Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (Season 1)—While Falling Occasionally Offbeat, This Show Hits the High Notes

Most of the attention on NBC this year has been on their recently launched Peacock service. Despite many annoyances plaguing audiences with the streaming limitations placed on the service, they have intrigued many to sign-up with their library of content, which includes favorites like Parks and Recreation, Monk, Psych, and many more. However, in their quest to advertise their upcoming service and their catalogues titles coming to it, to me it feels like they haven’t been pushing their new content (except maybe the movie Psych 2: Lassie Come Home). As such, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is a show that randomly popped up on my radar when I was scrolling through Hulu back in January, when NBC aired the pilot episode a month before the series officially aired. When I first watched the pilot, I was hooked with the premise, story and characters. However, as the show progressed, my enjoyment of the show diminished.

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist follows Zoey Clarke (played by Jane Levy) who, after an unusual event, begins to hear the innermost thoughts of those around her through choreographed musical numbers. Once Zoey begins hearing the thoughts of her family and friends, neighbors, and co-workers, Zoey decides to use her new-found ability to help those around her.

Jane Levy and Peter Gallagher in Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (2020) Season 1, Episode 1. Via NBC

The concept of this show is brilliant as it takes on the Glee formula while adding a twist that helps drive interesting narrative through the first season. Like Glee, it allows itself to address the silliness of the concept while also offering deep and sincere moments. Unlike Glee, however, the show manages to hold a nice balance of music and narrative as it takes the approach of keeping the musical gimmick in the backseat. If anything, the musical aspect is tertiary to the narrative and characters.

The overlying story between Zoey and her father, who has progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), where they bond through her hearing her father’s thoughts despite his inability to speak, is both uplifting and heartbreaking. When the show focuses on this storyline and the other family dynamics, this show is firing on all cylinders. However, when we break away to Zoey’s work life and budding-love triangle, the show grinds to a halt. The subplot of the love-triangle between her friends and co-workers Max and Simon (played by Skylar Astin and John Clarence Stewart respectively) is very aggravating to get through as all the characters in the situation come off as toxic. The over emphasis on this plot and Zoey’s worklife, while at times showing glimpses of great humor and heart, leave the viewer hating all of the characters involved as they are all written in a way that leaves them completely unlikable.

That said, most of the performances in the show are quite good. This is especially the case for Jane Levy as she brings raw emotion to almost every single scene she is in. The performances from Mary Steenburgen and Peter Gallagher, who play Zoey’s parents Maggie and Mitch, are also incredible (particularly towards the later half of the season). Other notable performances include Lauren Graham as Zoey’s boss Joan, Michael Thomas Grant as Zoey’s tech rival Lief, and John Clarence Stewart. However, as stated previously, outside of the characters of Zoey and her parents, none of the other characters carry likability consistently through the season. These out of the way, two actors that think really bring down the show for me is Skylar Astin (from Pitch Perfect fame) and Alex Newell (known for role as Unique in Glee) who plays Zoey’s neighbor Mo. I may be biased as I did not enjoy the Jesse character Astin played in Pitch Perfect and I loathed the Unique character from Glee, but they play almost the exact same characters as the roles they became known for, which as a result, leave them appearing very onenote and tiring. There were brief glimpses of hope for these characters in a few episodes throughout the season, but once those were introduced, they weren’t really touched on again. Hopefully, the writers decide to write the Max and Mo characters in a more expanded capacity that allow the two actors to stretch the acting abilities more.

Overall, you may have to work to enjoy some of the characters, but the overarching story of family and looming loss is so well executed. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is a fun and heartfelt show to pick up in your spare time. The beginning gets you hooked and if you can get through the more aggravating parts in the middle, the first season ends with a fantastically beautiful payoff.

Rating: 3 out of 5.


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