I’m still kicking myself for not watching Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist sooner. I’ll never forget the onslaught of commercials all throughout the 2019 holiday season, all of which successfully sold one key concept — a young woman can hear people’s thoughts and feelings through song. All of the ads had an exceedingly upbeat, colorful, and fun-loving vibe and while that most certainly could appeal to some, it just wasn’t what I was looking for at the time. A week-to-week network TV musical comedy? Nah. I’m more into my edgier streaming service binge watches. In the end, though, I couldn’t have been more wrong about this series.
Does that mean those advertisements were wrong and misleading? Not exactly. The show does star Jane Levy as Zoey, an extremely talented programmer who needs to get an MRI. During that MRI, there’s an earthquake and the machine malfunctions, sending her out the door with this ability to tap into other’s emotions through song. As conveyed in the commercials, the show is vibrant, rocking a good deal of comedy as well as one familiar and very catchy pop song after the next. But what the advertising campaign completely missed is the heartfelt drama throughout the season, which is directly tied to why Zoey gets that MRI in the first place.
Zoey’s father, Mitch (Peter Gallagher) is diagnosed with the degenerative disease, progressive supranuclear palsy. When we first meet him on the show, he’s almost entirely immobile, he can’t speak and his condition is weighing heavily on the hearts of his loved ones. It’s a crushing thing to watch, especially knowing that the disease will progress. While Zoey’s headaches likely have a lot to do with the stress of this situation and pressure at work, she still can’t help but to connect the dots to her father’s condition and that’s why she gets the MRI at the start of the show. That right there very quickly establishes that Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist isn’t just fun and games via song and dance. That ability was zapped into Zoey when she needed it most to help her process some of the greatest challenges of her life.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist doesn’t only take the time to flesh out Zoey’s arc as Mitch’s condition deteriorates; it also does the same for Zoey’s mother, Maggie (Mary Steenburgen), her older brother, David (Andrew Leeds), and even her sister-in-law, Emily (Alice Lee). Yes, Zoey is the title character and we’re experiencing all of the events of Season 1 through her eyes, but the writers do an exceptional job of building a supporting ensemble that’s there to both bolster Zoey’s journey but also feel like full characters experiencing great change themselves. In a broader sense, the Clarkes are seeing their family dynamic morph as they come to terms with what’s happening and realize that they need to change in order to support each other. But on top of that, the show also takes the time to address the very personal concerns each of them face. What results is a highly emotional web of responses to losing a loved one, a mix of one’s own deep heartbreak, the need to be there for others, and the challenge of finding hope amidst the grief.
The situation with Mitch is undoubtedly the beating heart of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, something that was almost entirely left out of the advertising I saw. On the one hand, it’s unfortunate that that drove me away from a show I wound up loving, but on the other, can you really blame a marketing team from leaning into the shows hook? It’s a very sellable high concept whereas reducing Mitch’s storyline to a mere 30 or 60-second TV spot feels like it’d never do that plot point justice. During a recent episode of Collider Connected with Jane Levy, she admitted that she noticed the same thing but also said, “I was confident that when you’d watch the show, the show will speak for itself.” And she’s right; it does. The only reason I watched the show is because someone else I knew gave it a shot and basically told me what I’m trying to convey to you right now; this show has more to offer than you’re ready for.
The grace and heart that goes into the Clarke family’s story might be one of the most powerful things I’ve seen all year, but Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist still manages to give other areas of Zoey’s life the appropriate time, care and attention to keep them well out of cliche territory and infuse them with a level of truth that’ll have you feeling and connecting more than you might expect. For example, that love triangle. Perhaps a blanket statement like this isn’t fair, but love triangles usually don’t interest me. They often come across as trivial, emotionally manipulative, and not true to life whatsoever. What’s happening between Zoey, Max (Skylar Astin) and Simon (John Clarence Stewart), however, is something entirely different. Zoey and Max are long time friends and, on paper, Max seems like the perfect guy for her. He’s smart, sweet, single, and madly in love with her. While Simon also ticks the smart and sweet boxes, he’s engaged and that raises a ton of questions regarding who he’s really got feelings for. Hopefully, the complexity of the situation is coming through a little in that brief description alone, but do know that as the show reveals more details about Max and Simon’s personal lives and their ambitions, it creates this gray area that so successfully conveys how messy and uncertain it can be to choose.
All of this and I haven’t even gotten to one of the best parts of the show: Alex Newell as Mo. First off, Mo’s energy is absolutely infectious. Somehow, even in a show that’s packed to the brim with energy, every single time Newell steps into frame it brings more life to the scene. Not only is Mo a model example of a good friend and sounding board for Zoey who always tells it as it is, but Mo is also on a very personal journey of his own. The character is absolutely oozing with confidence during the first few episodes of the show, and then in comes Episode 4, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Neighbor.” The series had been quite emotional up to that point, but be prepared to let the waterworks flow during Episode 4. After three episodes of Mo helping Zoey overcome her own insecurities, challenges, and fears, now it’s time for Zoey to take a cue from her extremely insightful neighbor and friend, and be there for him. Mo’s already proven himself as an utter gem to the audience, and the payoff of watching him embrace his truth is easily one of the best moments of the show. Mo’s also responsible for a line of dialogue that I might have jotted down in the notes on my laptop so that I have it when I need it most; “You’ll get better at this, as long as you see every failure not as defeat, but as a stepping stone on the road to success.”
It’s hard not to continue on with this role call, but I do fear I’m creeping too close spoiler territory. But briefly, do know that Michael Thomas Grant and Kapil Talwalker are absolute delights as Zoey’s co-workers Leif and Tobin, respectively. Lauren Graham also gets far more to work with as the season progresses playing Zoey’s boss, Joan. And Zak Orth’s Howie is a shockingly powerful late-season addition to the ensemble.
Don’t judge this book by its cover. (Or rather, judge a whole show based on a few trailers and TV spots.) If you got the impression that Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist was too silly and cheesy for you, think again, because the NBC series is easily one of the most sincere, perceptive and emotional shows I’ve seen. It also serves as a very powerful reminder of why I love storytelling. Prior to getting this power, Zoey was having a tough time processing her own emotions. Clarity came through song. I often find that clarity through the shows and movies I watch, and am thrilled that I can say Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is exceptionally effective in that respect.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist Season 1 is streaming now on Hulu.