REVIEW: “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist - Season 2019It should come as no surprise to anyone that I love a good musical. There’s something that’s just so fun about musicals. Something so heartfelt about that. I’ll also be one of the first to admit that it’s incredibly difficult to pull off a TV show that’s also a musical. Musical films are a little easier to do, but musical shows seem unable to find a way to balance all of the necessary elements in a way that’s sustainable in the long term. Glee came the closest, but its writing quickly fizzled out after a few seasons and both SMASH and RISE failed to attract a large enough audience to justify their existence. But along comes Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, a show that owes a lot to those previous attempts at musical tv shows. Having seen the first four episodes of its first season, it seems that Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist might have found a way to balance all of the elements of a good musical with the necessary elements of a long-running TV show. But the question still remains if it can find an audience and/or maintain its quality writing and energy in the long term. All of that aside, these first four episodes are pretty darn good, though.

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (created by Austin Winsberg)
If there’s a song in your heart, it will get in her head. Jane Levy stars in this high-concept drama as Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy), a whip-smart computer coder forging her way in San Francisco. After an unusual event, Zoey, who always preferred podcasts over pop songs, suddenly starts to hear the innermost wants, thoughts and desires of the people around her – her family, co-workers and complete strangers – through popular songs. At first, she questions her own sanity, but after getting some guidance from her musically adept neighbor, Mo (Alex Newell), and making a breakthrough with her ailing father (Peter Gallagher), Zoey soon realizes this unwanted curse may just be an incredibly wonderful gift as she connects with the world like never before.

The series stars Jane Levy, Skylar Astin, Alex Newell, John Clarence Stewart, with Peter Gallagher and Mary Steenburgen. Lauren Graham is special guest star.

I watched the screeners of the first two episodes the same night I saw the CATS movie and it’s kind of funny how similar-yet-different the two are. For a start, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is actually good while CATS is not. But what causes me to make this connection is the similar chaotic energy the two stories have. CATS is this unexplainable thing that you just kind of have to surrender yourself to and allow it to wash over you. In a way, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is much the same. While there’s nothing as disturbingly weird in this show, it is still full of enjoyably strange moments. There’s a moment in the pilot where Zoey is being chased down a street by a bunch of sad people singing The Beatles’ “Help!” and it’s such a surreal sight to behold and was the exact moment I knew I’d like this show. It’s just that perfect blend of surrealism and emotion that always tickles my fancy.

The hardest part of any musical – whether on stage, on film, or on TV – is how best to mix the music with the spoken dialogue. It’s a problem many a film has struggled with – do you make the music diegetic (existing within the world of the story) or nondiegetic?/ how often do you use the songs?/ do they further the plot or further character development or both? I think Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist finds a nice balance here. It’s made very clear that only Zoey can hear these songs, thus clueing the audience in that they actually exist in this world – but nobody else can notice them. It also lets us have really fun moments (that remind me a lot of a musical from Team Starkid, The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals) where Zoey freaks out about literally being haunted by these unwanted musical numbers. This chaotic energy is what drives a lot of the show forward; you’re always curious to see what song will be used next and how it might impact Zoey in whatever situation she’s in. It’s one of the most clever ways of mixing music into an otherwise normal TV show and I genuinely think it works really, really well.

By making it so that only Zoey is aware of music,  the show is able to indulge in some of the silliness of musicals while still keeping everything very grounded in the experiences of this character. It definitely helps that Zoey is one of those characters who are super easy to relate to. She has this sort of every-person quality that makes her a perfect window through with to enter this world. Jane Levy embodies this perfectly and she finds a really solid balance between Zoey’s often hilarious reactions to this new power she’s gotten and the emotional heart of Zoey’s story. She’s a woman trying to find her place in the world – both professionally and personally – she’s just been gifted with this “power” that might help her achieve that, but she has no idea how to use this. Which is where her nosy neighbor, Mo (Alex Newell), enters the picture. While Zoey is (somehow) almost completely ignorant on all music trends, Mo is exactly the opposite and proves immensely helpful in helping Zoey understand what various people might actually be trying to say through the songs their subconsciouses are broadcasting. I really appreciate how Mo, more or less, believes Zoey from the moment they hear about it. It’s always nice when shows like this have a character who doesn’t immediately doubt the main “magical” character’s sanity and the juxtaposition of Mo’s extensive musical knowledge and Zoey’s complete lack thereof makes for some very comedic moments – even if it sometimes feels a bit unbelievable just how clueless about music Zoey actually is.

What about the rest of the show? I’m not gonna lie, the out-there premise of Zoey hearing everyone’s thoughts as big musical numbers is easily the most interesting aspect of the show. Having said that, it’s not like the rest of the show is bad, or anything, it’s just that everything sort of pales when compared to an idea as grand as that. Sometimes, the show feels a little tropey, as if it’s retreading ground that’s already been covered, but it often manages to pull that off in an interesting way. Take, for example, the ongoing subplot of Zoey dealing with sexism at her work. It isn’t exactly the most original idea for a show in 2020, but the way that this show explores it is particularly interesting. Very little of the sexism – save for one specific character – is explicitly overt, rather much of it is more implicit and, as a result, feels more real. There’s also just something nice about seeing a woman succeed in such a heavily male-dominated field like coding on a TV show on a national network. That’s just really fun. Plus, a lot of fun scenes are set in her workplace which makes the initial tropey feeling ultimately pay off.

There’s also a whole lot of good stuff in the show. Nearly all of the main characters are relatable. As I’ve previously mentioned, Zoey is an extremely relatable character and she makes for a very compelling lead, but she’s also surrounded by a whole cast of intriguing characters. Her best friend, Max, played by the always-charming Skylar Astin, is really relatable. His devotion to his friend is admirable and he proves to be the kind of friend everyone wishes they had. Though, of course, there is a twist to that story. It’s rather predictable but I don’t want to spoil it here nor do I want to judge it until I’ve seen where it goes. In later episodes, Mo gets quite a bit of development outside of their mentorship of Zoey’s powers and Mo’s plotline genuinely brought a tear to my eye. Plus, Alex Newell just shines so brightly in the role and it’s a joy to witness. Zoey’s boss, played by Lauren Graham, ends up getting quite a bit to do – which came as an unexpected surprise after Graham was billed as a guest star. Most of the juicy stuff with Graham’s character doesn’t happen until later episodes, but it’s an absolute joy to watch. Zoey’s love interest, Simon, played by John Clarence Stewart, has a unique storyline and I like the way it mirrors Zoey’s ongoing storyline with her family – most notably her struggles with her father’s (Peter Gallagher) disease.

The true heart of the show, of course, is that storyline. Zoey, her brother, and her Mom (Mary Steenburgen) are all struggling with adjusting to life after Zoey’s father has been diagnosed with a particularly rough neurological disorder that’s rendered him unable to move or speak. So, naturally, there’s some pretty good stuff for them to mine now that Zoey has the power to hear people’s thoughts in song-form. I’m not gonna lie, those scenes with her and her dad are definitely a little weird at first but once you see what they’re going for and that it’s the heart of the show, it actually works really well and helps to ground some of the sillier stuff that happens throughout the show. It helps that Gallagher and Steenburgen are excellent in their roles and their interactions with Levy’s Zoey feel totally believable. Overall, the characters in Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist do a great job of getting the audience to actually become invested in the storyline. We want to know what happens to these people; we’re not just interested in seeing the wacky things that Zoey’s powers cause her to see. And that’s a very important balance for a show like this to find – and it wildly succeeds.

Overall, I really dug Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. It may not be the best show on TV, but it’s certainly a whole lot of fun. There’s this beautiful mixture of wholesome and chaotic energy that runs through the core of the show, tying the far-out-there premise into the more grounded emotional drama that is the core of the show. Basically, you show up to see the weird and silly music numbers and you stay for the genuinely compelling and emotional character stuff. It’s a very good balance buoyed by a very talented cast. My biggest concern is whether or not the show can hold onto this chaotic energy for a long period – how long can this idea last? It feels like the kind of show that’s destined to be canceled; it’s such a niche idea with a potentially limited audience, but it makes this musical theatre nerd’s heart very happy and I really dug it. I really hope it finds an audience and I thoroughly recommend it.

4 out of 5 wands.