If you love musicals, you have probably been treating yourself to TV’s most heartfelt and adorable new musical comedy-drama Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. The story of a girl who gains freaky new powers after an MRI gone wrong seems all fluff on the surface but the series delves into surprisingly emotional and deep territory, especially towards its last few episodes.
I Just Wanna Dance With Somebody
Meet Zoey. She’s a badass programmer, even if she seems a little unsure about that herself. Her father Mitch suffers from PSP (progressive supranuclear palsy) with no hope of a cure or recovery. Zoey’s mother does her best to care for the declining Mitch while Zoey’s brother David is expecting his first child with wife Emily. At work, Zoey’s boss Joan is hard and cold towards her employees, but Zoey gets on with the support of her best friend Max but is distracted by the arrival of Simon, who is also going through a personal tragedy just as Zoey’s is about to face hers.
Zoey goes for an MRI to see if she’s likely to be affected by the same condition as her father but an earthquake causes the MRI to break and a huge playlist to be downloaded onto Zoey’s brain. Now Zoey can read people’s most inner feelings, or more like…see people perform them through song and dance.
It’s a fantastic and fantastical premise and it works remarkably well. Showrunner Austin Winsberg based much of it on his own experiences with his dying father and it’s those parts that resonate the most. Every episode builds a narrative around songs and the series utilises contemporary hits as well as some classics. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist balances its silly and funny premise with the more sentimental and sad elements with ease and all episodes strike a unique tone. While the series is easily digested, even through the many tears it forces out of us, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist never feels disposable, but important and truthful.
The Great Pretender
Jane Levy leads the impressive cast with a sincere performance as Zoey navigates her way through not only her new, confusing powers but her father’s decreasing health and the probability of losing him. Lorelai Gilmore herself, Lauren Graham plays Zoey’s boss Joan and clearly has a lot of fun with it, even if she seems most uncomfortable with the songs and choreographies. That being said, her rendition of Kesha’s Tik Tok is one for the ages.
Skylar Astin, best known for the first two (and superior) Pitch Perfect films, is lovely as Zoey’s best friend and possible love interest Max and he has great chemistry with not only Levy but John Clarence Stewart, whose Simon becomes Zoey’s other love interest. The tension on screen between the two men is palpable, but never hostile, which is a nice little variation.
Peter Gallagher brings a lot of warmth underlined with tragedy to his performance as Zoey’s dad Mitch. While there’s often and justifiably criticism towards able-bodied actors playing characters with disabilities, Gallagher’s portrayal feels right here. He bursts into song and dance, creating some truly emotional and affecting scenes as Mitch too comes to terms with his mortality and the fact that he will leave behind the love of his life as well as two children, but is physically unable to express his emotions or feelings towards his family.
I’ve Got The Music In Me
What Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist does so well is bring inclusivity into its rather short narrative. Over the season’s 12 episodes, we are treated to an episode focusing on Zoey’s gender-fluid neighbour Mo, who is struggling with their identity and faith, as well as a whole musical number performed by the deaf actress Sandra Mae Frank in sign language, which might just be the series’ highlight. These are two small, but important steps to better representation on screen.
Mandy Moore serves as the series’ choreographer and all the numbers have a silly edge to them. They often lean towards musical theatre or contemporary and are purposely a little self-aware in their ludicrousness. The interpretive dance numbers, usually for the ballads, are both innocent and hilarious in their sincerity, but all the actors commit to them and they all pull them off surprisingly well. Much like Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land, the actors’ slight clumsiness here just adds to the show’s charm. Levy and co. may not be trained dancers, but they bring certain purity to the dance routines and what they lack in technique, they make up in sheer charisma.
It’s often Astin’s Max who is afforded the best songs and Astin’s vocals and sheer charm power us through some of the more mundane elements of the series. Astin’s renditions of such hits as “Sucker, I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” and “Bye Bye Bye” will have you dancing in your living room and “All Of You” might just make you weep. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist utilises the actor’s capable lungs and dance moves, making Max a wonderful character who also rather surprisingly has his own agency and goals.
The Sound Of Silence
While the musical numbers are fun and the love triangle between Max, Simon and Zoey is engaging and feels surprisingly fresh despite some familiar beats, it’s really Zoey’s relationship with Mitch that makes Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist a real treat.
The beautifully understated and honest performances by Levy and Gallagher are great and the pair do much with very little and often turn the quiet, still moments between Mitch and Zoey into something beautiful that speaks volumes. As a musical, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist plays into a utopia, a fantastical version of our reality but the fast-paced narrative slows down as it explores the very real tragedies the characters face.
The tears that you are guaranteed to shed during most of the 12 episodes all feel earned and come from a very honest place. While Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, like all films and TV shows by nature, is a little manipulative, it touches upon enough universal truths and anxieties that it becomes acceptable. Zoey deals with issues we all either have dealt with or will eventually have to deal with and the show gracefully treats Zoey’s narrative arc with warmth and understanding, but also always with humour. It’s invigorating to see a show that deals with impending death with both the seriousness it demands and the humour that never disappears upon tragedy. The laughs never alleviate or lessen the fundamental sadness at the heart of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, but amplify its humanity, making this a remarkable piece of TV.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist Season 1: All I Do is Win or Don’t Speak?
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist guarantees laughs, bops, and tears and season 1 serves as a perfect musical treat for the fans of the genre, but with its universal themes, this should also appeal to those unfamiliar of Skylar Astin’s singing talents.
There are plenty of places where the series could go for season 2, which is unconfirmed, but season 1 feels wholesome and complete on its own. The last song of the series, “American Pie,” is a surprising, yet totally perfect end to a series that nailed all those high notes. It’s a yes from me.
What did you think of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist? What was your favourite musical number? Let us know in the comments!
Watch Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist
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