Hardscrabble 🍫

By Max Jacobson

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist

19 Dec 2020

I was indoors a lot this year, and I watched a lot of TV, and I think my favorite thing I watched was Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, the NBC musical dramedy that aired from January to May this year. It has a kind of silly high concept that I imagine will immediately turn off a lot of people: Zoey, an introverted software engineer1 in San Francisco who’s not particularly in touch with her own emotions or the ones of those around her, suddenly starts having visions of the people around her breaking out into elaborate song and dance numbers, and in the process she gains access to exactly the emotion they’re experiencing in that moment.

Hm, okay. And it’s good? Yes, thank you for asking, let me tell you why.

When we meet Zoey (Jane Levy), she’s bottled up. In the first episode, she’s angling to transition from an individual contributor to a manager at her company. Her boss, Joan (Lauren Graham, very fun as an impatient, callous tech executive), asks her “What makes you think you could be a good manager? Are you an effective communicator? Do you think you can get others to follow your lead? Are you comfortable being the bad guy?”

She answers with a joke: “I’m not particularly comfortable with anything, that’s why I became a coder”. The joke doesn’t land with Joan.

Her father Mitch (Peter Gallagher) is slowly dying. He has some neurological thing that leaves him unable to move or speak. It came on quickly within the last year. He’s still with them, but kind of not. She’s got this reservoir of feelings about it, a mix of grief about losing him, anxiety about whether she’ll get it too, fear about the condition progressing, pressure to be present while she can even while continuing to live her own life, worrying about her mother (Mary Steenburgen), resenting herself and her brother for not being helpful enough, etc, etc etc. So she mostly buries it and just does her best, like a lot of us do.

She actually gets the powers while visiting the hospital for an MRI, to check if her brain shows signs of the same neurological condition. The MRI technician puts a playlist on shuffle for her called “Awesome MRI Mix”. The first song is “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I feel Fine)”, which begins:

That’s great, it starts with an earthquake

Birds and snakes and aeroplanes

And Lenny Bruce is not afraid

Then there’s an earthquake and, the show gently suggests, somehow the playlist and the MRI and the earthquake combine to modify her brain and grant her a music-related super power. Just go with it.

For Zoey, it does start with an earthquake, and it is the end of the world as she knows it, because now people sing to her. There’s no original songs. For the most part, it’s very mainstream pop and rock songs you’d hear on the radio. First it’s a lone middle-aged woman walking past her, singing “all by myself… don’t wanna be all by myself”.

“That’s… sad?” Zoey says, confused by the plain expression of a feeling. The woman, who wasn’t actually singing, brushes her off and keeps walking.

Then, as Zoey keeps walking, the entire city of San Francisco breaks out in an ensemble performance of “Help!” by The Beatles. A forlorn man with loosened tie stares her right in the eyes and says, “Help”. As others join in – perfectly ordinary people in ordinary clothes with nice but unremarkable singing voices – Zoey runs from their outstretched hands like she’s fleeing zombies. On the cable car, a young woman holding a baby carries on the tune, “And now my life has changed in, oh, so many ways.” A man picks up the next line, “My independence seems to vanish in the haze” as his partner clings to his shoulder. Three strangers come together to tell her, “Every now and then I feel so insecure”.

She has adult onset empathy, and it’s kind of a nightmare.

This show suggests, again and again, generously, that every single person you walk past has a rich interior life, a tender heart, whether they know how to express it or not.

I think it’s notable that the show suggests some scientific source of what is plainly a magical ability. It could have gone in a more religious direction, is what I’m saying. Did God give her this power, so that she could learn to connect with others’ emotions and learn to express her own? Well, that is what eventually happens, so sure, but the show really, to its credit, doesn’t care about investigating or explaining the origins of the power, it’s much more interested in staying grounded in the plane of human emotion and experience, and it’s struck on this device to examine those. So, it was the MRI machine with the earthquake and the playlist, what more do you need?

Later, Zoey will tell her neighbor Mo about what’s happening: “Some [are singing] to me, some to themselves, almost as if they were singing what they were thinking out loud, collectively, as a people. Does that make sense?”

Mo (in what is probably my favorite line of the first episode) replies, “No, but I’m an open-minded person. I’m willing to roll with this.”

Mo (Alex Newell) plays an important role in the series. On one level, he’s important because Zoey needs to confide in someone about what’s going on so that we can have scenes where Zoey talks about what she thinks is happening and how she feels about it. But more importantly, Mo is someone farther along in the journey of self-knowledge and self-expression than Zoey. He’s gender fluid, Black, dates men, sings beautifully (even outside of fantasy sequences), likes drugs, and has a hilariously extravagant home decor style. You would be forgiven for finding him much more interesting than Zoey and wondering why he’s not the main character. He’s not just a symbol of the beauty of unbottled expression, as he does get a few turns in the spotlight that develop and round out who this character is, but he’s also that.

Zoey hasn’t just bottled up her own emotions, she’s also basically oblivious about others. She takes them at face value. She’s so out of touch with her own interior life that she doesn’t understand that other people have an interior life, either. She has a crush on a guy at work, Simon (John Clarence Stewart), who’s good looking and energetic, and she’s shocked and confused when she overhears him singing a powerfully sad song. She later tells Mo, “I almost felt embarrassed listening to it.”

I think that gets at it really well. The reason we live in an ironic, disconnected time is that we find emotion and sincerity embarrassing. Accepting that has done us great harm. When you boil it down to the simple moral “emotions are good, actually”, maybe it sounds like obvious stuff. Personally, I needed to be reminded.

It’s embarrassing to look someone in the eyes and plaintively sing, “I want you to want me”. People don’t talk like that in real life, as they do in pop music, but why don’t we?

By gaining access to the pure, sincere, unfiltered emotional inner lives of others, Zoey’s walls start to erode. She starts to feel their feelings, and her own start to come out in the pull of the tide.

There’s a scene in the first episode where Maggie, Zoey’s mother, talks about the drug regimen that Mitch is on. She confesses that she’s tried his drugs: “[I’ve tried] some of them. I just – I wanted to feel what your dad was feeling. That’s all.”

That line stands out to me now, as I reflect on this theme of empathy. Medically, it’s probably irresponsible, but it’s emotionally valiant.

Peter Gallagher’s performance is magnetic. He’s a great actor, and he spends the vast majority of his time on screen sitting stock still on a couch, with a blank expression. He’s amazing. At all times, you feel the seriousness of his condition, but you also feel that there’s someone in there. It’s a serious feat.

There’s some obvious symbolism here: Zoey is walled off psychologically, and he’s walled off physically. She wants so badly for him to be able to express something, anything. She also needs, badly to learn how to express herself. Both seem impossible at the start of the show, but both eventually happen. This show has deep streaks of despair running through it, but it’s ultimately hopeful. It suggests that there are ways forward. Allow your heart to be nourished by Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.

It’s not all emotions and morals, it’s also teeming with the exuberance of pop. It’s fun when people sing and dance. The cast is dotted with a few ringers from Broadway like Skylar Astin and Andrew Leeds, and others swing by in guest roles like Bernadette Peters and Renée Elise Goldsberry. The choreography (from Mandy Moore, who worked on La La Land) is fantastic, always entertaining and often moving.

Jane Levy anchors the whole thing with a lot of emotion and neurotic energy. Perhaps because the protoganist is a software engineer, she spends a lot of time trying to figure out how her new ability “works”, and the show has a lot of fun probing its boundaries, stretching the premise out like taffy, and hanging a lantern on the conceptual silliness while always respecting the emotional performances that are made possible by the silly concept.

This was obviously a weird, hard year. This show aired from January through May, a period of time when the world was coming to terms with a new reality, while feeling disconnected. Watching Zoey come to terms with her own situation and learning to connect gave me a lot of comfort. The first season felt like a complete story to me, but I’m nevertheless very excited to see where they go with it when it comes back in January.

But again, most of all, it’s fun when people sing and dance!!

  1. Side note: a weird number of shows that I watched this year were about tech companies, and the software engineers that work at them. Was this me missing working in an office?? I watched this, DEVS (Hulu – hypnotic), Halt and Catch Fire (AMC – series rewatch of an all-time fav), Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet (Apple TV+ – very funny), and Start-Up (Netflix – very charming).