high-maintenance queen, and Goldsberry delivers on that front but also so much more.
Goldsberry, who was in a ’90s girl group IRL that never got off the ground, plays up Wickie’s divadom to a hilt. After all, Wickie is still dumbfounded as to why she was labeled difficult “just because I wouldn’t let my backup singers wear makeup and refused to play venues that also did sports.” The easy route would’ve been for the show, created by “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” writer Meredith Scardino, and Goldsberry to dine out on one-note (no pun intended) self-absorption, but they immediately upend the trope in the pilot with the reveal that Wickie’s glamorous lifestyle has been a ruse. She faked her fempire, the Dalai Lama was just an old man in a hot dog costume, and she actually makes a living shooting geese at the Van Nuys Airport. It’s an extreme case, but it’s something everyone can relate to in some way: when life doesn’t turn out the way you thought it would — or the way you thought you were, in Wickie’s words, “owed.” Goldsberry performs Wickie’s confession with the defiant vulnerability of an older, though not necessarily wiser, person who knows they can’t change the past and wants another crack at making it, immediately making Wickie someone you love to love in all her wild absurdity.
SEE Peacock renews ‘Girls5eva’ for Season 2
But giving Wickie emotional dimension was just a foundation for what was to come from Goldsberry. If Wickie coming clean freed her up to be herself with her friends, then it also allowed the actress to play Wickie with the fun, inventive fearlessness of someone who is truly dancing like no one’s watching. Goldsberry is an absolute riot on “Girls5eva.” Embracing the utter ridiculousness of Wickie and the pure silliness of the show itself, she brings a bold physicality to the role that just leaves you in stitches whenever she’s onscreen — whether it’s pantomiming sex with TikTok twins Wickie thought she had sex with (she’s been told her sexuality is slightly performative) or crab-walking up a Duane Reade ramp in sky-high stilettos only to get stuck in an escalator and then rock (and later drink) a soda heel. Even her pitch-perfect line readings feel physical, the way she drags out the “s” sound in “And I get paid by the goose” for maximum effect.
Goldsberry’s top moment comes in the sixth episode, “Cease and Desist,” which takes its title from Wickie’s catchphrase “Cease and desist, bitch” — one she didn’t even know she had until she learns that a fan, Zander (Bowen Yang), has been profiting off of it. The catchphrase was born out of her rant at a recalcitrant audience member during her performance in “The Maskical,” a “pastiche of the Jim Carrey oeuvre” (if you don’t rewind at least twice to hear Goldsberry’s guttural delivery of “oeuvre,” you’re doing it wrong). Decked out in yellow and her face covered in green goop, Goldsberry fully commits to the bit, exaggerated choreography, ludicrous lyrics (“funky weird/masky mask”) and all before lashing out like a woman possessed. And lest you think it’s all hijinks, by the end of the episode, Wickie “finally” learns empathy and displays some business savvy while also helping Gloria get her moment in the sun.
It’s a revelatory performance, which might sound weird to say for someone who already has a career-defining and award-winning role in one of the biggest musicals of all time. Everyone already knew Goldsberry had the pipes, and her most high-profile TV gig until now was a recurring role on “The Good Wife,” but her Wickie Roy is a scene-stealing, hilarious turn that shows the full scope of her talents.
At the moment, Goldsberry is seventh in the comedy actress odds, one spot out of the predicted lineup (the irony is that she might get nominated for Disney+’s filmed version of “Hamilton” but not “Girls5eva”). Peacock, which just renewed the show for a second season right before Emmy voting starts, being a new streaming service and untested at the Emmys makes her more of a question mark, but if voters are looking for an out-and-out comedic performance, Goldsberry ought to be music to their ears.
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