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Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Story Behind “Sweet N Low Daddy’

There’s a lot to like about Girls5eva, whose third season premiered March 14 on its new home, Netflix. But there is just as much to envy, should you be a creative type hoping that one day you’ll get to see your own dream project realized. For creator Meredith Scardino, whose past credits include Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and The Late Show With David Letterman, bringing a comedy like this one to life is something of a dream scenario: jam-packed with references to her favorite bits of obscure, nostalgic pop culture.

“I just kept thinking, ‘What do I want to do? What would I want to see?’” Scardino says in a recent interview with The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, about coming up with the pitch for Girls5eva. “And then, eventually, I ended up here. And I was like, ‘Oh my God! I get to talk about the past!’”

That past isn’t so distant. Grils5eva boasts a fannish love for a certain era of culture in particular—that of Scardino’s own teen years, around the start of the new millennium. And in the fourth episode of the latest season, the show transposes the dreaminess of its own existence into a plot line, making for some of the most ingeniously silly, thoughtful comedy in recent years.

Episode 4 takes the girls—Dawn (Sara Bareilles), Wickie (Renée Elise Goldsberry), Summer (Busy Philipps), and Gloria (Paula Pell)—to Orlando, where they’ve been invited to play a gig at a birthday party held by one of their longtime (and very rich) fans, Taffy England, played by stand-up comic Cat Cohen. The theme is “My Posters Come to Life,” Taffy announces. “Every poster I had on my teenage wall is here: Rebecca Lobo, you guys, a real Monet, Zeke from [the fictional] California High…” There’s also Torque (Loic Mabanza), who had a brief relationship with Wickie solely for the cameras, since his actual wife at the time was too boring. (Wickie, however, caught real feelings that may not have fully gone away; the rest of the girls agree that he was and still is incredibly hot.)

Busy Phiipps and Renee Elise Goldsberry talk in a still from ‘Girls5Eva’

Busy Phiipps and Renée Elise Goldsberry

Emily V. Aragones/Netflix

What makes this episode so smart is how it both questions and ultimately celebrates our lifelong dedication to our childhood and teenage passions. While Taffy wants the girls to perform one of their more … problematic songs—“Sweet ’N Low Daddy,” about waiting for your extremely old sugar daddy to kick the bucket—Dawn finds the entire thing repulsive, pissing her bandmates off.

“I’m sorry that I’m not feeling nostalgic for the 2000s,” she explains, when Gloria asks her why she’s being such a pill. The problem is, she says, that “we’re artists now, and we’ve honed our craft—and I’m just not interested in looking back.”

In some ways, it’s easy to understand why Dawn is so resistant to that particular nostalgia. After all, the Y2K pop scene—when Girls5eva was at its height—is defined by gaudy aesthetics and heavily processed musical stylings. Modern-day women trying to recapture their 20-year-old glory requires lots of vinyl, glitter, and terrible uses of denim; that is to say, it’s a hilariously recognizable look and sound that immediately makes viewers laugh in recognition (or simply from the ugliness), just as it makes Dawn squirm.

At the same time, the trepidation that inhibits Dawn during Taffy’s poster party gives Girls5eva its emotional center. Not only does Scardino see the show as fit for reminiscing about her own coming-of-age period, but she also imbued it with her present-day self-reflection.

With the show, “I get to talk about the past and how things went by that were probably fucked-up, and you didn’t notice they were until later,” Scardino says, adding that the characters are “also at the time in their life when they’re kind of processing and rooting through, ‘Why am I like the way I’m like?’”

As much fun as it is to see Girls5eva sing about hoping their grandfather-aged boyfriend includes them in his will (“Real talk: When are you gonna die?”), Dawn rightly points out that it was icky that they were given songs like that to sing. These were women in their late teens with fans even younger than they were, singing about their sugar daddies; maybe they’re the reason that Taffy is now living off her own sugar daddy’s big bucks in a Florida mansion. Perhaps Taffy’s teen bedroom poster idols screwed her up more than they helped her.

Sara Bareilles, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Tina Fey, Paula Pell, Busy Phillips and Meredith Scardino pose for a photo in front of a step and repeat for ‘Girls5Eva’

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Sara Bareilles, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Tina Fey, Paula Pell, Busy Phillips and Meredith Scardino

Gotham/WireImage

But Taffy herself refutes that notion. When Dawn apologizes to Taffy for having “made her” the way she is, Taffy pushes back. The reason she invited Girls5eva to her party is because “you made me feel like I felt back when I had your poster on my wall,” she says. Back before her family fell apart and her life got a lot more complicated.

“That’s what people love about nostalgia, dum-dum,” Taffy says. “Makes them feel like they did when life was easy. Listening to Girls5eva is like smelling Dunkaroos.” Plus, she adds, Dawn isn’t one to talk: She’s chasing her nostalgic feelings too. She’s here touring with her 20-year-old girl group, after all. We’re all chasing our past, dreamlike highs—or, we wish we could be. And even if looking backward feels like the antithesis of progress, the feeling that nostalgia gives us is oftentimes a nice one.

In Dawn’s case, that feeling can even be inspiring: After Taffy calls her out, Dawn has a realization that she misses feeling like the woman she was when she was performing with Girls5eva. So why is she rejecting that opportunity right now? She runs up to the stage and joins the rest of the girls—and Taffy—in their throwback rendition of, yes, “Mr. Sweet ’N Low Daddy.”

This 22-minute emotional journey highlights what makes Girls5eva so good, as Scardino sums up herself quite nicely.

“One of the things I really love about this show is that, yes, it’s about the music business and pop culture and all that,” she says. “But then there’s also this relatable core underneath of just four ladies in their forties trying to take up space and find their voices, at a time when I feel like a lot of people get smaller, and get into their routine, and have kids, and just shrink.”

Dawn recognizes at that last moment that she’s been given this rare opportunity to expand again, instead of shrinking. So even if Taffy England is a little bit ridiculous—wearing Britney Spears’ “Oops!…I Did It Again” catsuit is no longer sexy, no matter what Taffy thinks—and her bedroom poster party is a teeny bit pathetic, both the show and the group Girls5eva’s goal is an important one. Realizing your dreams is something to be proud of, even if those dreams are the ones we first had when we were decades younger. Our teen dreams aren’t always so bad, after all; like most of the dozens of tunes this lovely show has given us thus far, “Sweet ’N Low Daddy” is a pretty good song.

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