Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (2020) – Review

Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy), a recently promoted programmer at a San Francisco tech company, is stuck in an MRI machine listening to the technician’s terrible playlist when an earthquake hits, causing something strange to happen to her brain.

From this moment on, Zoey can hear what everyone is thinking – or rather, she starts to witness people’s innermost emotions playing out in huge song and dance numbers that only she can see.

Enlisting her neighbour Mo (Alex Newell), Zoey starts to use these ‘heart songs’ to better understand and communicate with the people around her, while also dealing with the deterioration of her father’s health (portrayed heartbreakingly beautifully by tv’s best dad, Sandy Cohen himself: the incomparable Peter Gallagher), pressure at work, and one of the nicest tv love triangles I have seen in a long time.

Joyful, musical, intelligent, funny, truly heart-breaking, this show is exactly what I needed to cheer me up in my lockdown funk and everyone should be watching it!

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is, at its heart, a musical that truly understands what musicals are for. The show’s creater, Austin Winsberg, has talked in interviews about how it was very important to him that they didn’t break the cardinal rules of musical theatre: that all the songs have to 1) advance the plot, 2) tell you something important about the character, and/or 3) add a solid piece of comedy. As a lover of musicals, I’m not entirely sure most famous musicals actually obey that rule entirely, especially more modern ones, but Zoey really does in the most satisfying way. The show isn’t afraid of the music, and isn’t afraid of using the odd reprise, or even just snatches of songs to make certain points. This flexibility around the music makes it fit into the world far better than some other musical shows have managed. Every episode is a true musical, reminiscent of the wonderful and much missed Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Zoey manages to actually pull off what I think Netflix’s prematurely cancelled Soundtrack made a valiant effort towards. Particularly because in Zoey, Winsberg trusts his actors to sing. Soundtrack‘s gimmick of having all the actors lip-sync along to the song’s original singers swung the show’s tone too often into melodrama and created too much distance between the viewer, the character, and the songs. Zoey‘s musical choices are far better judged.

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is also really funny, revelling in the comedic talents of Levy and Newell especially. In one episode where Zoey’s magical powers switch, leaving her as the one singing out her feelings to everyone else, the flips between how Zoey sees her musical numbers going (fully chorographed with back-up dancers and singers), compared to what the rest of her office witness in real life was truly masterful. From Zoey trying to stop herself singing ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ in a meeting with her boss, to turning a huge presentation to the CEO into a passionate rendition of ‘Pressure’ which her best friend Max (Skylar Astin) tries to salvage by dancing along with her, the whole episode made me cry with laughter.

The jolliness of the show however remains grounded by the plot surrounding Zoey’s dad and the rest of her family. Drawing on Winsberg’s own experience of his father dying from Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, this whole storyline is beautifully done; the ending of the first episode, where Mitch’s storyline and Zoey’s new powers are brought together, made me cry. The two plots remain entwined throughout the season, building to the simply remarkable season finale. Using Zoey’s powers as a way for her to still hear her dad sing and watch him move as he once did was a beautiful way to give more purpose to the show’s gimmick, and gives Zoey an undercurrent of grief that tempers her, framing her often manic bounciness, and allowing the show to explore the emotions of her entire family. The series’ timeline is dictated by Mitch’s deterioration and how the family copes, culminating in a big one-shot group number that completely blew me away.

A huge reason why the show works so well is that Peter Gallagher is just perfect. Switching between his deteriorating state and the suave crooner Zoey sees singing to her and her mother, Gallagher strikes the exact right balance between father and romantic hero that the script demands. Despite his decreasing ability to communicate, Mitch continues to be his own person rather than ever becoming a plot device, and his storyline is handled with great care and a real sense of humour. I think choosing someone already known for playing a great dad in a classic 2000s tv show (The O.C. – if anyone missed that critical pop culture moment) was fun casting, but combining that with Gallagher’s Broadway background was truly striking gold (yes, I have absolutely been down a YouTube rabbithole of Peter Gallagher singing several times since I watched Zoey – he was clearly a WONDERFUL Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls).

Jane Levy’s Zoey is also a joy to watch. She’s like a modern-day Jane Powell, with her tiny stature, impressive comedic timing, and wonderful voice, and she truly throws herself into every episode. I was so pleased that the show created the opportunity for her to sing: one of the best uses of a song in the whole show is Zoey singing LeAnn Rimes’ ‘How Do I Live’ to her father, taking a traditionally romantically-coded song and using it to convey the pain of facing life without a parent. She sings without affectation and somehow manages to hit every note despite singing through tears.

Zoey is also allowed to be clever, rather than just “tv nerdy”, and despite her occasional emotional incompetence, she is allowed to show conflicting and illogical emotions regarding her family and love interests without this ever making her bad at her job. After years of shows where the women start to fail at all aspects of their life as soon as something in their love life goes wrong, I loved that Zoey never treats its female characters like that. Similarly, Zoey’s mother, sister-in-law, and boss are all written and portrayed with balance and heart.

The rest of the supporting cast are also very well chosen: Zoey’s neighbour Mo who helps Zoey with her interpretation of the ‘heart songs’, while still having more than one interesting storyline of his own; Zak Orth as Mitch’s carer, Howie, becomes a lovely support for Zoey’s whole family; Lauren Graham has the time of her life as Zoey’s boss; and the rest of Zoey’s team at work supply a lot of the comedy in the show, especially the equal parts revolting and adorable Tobin (Kapil Talwalkar). His friendship with fellow-programmer Leif might be one of the great love stories of the show.

Speaking of love stories – the love triangle in Zoey actually works without portraying Zoey as an indecisive moron! Yay! Zoey’s two love interests, her best friend Max, and Simon, a recently bereaved coworker, are both genuinely nice men, and Zoey’s dilemma is entirely reasonable; a very refreshing change from most tv love triangles! The only recent parallels I can think of are (again) the late Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, in which Rebecca has several convincing options throughout the show, and Roswell, New Mexico, which had two good love triangles up until very recently, when one was nicely resolved and the other one was totally ruined by an awkward and misjudged (in my opinion) threesome, so Zoey really does stand out in the current tv landscape.

Max, as the best friend, has a bit more to overcome than handsome and brooding Simon, but Skylar Astin (of Pitch Perfect and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend fame – he’s really found his niche!) absolutely rises to the challenge and, if his love for Zoey is initially played a little for laughs as he unknowingly bursts into chorographed love songs at work, it gets taken more and more seriously as the season progresses. His real standout moment for me is his rendition of ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’, initially sung to tempo as he helps Zoey rush home to her father on an electric scooter, and then reprised later on in the episode, stripped down and slower, as Max walks home. I loved Astin’s incredibly intimate and romantic delivery of the song, combined with the classic Old Musical image of the lover singing under a streetlight, and it really cements Max as a romantic contender.

Despite the various bits of relationship drama, the show does refocus towards the end back onto Zoey’s family, and both Simon and Max rally round touchingly. Perhaps one of the most characteristic moments of the show is when Max, after dropping Zoey off at her parents’ house when her father takes a turn for the worse, calls Simon, despite a building antagonism between them, to tell him that Zoey needs some extra support. This was such a lovely moment of two men putting their jealousy aside to support their friend, and I loved that I ended the season still very fond of both characters. I think that it’s hugely down to the fact that the show doesn’t underestimate Zoey as a character. She is intelligent and loving, and so her difficulty handling her feelings for both men has to make sense to the viewer: to have one of them be obviously the wrong choice is an insult to her intelligence and I’m so pleased they didn’t fall into that trap.

There’s so much more I want to say about this show but I don’t want to spoil it too much. All I can say is watch it, watch it, watch it, and let the lovely, positive world of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist wash over you.

You can find it here in the UK, and I hope you love it as much as I did. Enjoy! (but make sure you have lots of tissues)

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