If you need something to watch during quarantine, it should be Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.
Everyone’s binging all those 200-episode shows they swore they’d get around to when they had the time. Netflix is dropping new shows like it’s going out of style. And yet, the TV show that has most captured my imagination in the last few months is an unassuming 12-episode freshman show on NBC, of all things: Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.
The premise sounds absurd, one of those “Really? That’s a TV show?” premises. TL;DR is that Zoey gets the power to hear people’s “heart songs,” where folks sing their innermost feelings to her, usually through an elaborately choreographed number. But hey, I liked Glee and Smash before they jumped the shark, and I had a hankering for a good musical show. The pilot wasn’t quite perfect – there were a lot of storylines to set up! – but it got me interested enough to come back. And I very quickly fell in love.
There is so much to love about Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, but my favorite thing is how there is no villain. Everyone on the show is an inherently decent person just trying to do their best in the face of life’s difficulties. In a world that’s falling apart around us, and when TV is overrun with antiheroes, it’s so refreshing to spend a few hours rooting for good people to work things out. It’s just such an optimistic view of humanity.
Maybe it’s because the central conceit of the show is rooted in empathy. Zoey, and therefore the viewers, are treated to the innermost desires and fears of all these characters. It’s hard to completely villainize someone when you’ve seen inside their heart. That is how archetypes like a ball-busting boss, or a frigid fiancé and romantic rival, or crazy coworker, all end up as characters we can root for. Everyone is the hero of their own story, but on ZEP, they are also the hero of this story. This aspect of ZEP shouldn’t feel as revolutionary as it does, but it’s striking just how much I like everyone on screen.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is also perhaps the best look on TV at what it’s like to have a family member dying of terminal illness. The writer, Austin Winsberg, based it on his own experience of losing his father to PSP. That first-hand experience really shows. The show captures all the heartbreak of losing someone, but intersperses it with humor, hope, and the occasional absurdity of the whole process.
It’s not all tearjerker monologues over hospital beds – sometimes it’s the overwhelming task of choosing coffins, or losing your temper over a shortage of lemons. It’s going to work and sorting out your love life, and then coming home to tell your dying relative the news. I’ve never seen a TV show that felt so rooted in the real experience of losing someone. And by allowing all those other moments room to breathe, it makes the tearjerker moments pack an even bigger emotional wallop. In the finale, I was hooting with laughter over a Pitbull song cover, and literally crying two minutes later.
All of these things would not work without a terrific cast, and there is not a single weak link in the ensemble. They all sing well, but it’s not auto-tuned or belted to the bleachers – it feels like real people singing. The song choices range from really obscure to somewhat popular – it’s like Glee was in the beginning, before every week became “Justin Bieber Week” or “Glee does Let It Go!”
And they all move the story forward – none of the numbers ever feel like a gratuitous musical interlude. It almost doesn’t feel like a musical, but like a TV show where music plays a huge part.
But when the musical numbers do happen, they’re incredible. Mandy Moore does the choreography for all the numbers, and they’re filmed without much cutting so as not to veer into music video territory. The show has also given her opportunity to craft some incredibly unique numbers. A few weeks back, a number was done entirely in ASL. Season 1 ended with a single uninterrupted take of a seven minute number with the entire cast. From a technical standpoint, ZEP is just so impressive.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist just aired its season 1 finale, and can be fully caught up with in a day or two. There’s no word yet on whether it’s been renewed for season 2, but everyone seems cautiously optimistic that NBC knows they’ve got a winner. If you need either a boost of spirits or a good cry, I can’t recommend Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist highly enough.