Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist fulfills the beloved spot of the TV musical previously occupied by the short-lived Galavant, Smash, Glee, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and, more recently, Julie and the Phantoms. I was skeptical of the series at first, not quite ready to fall in love with another musical only to be let down by its content or an early cancelation. However, the series exceeded all expectations and proved to be one of the best new TV shows of the year — it’s heartwarming, cheesy in the best way possible, and poignant. You could say it hits all the right notes. Now that the show is returning for its second season on January 5, allow me to gush about its greatness.
Musical dramedies are hard to pull off (and they’re not for everyone), but Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist manages to do what most can’t. It wears its heart on its sleeve, grounded not by its musical numbers (though they are pretty great), but by its exploration of emotion and the myriad of ways the jumbling mess we call our feelings can be expressed. There is also a love triangle that doesn’t grate on the nerves, complicated family dynamics, and work-related stress, all of which makes for a very emotionally realistic show. The music simultaneously elevates and complements the material seamlessly.
The premise is somewhat zany. During a routine MRI, an earthquake hits San Francisco and, while Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy) is still inside the machine, she is bestowed with the ability to hear people sing their inner feelings. Zoey takes to calling them heart songs. In between all of the madness — San Franciscans collectively singing “Help!” by The Beatles, being serenaded by work colleague Simon (John Clarence Stewart) and best friend Max (Skylar Astin), and meddling with other people’s personal problems — Zoe must also contend with her father’s Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), a degenerative disease that keeps Mitch (Peter Gallagher) from speaking or moving. He’s not doing so well and Zoey, along with her mom (Mary Steenburgen), brother (Andrew Leeds), and sister-in-law (Alice Leeds), have to face the inexplicable grief of losing him before he’s ever gone.
The series draws inspiration from showrunner Austin Winsberg, who lost his own father to PSP several years prior. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist expertly handles grief in a way that most series ignore or spend very little time exploring. Zoey spends most of the season worrying about her dad (and things get way too real for her to handle sometimes, which is very human), but also spends some much-needed time with him. However, she ensures that her mother, Maggie, isn’t ignored and is taking care of herself because she’s been too busy looking after her husband. It’s a well-rounded depiction of grief and personal struggle that isn’t solely played for drama and never emotionally manipulative of its audience. I was in a ball of tears by the end of the season simply because of the musical’s tender and genuine approach to the story.
This might sound like a downer, but Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist also has a lot of fun with its story. It’s a musical dramedy, after all! As it is in real life, Zoey’s whole world isn’t relegated to her father’s side. She works at a tech company where she manages an eccentric group of employees and finds herself constantly embroiled in other people’s drama, including that of her boss, Joan (Lauren Graham). Because Zoey can hear other people break out into song (and dance), she bears witness to competitive riff-offs and lots of pining. Yes, it can be awkward, but that’s why it’s also so entertaining.
Meanwhile, Zoey has feelings for Simon and they realize a connection while bonding over shared grief. The problem is Simon has a girlfriend and it’s complicated because he’s no longer in love with her in the way she wants him to be. Max, on the other hand, is head-over-heels for Zoey, who doesn’t know what to do about his feelings at first and takes her time coming to the realization that she reciprocates them, too. I usually don’t like love triangles and avoid them at all costs, but the series actually handles it rather tastefully (can love triangles be tasteful???). It’s not over-the-top and the three of them are treated as full-fledged characters rather than as stand-ins for a frustrating plot. And I can’t go without mentioning Mo (Alex Newell), Zoey’s genderfluid neighbor who knows about her powers (but also has some personal stuff to deal with).
There is a lot going on in the first season, but Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist masterfully balances all of its plot threads and characters without missing a beat. It’s charming, lively, thoughtful and wild. The cast is fantastic, bringing their A-game to everything from dramatic and lighthearted scenes to big dance numbers. It’s a one-stop shop for anyone who enjoys the razzle dazzle of a musical, with a side dose of grounded drama. Perhaps what makes the show so distinct is that it’s fully formed right out of the gate. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist understands what it’s trying to be and all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist Season 2 will premiere on Tuesday, January 5 on NBC. You can binge-watch the first season on Hulu.
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