“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” on NBC
While stuffing the airwaves with cheap-to-produce singing competitions (“American Idol,” “The Voice,” “The Masked Singer,” “Last Choir Standing,” “The Sing Off”), TV networks occasionally toss audiences a bone and offer up a legitimate musical comedy/drama (“Glee,” “Nashville,” “Smash,” “My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”). As a weekly series, though, musicals are tough to pull off. Who wants to write a bunch of new songs every week (other than Rachel Bloom)? “Glee” sidestepped that problem by embracing Broadway’s newfound love for the “jukebox musical” and simply having its cast belt out a bunch of karaoke-style greatest hits every week. Now NBC gives it the old performing arts academy try by mashing up the “Now That’s What I Call Music 72” style of “Glee” with the self-referential romantic comedy of “My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” in the tune-filled dramedy “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.”
Jane Levy (a welcome presence on ABC’s underrated “Suburgatory”) stars as the titular Zoey, an introverted coder at a successful app company (one of those mythically wealthy businesses with lots of ergonomic chairs and a breakfast cereal bar in the lobby). One day, while undergoing an MRI (and listening to iTunes), an earthquake strikes, gifting Zoey with the ability to hear other people’s innermost thoughts—but only in the form of elaborate musical numbers. (Scientifically speaking, it checks out.)
The dorky-nice co-worker with a secret crush? He gets to sing The Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You.” The hunky but quietly suicidal business executive? Gary Jules’ maudlin version of “Mad World.” Turns out Zoey isn’t just privy to these musical confessions, she’s expected to do something about them. Yup, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” is one of those faux-spiritual comedy-dramas in which harried nonbelievers are given special powers by God/Fate/the Universe/whatever in order to reluctantly render assistance to complete strangers on a weekly basis. (See for reference: “Wonderfalls, “The Ghost Whisperer,” “Joan of Arcadia,” “Early Edition,” “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World,” “God Friended Me.”)
Boldly colored, energetically shot and brimming with sing-along-able moments (“I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” anyone?), “Zoey” gets lots of points for candy-coated enthusiasm. It’s intended, clearly, to appeal to those who like their TV quirky, cute and familiar. But the tone ends up a bit muddled. Central to the “dram” half of the show’s “dramedy” is the character of Zoey’s dad (Peter Gallagher), who’s dying from a rare neurological disease called progressive supranuclear palsy, which leaves him paralyzed, unable to speak and suffering from dementia. It is—to steal a line from a Rocky Horror Picture Show song that will probably never be covered here—“the start of a pretty big downer.” Dad does get to sing a painfully sentimental song in the pilot (Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”). But that’s just indicative of the show’s wild mood swings from frothy dance numbers to tear-jerking balladry.
The cast is generally impressive (Peter Gallagher and Mary Steenburgen as Zoey’s loving parents, Lauren Graham as her tough boss, Alex Newell from “Glee” as her genderqueer neighbor, Skylar Astin from “My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” as her smitten officemate). At least half are credible singers. But the show’s collection of Top Ten tunes is both too random (Celine Dion one minute, DJ Khaled the next) and too on-the-nose (“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” as our heroine wakes up in the morning). Sure, the pop music needle drops are fun, but—shoehorned into place—they don’t actually end up saying much about the characters. (So Zoey’s hard-charging boss “can’t get no satisfaction.” Hmm, interesting.)
Ultimately, your enjoyment of “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” will depend upon how much deep-seated wisdom you ascribe to random pop music lyrics. … “I’m afraid that I’m not sure of a love there is no cure for.” Oh, David Cassidy, how is it you can just say what we’re all thinking?