Created by: Austin Winsberg
Starring: Jane Levy, Skylar Astin, Alex Newell, John Clarence Stewart, Mary Steenburgen
Streaming on: SonyLIV
In Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Zoey (Jane Levy) is blessed (or cursed?) with a highly unusual power: she can hear the innermost thoughts and feelings of those around her sung to her as big, colourful, choreographed production numbers, most often well-known pop songs. The first season debuted in January 2020 and ran for twelve episodes; it was renewed for a second season in June, which premiered right on time in January 2021.
Zoey is a young software engineer in San Francisco, who works at a tech company. Through the first season, the major event in Zoey’s life is her father’s degenerative disease and impending death. Mitch (Peter Gallagher) has PSP – progressive supranuclear palsy – a rare neurological illness that saps his entire body of movement and functioning. He is unable to communicate with the family. Then one day, Zoey takes an MRI test, during which the city experiences an earthquake, and when she comes out of it – people around her begin bursting into song. The show has many, many amazing musical numbers and first of the best ones has to be a bewildered Zoey being chased through San Francisco by a horde of stressed strangers singing ‘Help!’ by the Beatles.
Through the first season, we saw Zoey having to deal with several fallouts of her power: she realises her best friend Max (Skylar Astin) is in love with her before he confesses it; she recognises her co-worker Simon (John Clarence Stewart) and boss Joan (Lauren Graham) are suffering privately from unhappiness; she even has to intervene in three marriages, with varying success. She tries to figure out why she has this power, taking the advice of her musically-inclined, gender fluid neighbour Mo (Alex Newell), and realises it’s perhaps because she has to help the people who sing to her.
Is Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist a great show? I don’t know, but it certainly is extraordinary. The ambition is undeniable: the musical numbers are sensationally choreographed by Mandy Moore (who also choreographed La La Land) and the dancers work in tandem with the camera, which always functions as a kind of back-up dancer, swinging in and out, so that the dancers are never facing only in one direction. And the songs fit beautifully into the situations – even though they’re by other people, they’re very well chosen for each character and predicament. Which means that it’s a bit forced when, after every number, we are treated to an explanation of the emotion. If you happened to forget to listen to the words, that’s OK, because inevitably Zoey will comment on exactly what the song felt and sounded like.
In season one, Zoey’s power yielded one great piece of storytelling whimsy: it meant that every now and then she could hear her father sing and express himself. Creator Austin Winsberg was inspired by his own father’s succumbing to PSP; there was no way to know, in his last months, whether he could understand what was going on around him or not. In the show, Mitch is dependent on his family for everything. But then one day, he gets up and sings to Zoey, and it’s absolutely wonderful.
Then Mitch died at the end of season one (which led to a magnificent season finale, where the whole cast sang Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’, each getting the verse that most approximated their journey, and I forgave all the show’s shortcomings in an instant). When season two came around, there was no longer an emotional anchor for Zoey’s power. In the first season, she was learning to listen to the people around her and have empathy for them. Of course, she solved their problems a bit too easily. People appeared to open up to her way too quickly, given they had no knowledge of having sung their heart out to her. And I’m not a big fan of the show’s propensity to clear up subplots within an episode or two, leaving them largely forgettable.
I wondered what could possibly be mined from Zoey’s power in the new season. Now with her father gone, what barriers to communication could there be that her power would dissolve? And then the episodes answered the question: grief and loss convince people to create barriers around themselves, even though those are the very emotions that are aggravated by loneliness. Through the first season, Zoey and the people around her were learning about expressing themselves; now they must cope with loss: Zoey’s family have lost Mitch, Max has lost his job, Mo loses his boyfriend. (And we, the audience, lose Lauren Graham, who had to leave the show because of scheduling conflicts thanks to the pandemic; I hope they bring her back, though!)
Through season one, Zoey juggled two men (and before we could exclaim, ‘May we all be so lucky!’, the show was quick to depict how agonising it was for Zoey, Max and Simon to be trapped in an unfortunate love triangle).
But the second season, perhaps most interestingly, is also about new beginnings. The grief that comes with an end is also accompanied by the struggle of another beginning. Through season one, Zoey juggled two men (and before we could exclaim, ‘May we all be so lucky!’, the show was quick to depict how agonising it was for Zoey, Max and Simon to be trapped in an unfortunate love triangle). At the beginning of season two, she and Max have tentatively begun a relationship. But you get the feeling that they’re perhaps too close at this point to be ‘starting’ out, so it makes sense that they decide to take a break from each other. By the second half of the season, Zoey and Simon begin a relationship. Meanwhile, Zoey’s brother and his wife are struggling with what it means to be new parents. And Zoey’s mother must find a way to ‘begin’ a new, widowed life.
What I admire is how hard the writers work to develop new ways in which Zoey’s power can continue to be interesting. After the initial novelty of it wears off, it can get predictable: someone sings a song, Zoey prods them, they spill, Zoey helps them solve the problem. The second season adds to the far-fetched nature of some of these interactions: at one point, Zoey has used her power to come to the aid of Mo’s new boyfriend Perry and Perry’s ex-husband! But luckily, the show often transcends this. There is a welcome probing of what this power might eventually mean for Zoey. The only people who know about it are Max and Mo. And as Zoey starts seeing Simon seriously, her secret weighs on her increasingly. Even if she were to reveal it, she knows it won’t do much good. As she has learnt from her time with Max, it can be dangerous when one person in a relationship has a greater knowledge of the other. And Zoey will always have this advantage in any relationship she’s in – romantic or otherwise. No wonder, then, that we see her go into therapy.
Jane Levy’s performance as Zoey is tough to judge: it looks inspired by emojis, as her mobile face assumes all of her expressions, which makes it endearing but also frequently cutesy. But it fits into a show that is itself unafraid to be cute or sentimental. Music is a naturally emotional art form, so you can’t escape sentiment when each episode has upwards of four songs. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist dives deep into it, choosing emotion over subtlety: characters dissolve into tears, even as they sing, are moved by each other, and discuss their feelings a lot. Max, for instance, openly admits to a woman he likes that he’s afraid to lose her, that he doesn’t want to be casual with her – and how refreshing to see a man be so open about his feelings for once. Skylar Astin is lovely in this role, perfectly locating Max’s mix of sincerity, charm and sexiness. Really, all the actors around Levy are comfortable in their characters, but I’ll take a minute to single out Alex Newell as Mo.
Mo is a reinvention of the gay-best-friend trope. He performs all those functions competently, supporting and guiding the confused straight white heroine, but he is more complex than that. Newell is himself queer and has brought a lot of his experience with fluidity to this character (besides giving him his sky-high vocal range – it’s truly something to hear). How do you reconcile your identity with your faith, which negates your existence? How do you navigate a world where gay men who pass for straight have it so much easier than you do?
And it is precisely Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’s willingness to explore such diverse themes (including race, age, romance, loss, mental health, postpartum depression, music, love) that I find attractive. What began as a show that looked at how those sealed off from each other might communicate has evolved into a musical observation of the lives of this group of people in contemporary America. I hope it comes back next year.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist streams in India on SonyLIV.