Musicals on television have had hit-or-miss journeys in recent years. Big hits such as “Glee” and “Empire” didn’t maintain their star power and newer additions to the genre, such as NBC’s “Rise” and Netflix’s “Soundtrack,” failed to find audiences. Yet the CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” not only had a successful run but also reinvented how musical shows can be done. (Seriously, everyone should watch “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”)
A huge fan of musicals myself, I’m always happy to see one on television. Therefore, I was intrigued by NBC’s latest offering, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.” The show follows Zoey (Jane Levy), a computer programmer living in San Francisco who receives an MRI scan during an earthquake and subsequently discovers she can hear people’s inner thoughts as songs and musical numbers. Whether they’re total strangers or her closest friends and family, Zoey finds that a certain song won’t stop following her unless she helps those that are singing it. Therefore, the ability allows Zoey to connect with those around her. With the first seven episodes, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” is proving to be a hit.
An Extraordinary Cast
The show’s strength is in its cast members. Jane Levy is a really great lead, making Zoey relatable and charming. Levy perfectly balances the emotional and comedic side of the show, and I can’t imagine anyone else leading this show. Not only is Levy fantastic, but the show has gathered a ridiculously impressive ensemble, with people that you will recognize from various productions. There’s Zoey’s best friend and coworker Max, (“Pitch Perfect”’s Skylar Astin) and her boss Joan (Lauren Graham, who I’m always happy to see on my screen). The show introduces Zoey’s new coworker, Simon (John Clarence Stewart), and rounding out her workplace are rivals Leith (Michael Thomas Grant) and Tobin (Kapil Talwalkar).
The show focuses equally on Zoey’s home life, with her neighbor Mo (Alex Newell) becoming her confidant. Her family so far are providing the heart of the show, with her mother Maggie (Mary Steenburgen) and brother David (Andrew Leeds) struggling alongside Zoey to care for their father Mitch (Peter Gallagher).
The Story So Far
The mechanics of Zoey’s superpower are a little shaky, yet the type of plot point that a musical show can get away with. The main purpose of the music is to connect Zoey with those around her, who, as a brilliant coder, is presented as having a logical and black-and-white outlook on the world.
So far, the show has allowed Zoey to grow in the workplace, becoming a manager at her idyllic San Francisco tech company (it has a bread bar AND a cereal bar, true office goals) and bonding further with her boss Joan, while reeling from the musical realization that her best friend Max is in love with her. Astin’s performance helps the character of Max develop into more than the standard ‘best friend/nice guy’ type, which is what he first may appear as. Though he loses points for organizing a flash mob (!) to declare his feelings for her in episode seven, and even more for actually thinking it would work (in 2020, really Max?). Sometimes characters veer too closely to tropes, but thankfully get greater development in later episodes. This was the case with Mo, Zoey’s genderfluid neighbor, who is the first person Zoey opens up to about her new ability. While at first it seemed as though Mo’s character had nothing to do but wait around to help solve Zoey’s problems, the show highlights Mo’s own internal struggles and brings the character into Zoe’s orbit further when Mo strikes up a friendship with Max. I hope this continues throughout the season.
Yet it’s Zoey’s home life that is the emotional core of the show. Zoey’s father Mitch suffers from Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, a rare neurological disease that greatly affects movement and speech. It’s an authentic storyline that has clearly been crafted with great care (drawn from the experiences of showrunner Austin Winsberg’s father). The best part of the pilot is when, after unleashing her problems to her father, her ability allows her father to sing “True Colors” to her (yes, I cried). The show is then able to highlight the beauty of Zoey’s gift as it allows her to communicate with her father again. The first seven episodes begin to explore the effect Zoey’s father’s condition has on her mother and brother, and the challenges they face as a family.
Hitting the Right Notes
It’s difficult not to compare the show to its musical predecessors on television, especially since they share cast members (Alex Newell and Skylar Astin). The use of music feels like a crossover between “Glee” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” in that there’s no original songs — the covers are mostly classics and pop (like “Glee”) — yet the songs are used to delve into the characters’ emotional states (like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”). The song choices are definitely not subtle, and mostly spell out the character’s emotions and problems to the audience. The first song Zoey hears is The Beatles’ “Help!” as she’s chased around the streets of San Francisco by strangers. Zoey bonds with Simon after hearing him sing “Mad World” and finds out her best friend is in love with her through him singing “I Think I Love You.” Are the songs too literal at times? Maybe. Yet people’s private thoughts expressed in songs probably wouldn’t be understated, so the show gets away with it. Not to mention it’s a blessing to see Lauren Graham singing Kesha and Miley Cyrus on my screen (a sentence I never thought I’d write).
It’s no surprise that musical TV veterans Alex Newell and Skylar Astin feel most at home here, with superb voices and easy confidence that sells all their musical moments. That’s not to discredit the rest of the cast, who have had standout performances. As Leith, Michael Thomas Grant stunned me in episode seven with a cover of “I Put a Spell on You.” (He has a killer voice, put him in a Broadway show already.) Mary Steenburgen gets some wonderful songs, but it’s Peter Gallagher’s heart-wrenching performances that stand out most. They combine the best character moments with the musical ones, meaning they’re emotional and beautiful to watch. The same goes for Skylar Astin’s cover of “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” which is a song I never thought I’d shed tears over. While I’ve enjoyed the music so far, I think the show should utilize some lesser-known songs in the future and expand the musical playlist.
“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” does not reach the musical heights of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” but its bright color palette and focus on empathy echoes another brilliant show, “The Good Place.” Like its fellow NBC comedy, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” excels in its admission that everyone struggles. Amid so much uncertainty and fear, a feel-good show that focuses on compassion and empathy is much needed. The show has grown in confidence in the first seven episodes, and I look forward to seeing the direction the rest of the season takes.
“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” airs on Sundays at 8/9c on NBC.
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Featured image credit: NBC