Look, before we get started, you should probably know that I can neither sing nor dance (at least not in any way that you want to hear or see), which is probably why I have a bit of a soft spot for average looking people suddenly breaking into song and dance on TV shows. There’s always something shocking (to me, anyway) that someone can both talk and sing. I realize that doesn’t make any sense, but here we are with me telling you anyway. But really, it does make sense when we’re talking about Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, a show that has a cast with some high caliber actors, some very good intentions, some good notes and some off-key moments (Ha! Musical references!) Although it gets off to an uneven start, it ends up being an enjoyable show that left me with some mixed emotions. Clearly, I have some thoughts. Let’s work through them together!
Zoey (Jane Levy) is just your average extremely smart, socially awkward (but in a very appealing way because this is television after all), musically averse coder working at a tech company, until, after worrying that her frequent headaches are due to an underlying illness, she goes for an MRI. While she is inside the tube listening to the MRI tech’s playlist, a small earthquake hits San Francisco, causing a not-very-well-sussed-out glitch that (maybe) implants all the songs into Zoey’s brain and (definitely) allows her to hear other people’s innermost thoughts as very-on-the-nose songs that are usually accompanied by highly choreographed dance numbers. (Like, the meaning of the songs is going to be BLAMMO! right there in your face, which some people find annoying, but I don’t really mind.) At first it seems she can hear everyone’s heartsongs, and she’s bombarded by a woman on the street singing “All By Myself” by Celine Dion, a group of young women admiring the parting view of an attractive man while singing “Whatta Man” by Salt-n-Peppa, and finally, by a mass of lonely strangers converging on the street singing “Help” by the Beatles while Zoey looks confused and trapped. Perhaps she is overwhelmed by the knowledge that every single person is wrestling with their own struggles. Or maybe she’s just creeped out that a bunch of singing people are dancing ever closer to her like some very peppy group of zombies.
Soon enough, her powers inexplicably hone in on individuals who somehow need her help or whose innermost thoughts somehow affect her life. Simon (John Clarence Stewart), Zoey’s extremely attractive and seemingly happy office crush, is actually mourning his father’s death. Her outwardly supportive, but inwardly competitive coworker (awkwardly) raps about his desire to win at whatever cost. (I’m honestly not sure at all why that’s supposed to be surprising.) Her best friend Max (Skylar Astin) harbors a secret longing for her, which he (inexplicably to me) expresses through a song by the Partridge Family. (Side note: Skylar Astin, who was Greg 2.0 on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, is just about perfect for this kind of role and can make pretty much any song work.) Zoey’s inconsistently prickly and seemingly confident boss Joan (Lauren Graham) has marital frustrations. Look, honestly, while the actors seem to be giving every performance their absolute best, the result—for me anyway—is a mixed bag, ranging from touching to cringe-worthy. The songs sometimes left me teary-eyed, sometimes made me smile, and sometimes left me feeling as uncomfortable as Zoey often looks while listening.
(Some people have no patience for the lack of clarity in her power’s origin story. Me? I think it would be horribly boring to have some long explanation, and I’m willing to just accept it as part of this reality. This isn’t SciFi. It also doesn’t make sense that people in television shows wake up looking like they just got out of five hours of hair and makeup, but we are mostly willing to overlook that. Why not this, too?)
The only person Zoey tells about her newfound power, and she tells him almost by accident, is Mo (Alex Newell), her gender fluid neighbor and building manager. Especially in the beginning, Mo’s character might seem to veer dangerously close to the role of sassy and insightful black friend—a part that I’m continually dismayed to find still exists with a high degree of regularity— with zingy one-liners and an uncanny ability to always be available just when Zoey needs him. But, as the series progresses, Mo is given a bit more space to explore his own stories of romance and self-acceptance. In episode 4 we get to see Mo reconcile his identity in the church, where he presents as male, with his true self. It’s still seen largely through the lens of Zoey and her powers and perhaps a little too neatly wrapped up at the end of the episode, but that’s true of most aspects of the show. Newell brings so much to the character to make him wonderful and nuanced and a complete person. It’s also just really important to see a gender fluid character included with so much humanity. Newell said he worked with the show’s writers to ensure his character was fully developed and had his own arcs. If there is a second season, I want even more of Mo’s story to have space in the episodes.
This next part is hard for me to say, but say it I must. (Deep breath.) I don’t love Lauren Graham in this role. Gah! Blasphemy! I’m a heretic! (It’s not you, Lauren Graham, I promise!) It seems the show can’t decide exactly who they want her Joan character to be and, as a result, she ends up looking stiff, uncomfortable, and inconsistent. Although she sings them well, I’m not sure that some of the songs were the best fit. Though I did really enjoy her singing “Wrecking Ball” while hurling pastries and then flinging techbros seated in chair swings to the side. Phew, I feel lighter having shared my inner truth with you, but would it have been more appropriate if I had expressed it as a song? (You don’t actually want that. Trust me.)
Really, some of the strongest moments are when the show deals with the turmoil and grief of Zoey’s family facing her father Mitch’s (Peter Gallagher) illness from progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare neurodegenerative disease, and his inevitable death. By the time we meet him he is mostly non-communicative and unable to speak, stand, or feed himself. Zoey’s mother (Mary Steenburgen) and father have been happily married for nearly forty years, and it’s clear that they, along with Zoey and her brother, David (Andrew Leeds), form a close-knit, loving family, who are now struggling to come to terms with watching a family member die.
The show addresses this from the burden of becoming a loved one’s caregiver to the practicalities of funeral arrangements (which includes a guest appearance by Bernadette Peters) to the physical intimacy between her parents to all of them accepting (over and over in various ways) that he is going to die. And there is so much tenderness in the scenes with her family. On a few occasions, Zoey hears her father sing his inner thoughts and those moments—the stark contrast between his outer shell, static, nearly comatose, and his inner self, still dynamic, kind, expressive—are very absorbing and effective. (What? Yes, sometimes I did cry, but you watch the scene where Mitch and his caregiver sing “Sounds of Silence” together and try not to cry. Or go ahead and watch Mitch sing “True Colors” to Zoey and see if your eyes don’t get a little drippy.) As it should, her father’s illness runs like a thread through all aspects of Zoey’s life. Her anger invades her other relationships, her sadness pours over into work. Partway through the season, the family is joined by Howie (Zak Orth), Mitch’s offbeat and capable caregiver, who adds a layer of objectivity and empathy to their grieving experience. And it shouldn’t be surprising that this is the most developed part of the show since the show’s creator, Austin Winsberg, has said that he based it on his own experiences with his father who died from the same disease.
All that said, I definitely could have done without the episode dealing with Zoey’s brother David and his wife Emily’s (Alice Lee) lack of sex during her pregnancy. It’s not the frank discussion of sex that made me squeamish (I’m all for that), it was the tired trope of him saying he was working late while he was really out at the bar with his friends, where Zoey hears him sing “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party).” I just think there are better ways to talk about the very real issues of intimacy than to fall back on the same tired iterations of traditional gender roles.
(On the other hand, I was mostly pleasantly surprised by the episode that focuses on Howie’s relationship with deaf daughter. It delves into her frustration with him constantly trying to “fix”her deafness and features a song performed in sign language by deaf actors. This kind of representation matters.)
I like the vulnerability, empathy, and kindness the show has given us so far, but, if it is renewed for a second season, I want it to give us more depth, more nuance, more character development, and more time and space for people and their stories to be messy and unclear. I said before that it seemed like in the beginning Mo ran the risk of being the sassy black friend, but really most of the characters run the risk of being too one note (A second musical reference! Really the same one, but let’s not split hairs.). Zoey’s friend Max, for example, is largely just her best friend who is in love with her, which is fine for a few episodes, but Max has got to think about more than Zoey or else it’s just super duper creepy. You know what I mean? Right now it’s walking the line between a kind of serial dramedy where Zoey hears a song or two and solves the problem in one episode, and a more subtle kind of show where characters have room to really grow and change. If it were up to me, I’d like to see it develop into the latter, but maybe if it were reading this, the show would start belting out “Let It Be.” If so, the show and I will have to agree to disagree. But either way I’d at least like it to get a second season to see what it becomes.