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'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist' Hits a Few Good Notes But Most are Clunkers
January 7, 2020  | By David Hinckley

The delights, charms and strengths of popular song are almost infinite.

They do not extend to making popular songs a reliable main character in television dramas.

The latest mismatch arises in Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, a musical dramedy getting an early preview Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.

Zoey, engagingly played by Jane Levy, is a smart, ambitious techie who works at one of those companies where you can select from seven varieties of healthy granola at the breakfast bar.

She hasn't been as successful at romance as she has been at coding, though she has a reliable male bestie in Max (Skylar Astin), who works in the same hip office.

To be fair, Zoey at the moment is also distracted, and not in a good way. Her beloved father Mitch (Peter Gallagher) suffers from a rare and fast-moving neurological disease that within the last year has left him mute and immobile.

Zoey's deeply caring mother Maggie (Mary Steenburgen) dresses and feeds him. But beyond propping him up on the couch in front of the TV with the family, she has no apparent options except praying for a miracle.

What happens next, if it's a miracle, comes in a weird form. Zoey suddenly develops the ability to hear what people are thinking.

Not all people. Just select people. In select situations. And not in prose. She sees these people suddenly burst into pop songs complete with full-scale, multi-character choreography.

Apparently no one else sees it. Not even the people doing the dancing. It's just Zoey. But these aren't brief flashes. These are near-complete renditions of pop faves, covering the spectrum from the Beatles' "Help" to "Mad World" by Gary Jules.

This isn't the first time brainwave eavesdropping has become a central plot device, though it's more common in sci-fi settings. While Zoey's power is unusually selective, that's to the good since hearing everything that everyone is thinking would be a fast track to madness.

In any case, this unexpected development in effect makes the songs/videos into characters, having them deliver messages that other shows deliver through body language, actions, or spoken prose.

In theory, the song gambit could work. As at least one character notes, music can convey thoughts or emotions that are hard to put into words.

In practice, it does not work. In the handful of shows where pop songs have added value, like GleeEmpire,or Nashville, they have been sung by characters as part of what those characters do. They fit into the flow.

In Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, the songs feel like interjections that put the story on hold. We understand by the end of the first line of lyrics, or sometimes sooner, what the song is saying. After that, we watch a video and then the story resumes.

Also, while there are some fine, sturdy songs here, there are also a couple of duds, songs that had no substance the first time around on the radio and gain no depth in their 2.0 incarnation.

Zoey herself is a solid character. A little mopey, but likeable. We also like her wonderful neighbor Mo (Alex Newell), her intense boss Joan (Lauren Graham) and another coworker, Simon (John Clarence Stewart). But having every other scene interrupted for a video makes it hard for all the characters to get a rhythm going.

It's easy to understand why creators think there must be ways to make pop music, which has such power and reach in its own habitat, lend some of that impact to a TV show.

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist gives it a good shot. Better than Cop Rock or Viva Laughlin. That's just not enough.

If you do enjoy Zoey this Tuesday, one more thing: Be patient. The second episode doesn't arrive until the show moves into its regular timeslot at 9 p.m. ET on Feb. 16.

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