Look there’s no denying that 2019 was a tough year. And when I look back on some of my favorite TV shows of 2019—Unbelievable, Fleabag, Russian Doll, Evil—they aren’t exactly brimming with joy. Perhaps it was an extension of the pathetic fallacy where TV, not nature, is reflecting human emotions. That’s why I’m so delighted to tell you that Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist on NBC is a pure delight. It is a show that is 1000% guaranteed to put a smile on your face, get your feet tapping and leave you humming a happy tune. I defy you to not be in a good mood after watching it.
The show skews towards people who love musicals and big Broadway-style production numbers (guilty as charged). Jane Levy stars as the titular character who, after an MRI gone awry, can suddenly hear the soundtrack of people’s lives; their innermost thoughts set to a Beatles song, a Whitney Houston ballad or a Katy Perry number.
Zoey works at a tech start up with a take-no-prisoners boss Joan (Lauren Graham), her best friend Max (Skyler Astin), and marketing guru Simon (John Clarence Stewart), who she secretly pines for. At home, Zoey’s dad Mitch (Peter Gallagher) has a degenerative neurological disorder that has rendered him immobile with the inability to communicate, and her mom Maggie (Mary Steenburgen) is struggling to keep up with all that caring for her husband requires. Her neighbor/building manager Mo (Alex Newell) is the only one who knows Zoey’s secret.
Because Zoey is privy to people’s innermost thoughts whether they are singing about sexual desire or loneliness or marital frustration, she tasks herself with solving their problems. So the show has a certain God Friended Me, Joan of Arcadia, Kevin (Probably) Saves the World ring to it. But by adding the extra layer of full with big musical numbers, everything Zoey does seems natural. Musicals, by their very nature, require a huge willing suspension of disbelief.
Part of the fun of the series is waiting for the actors to sing. When will we finally get to hear Graham belt one out? How long until Astin dances? When will Newell show us his vocal chops? The minute you realize that Mitch can’t talk you know Zoey is bound to hear him sing. Sure it’s a little emotionally manipulative but I don’t care. Gallagher’s acapella performance makes it all worth it.
The always charming Levy is a natural for the role. At the epicenter of all the action she brings the right mix of disbelief/begrudging acceptance to what is happening to her. But the true breakout here is Newell, who puts a fresh spin on the sassy best friend trope. “I’m an open-minded person. I’m willing to roll with this,” he tells Zoey when she first tells him about her special power. Mo is gender fluid, representing a character rarely seen on network TV. Newell is up to the challenge, though. He not only sounds amazing (as someone who has followed his career since his days on The Glee Project I couldn’t wait to hear him sing) and gets some of the best lines (“You dress like a docent at a folk art museum”) but he also brings depth and resonance to a character who could have easily just been a sidekick. Mo’s fabulous exterior belies his inner struggles something that comes to light in the fourth episode available for review which, most unfortunately, you will have to wait far too long to watch.
My biggest quibble is the show’s rollout. It premieres January 7 and then isn’t back until February 16. A month and a half is a long time in TV time. When viewers can binge watch entire seasons in a day, why should they have to wait over 40 days to watch another episode of a series that piqued their interest? There’s too great a risk that they will have moved on by then.
Still, the show is worth it. It isn’t afraid to tackle big emotional problems from the sudden death of a parent to a husband who doesn’t respect you to being your true self to everyone. It’s NBC taking a risk. As far as musical TV series go, for every Glee or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend there’s a Cop Rock. But for network television to be airing, promoting, financing a show like this is a sign that broadcast TV isn’t throwing in the towel to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon or (heaven help us) Quibi. NBC has come to play, thank you very much.
And that is something to sing about.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist premieres January 7 at 9 p.m. on NBC, then returns on February 16.
[This review originally published January 6, 2020]
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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