“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” Turns Our Inner Thoughts Into Karaoke

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist ZOEY'S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST -- "I've Got The Music In Me" Episode 102 -- Pictured: (l-r) Skylar Astin as Max; Jane Levy as Zoey Clarke; John Clarence Stewart as Simon -- (Photo by: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC)

NBC’s newest musical sitcom uses bundles of energy to wallpaper over the cracks in its premise.

During a break in Sunday night’s Golden Globe Ceremony, NBC aired a two-minute-long ad for their new musical series Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist featuring the cast and a highlight reel of different numbers to come. That’s not a good sign. If a network has to dedicate two minutes to have the cast explain the plot and conventions of a show, it usually indicates the network doesn’t have much confidence in the show’s success, or that the plot is overwrought. Sometimes, it’s both.

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist centers on Zoey (Jane Levy), an overly Type -A coder in San Francisco, who’s ready for her life to take off. But after experiencing headaches and eye pain, she decides to visit the doctor. While getting an MRI, there’s an earthquake and Zoey emerges with the ability to hear the inner “heart-songs” of the people around her. She’s “in-tune with people’s tunes.”

With the aid of her building manager/neighbor/DJ across the hall, Mo (Alex Newell), Zoey tries to navigate her new “powers” and help the overloaded amount of characters in her life, including, but not limited to, her: catatonic father Mitch (Peter Gallagher), overburdened mother Maggie (Mary Steenburgen), #bitchboss Joan (Lauren Graham), best friend/unrequited love interest Max (Skylar Astin), and the sadboi Simon she’s in love with (John Clarence Stewart). With so many people to address, it takes longer for change or growth to happen.

Despite its good intentions, Paul Feig and Eric Tannenbaum’s series often stumbles over its own ambition. A disabled father, a neglected mother, a new role at work, 2 unrequited love plots, gender discourse, and Zoey’s own personal growth (all with three to five musical numbers per episode) makes the show feel like an over-caffeinated drama class project. 

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist
ZOEY’S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST — “Pilot” Episode 101 — Pictured: (l-r) Skylar Astin as Max, Jane Levy as Zoey — (Photo by: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC)

The musical choices are oddly literal for a show with such an outrageous premise. Musical numbers don’t need to literalize emotion. They often do the opposite. Instead, a whole group of lonely people predictably sing The Beatles’ “Help.” A best friend confesses his love with “I Think I Love You.” Zoey’s father comforts Zoey by singing “True Colors.” The boss who seems to have it all “Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” Everyone seems to be having a great time, and they have great voices, but the show’s so eager to be sweet that it ends up cloying.

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is not without its merits. Levy’s absolutely charming as Zoey; she’s believably confused by her new powers and a love triangle, and plays Zoey’s tightly-wound “everything’s in ctrl” personality to deft comedic effect. But Levy shines most when she’s in scenes with her family, who are the true center of the show — particularly the emotional melodrama surrounding her father’s neurological condition (and the way her new unique abilities might give him a voice he lacks in real life).

As Maggie, Steenburgen (who actually had a medical mystery similar to Zoey’s happen to her) is wholly endearing; unlike other musical numbers that feel hollow, her performance feels lived-in. She easily finds the motivation behind the lyrics and adds interesting vocal contours to her numbers. Her relationship with her husband is the most effective use of the show’s premise — the idea that songs can say something more than words. She is the only butterfly for this diving bell. There’s a palpable tenderness amongst Zoey’s family, but skidding from broad comedy to such deep sincerity feels like a jarring tonal shift.

In the first four episodes made available for review, there appear to be no rules of why or when Zoey hears people’s songs. The musical “intrusions” seem to only heavy-handedly serve the narrative, rather than being “random” and overwhelming like Zoey says they are. When Mo tries to help find the limits of these powers, Zoey flatly tells them that “maybe there are no rules,” which is concerning as that means there’s nothing to keep the show from going off the rails. Hopefully, this changes as the series goes on: limits create fields of play, and might come in handy.

There’s a palpable tenderness amongst Zoey’s family, but skidding from broad comedy to such deep sincerity feels like a jarring tonal shift.

But then we get to Mo, a character who’s endearing and well-intentioned but falls into some nasty tropes. Newell, a veteran of Glee and Broadway’s Once on this Island, has a stunning voice and gives great emotionality during Mo’s time of crisis. It’s a shame, then, that, Mo is written like a nineteenth-century magical negro; he’s got snaps and sass for days, and helps the neurotic white lady how to order her life and appreciate the soul and music of life. Mo is written as superficial, yet “real,” which makes him feel barely human at all. He’s Zoey’s spiritual guide through her powers, even after Zoey’s powers turn on Mo and nonconsensually outs his gender-fluidity. That particular episode entwines complicated discourses of faith and gender discourse, but it remains to be seen if those discussions will actually go anywhere. If they don’t, it’ll just end up feeling like faux-progressive tokenism.

There’s also a Toxic Masculinity Strawman character in Tobin (the misused Kapil Talwalkar), one of Zoey’s male coworkers who makes benign, groan-worthy comments. Through this, they can winkingly tiptoe around misogyny in the workplace, but it’s nothing like the show’s tragic mishandling of Mo.  

Unlike other television musicals like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or Galavant which have original songs written to deepen characterizations and/or move the plot, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is a jukebox musical through and through. The pleasure of a jukebox musical comes from the novelty and ingenuity of the context each song arises from. Unfortunately, there’s nothing surprising here. 

The show is clearly courting musical fans and fans of Glee, which they may attract initially. But as the series goes on, the conventions and convolutions begin to weigh down. Even with the confusion between diegetic and nondiegetic music in Zoey’s head, the song choices seem tired and/or obvious. Also, why does a skinny white boy sing “All I Do Is Win” in 2020? Why?

The big problem the show will never be able to work around is that its concept has some uneasy implications. It’s dangerous to assert that the inner thoughts of the individual and collective are expressed with copyrighted material, that their identities are owned and licensed. There’s a dissonance to the way people’s innermost thoughts and feelings come pre-packaged in a song the rest of us recognize. These are not precious, unique songs; they’re owned by someone else. Tying identity and expression to property in this way (coupled with its “hip” San Francisco setting in San Francisco) puts a few troubling wrinkles in the show’s premise. 

It would have been better if the show wrote their own material; that way the “heart-songs” would feel more couture-d for the characters. Instead, Lauren Graham has to give a tech demo while singing Katy Perry’s “Roar.” 

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is eager to please, but there are too many flat notes that prevent the show from really singing. Instead of using intellect to craft an engaging show, NBC relies on the fuzzy familiarity of top 40 hits to hide its glaring flaws. It turns the vulnerable act of baring your soul into karaoke.

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist aired its pilot episode on NBC on January 7th, and turns up the radio in your head and sings its feelings out for the rest of the season starting February 16th.

Watch the First Episode of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist:

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