There are worse things in life to wake up to than Alex Newell singing in the apartment next door. That’s what happens to Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy) when she develops a new musical superpower early on in the pilot of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, NBC’s new hour long musical series. Alex, who plays Mo, a DJ, fashion designer and artist, frequently sings and plays loud music even before Zoey develops her power. With her new talent, she can hear the songs that he only sings inside his head. Zoey is initially too much of a coding nerd to appreciate any of this.
When there’s an earthquake while she’s having an MRI of her head with a radio playing, Zoey acquires the ability to read minds, in the form of watching people sing fully choreographed musical numbers that explain their current state of being. The computer running the test does something funky as the world shakes, making portions of Zoey’s brain light up that shouldn’t be affected.
Zoey discovers her new ability when she leaves the MRI facility and an entire city block full of people sing the Beatles’ song Help to her. I’d like to think the people of San Francisco aren’t normally this desperate, and that they’re only crying out for Help because they’ve just been in an earthquake, but this episode does take place in Trump’s America, so…
Zoey is a Millennial who works as a coder for SPRQPoint, a company which is getting ready for the launch of its next product, a smartwatch with a fitness app. Though she’s part of a development team, Zoey does much of the work on the apps they produce. Now that it’s close to launch time for the product, her boss, Joan (Lauren Graham), wants to choose one of the team members as the new team leader. Joan wants to meet with everyone on the team, including Zoey, but Zoey suffers from a lack of self-confidence and blows her interview.
Zoey talks about everything with her close work friend Max (Skylar Astin), who couldn’t be more supportive of her, in a totally appropriate and platonic way. Here, Astin continues the persona he created for his version of Greg in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the friend-zoned decent guy who totally doesn’t deserve it and totally doesn’t know how to get out of it.
Zoey has a crush on a guy who isn’t Max, because what would a TV show be without a love triangle? Max has a mean girl side- he’s described Zoey’s love life as “unnecessarily complicated, exhausting for everybody, and the opposite of good.” Honey, isn’t that everyone’s life, period?
Zoey’s current crush is the new guy at work, a senior developer named Simon (John Clarence Stewart), who makes her nervous and has too much energy first thing in the morning to be normal. Once Zoey develops her musical mind reading powers, she hears him singing Mad World late one night, and realizes that he must actually have
emotional depth some issues.
Her required office enemies are lead office dudebros Leif (Michael Thomas Grant) and Tobin (Kapil Talwalkar). Leif is Zoey’s chief rival for the team leader position, a narcissist who tries to appear politically correct and supportive while he undermines her as often as possible. Tobin is the office misogynist, who continuously spouts bad jokes that denigrate women and “jokingly” accuses Zoey of using her position as a woman to gain points with their female boss.
Zoey pays frequent visits to her parents, Maggie (Mary Steenburgen) and Mitch (Peter Gallagher), and her brother, David (Andrew Leeds). Mitch has a rare neurological disease which has left him seemingly catatonic. During one visit, Zoey confesses that she’s been having a lot of headaches, making her worry that she’s developing her father’s illness. Maggie encourages her to get an MRI to rule it out, even though her father didn’t show symptoms until a year ago and they started with balance issues.
Because Zoey lives in a magical world, she has the MRI seemingly the next day, when the earthquake strikes, people on the street and on public transportation share their deepest feelings with her through songs, and we’re off to the races.
When she returns home after that big adventure, she hears her neighbor, Mo, singing Lean on Me. It turns out that Mo is actually singing out loud, because he really likes to sing. Zoey tells him about the crowd singing Help and he offers to listen if she ever has strange musical experiences again.
As soon as Zoey gets to work, Joan announces that their app is reading the wearers’ blood pressure as 50/20, which is in the range of dead, so they need to drop everything and fix it. Zoey and Leif are still working late that night when she catches Simon singing a private a capella version of Mad World. Zoey leaves and goes to the club where Mo is working as a DJ so that Mo can explain how music works to affect and reflect moods and emotions, because apparently Zoey has never had a couples song or a breakup song she related to emotionally before.
Once Zoey understands that the lyrics of a song have meaning, and Mad World is a cry for help, she realizes that Simon is putting on a happy front while he’s kinda sad on the inside. And she remembers that she’s kinda sad, too, so they maybe have that in common. She figures out that she doesn’t have to be so nervous when she talks to him, because he’s just a person, like everyone else, instead of a good looking demi-God with no troubles and a perfect life.
The next day she and Simon bond at the office snack bar over their love of breakfast cereal. Then Zoey shares her dad’s medical condition and Simon invites her to go out for impromptu breakfast cheesecake. On the walk back to the office, he tells her that his dad took his own life 5 months ago. Simons carries a photo of the two of them everywhere and looks at it frequently, but rarely tells anyone about his dad. He advises Zoey to spend as much time as possible with her dad, while she still can. She encourages him to stop bottling up his feelings.
On her next visit to her parents, Maggie shows Zoey the huge pile of Mitch’s medicines. Maggie tried a dose of each to find out what it was like for him. One helped her sleep and another made her forget all of her problems for about 5 hours. Maggie is a trooper, but 6 months ago Mitch was fine, so this is a seismic shift in their family. She wishes she had been the one to get sick, because he was so much better at dealing with crises. She’s not even sure how much cognitive ability he has left.
The next day at work, everyone is a little weird. Simon wants to continue bonding with Zoey now that he sees her as a mind reader. Max is jealous that lately she hasn’t been sharing every detail of her life with him. Joan pulls her aside and tells her she’s still in the running for the promotion, but she has to fix the smartwatch bug and stop being so distracted. And no more impromptu cheesecake runs.
Joan already knows that Zoey does most of the work on her team and is the best leader, but Zoey still has to jump through some extra hoops that aren’t required of the guys who are slacking off. It’s implied that the position will go to Leif by default unless Zoey can prove she deserves it even more than she already has by also publicly being super confident at all times. Never mind that the current version of Zoey somehow has been managing to do the job already, without the title.
This show wants us to know that women need to try harder. It’s our fault men take credit for our work and get paid more. In order to succeed, we just need to develop magical powers that will make men do what we say!
Then Leif and Tobin try to pump Zoey for information about what Joan’s thinking. But Leif is ready to accidentally reveal his inner thoughts to Zoey via the song All I Do Is Win (DJ Khaled) and what do you know, he’s one of the best singers in this cast. He and the entire office full of tech bros become a dance crew and show themselves to also be the best dancers in the cast.
This gives me cognitive dissonance, because I’m genetically programmed to be annoyed by an all male group of sexist, smug tech bros, but I can’t resist a group of guys who are talented singers and dancers. Also, this show is produced and choreographed by Mandy Moore, and who can resist Mandy Moore? It looks like the Tech Bros Dance Ensemble might be something to look forward to each episode.
After the song, Leif goes back to pretending he supports his female colleague and is a great guy. Zoey decides she needs more cheesequake. Maybe we should all make a pact to eat cheesecake while we watch this show each week. At the restaurant, she runs into Simon, who’s there with his FIANCE, Jessica.
That’s right, through all that emotional bonding he forgot to mention his perfect girlfriend. Men. What flavor is cheesequake, anyway? Asking for a friend.
Zoey tosses the cheesequake and goes to visit her dad, who’s always been her confidant and biggest fan. As she sits next to him on the couch and explains what’s going on in her life, Mitch’s face is heartbreaking. She gets up and looks at a photo on the wall of the two of them on a sailboat together. After a moment, Mitch appears behind her, seen reflected in the glass of the photo frame. A reflection of his former self.
He sings Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors to her, his face glowing with love for his only daughter as they slow dance. When he finishes the song, he sinks back down onto the couch and into his catatonic state. By the end, Zoey is glowing, too. She rushes to tell Maggie and David that Mitch is still in there and insists they take him out sailing again.
The next day at work, Simon tells Zoey that he revealed the details of his father’s death to his fiance, but he doesn’t feel like she really understood how he feels. They didn’t connect the way he and Zoey did, since Jessica hasn’t experienced any death or trauma. It’s like they’re in different worlds.
Zoey has a lightbulb moment and realizes that the 50/20 blood pressure reading is the smartwatch’s factory setting. The watch isn’t giving a false reading, it’s not reading blood pressure at all, because it’s not getting a signal. She races to the office floor and gives her team instructions for solving the issue. Joan is nearby and hears the way Zoey takes charge. Later, she calls Zoey in for another interview, and this time, Zoey answers confidently. No more imposter syndrome.
Maggie is still nervous about whether they should take Mitch out on the sailboat, but once they’re out on the water, he grabs her hand and squeezes it for the first time in months.
Zoey gets the promotion and gets mixed reactions from the guys at work on her first day as team leader. Max teases her that he’s a little intimidated by her now. Zoey thanks him for being such a good friend. She thinks of him as her rock. She says that she hasn’t even told him everything that’s been going on, and is about to spill the beans about her new musical thing, when he cuts her off with a song… I Think I Love You. Oops.
Zoey doesn’t know this song, so it takes her until the chorus to figure out what his message is.
Since the songs come from each character’s subconscious, Max wonders why she’s looking at him funny before he walks away.
Overall, this was a good episode. There was a lot to set up, so it felt a little forced at times, but the songs blended well with the rest of the scenes and we had the full tour of Zoey’s current life. In episode 2, the show can hit the ground running. We were shown from the start that literally everyone is silently crying out for help, and experiencing the same feelings of loneliness, sadness and yearning for love.
But then we’ve been given tantalizing hints that there is a systemic issue in this world, with some people having trouble feeling or expressing emotions and making connections. Hearts aren’t making the connections they should, so the universe sent Zoey to act as its smartwatch app and find the problem. There is one obvious problem that keeps people from connecting- some kind of gender apartheid is going on in the workplace, and Zoey isn’t allowed to have meaningful conversations with women other than her mother.
I can’t help but wonder if Mitch’s symptoms are being made worse by a combination of side effects from his meds, given what was said in the scene where Maggie told Zoey about them and the way he can sit upright but is locked in. There were way more bottles on that table than it should be ethical to prescribe to one person within 6 months. Maggie kept emphasizing how quickly he’d lost his ability to function.
Simon’s father’s sudden death and Jessica’s inability to process emotions are also suspicious. Was Simon’s father on some of the same medications as Mitch? Maybe he accidentally took too much of a pill that made him sleepy and it was covered up? Maggie said one of the pills made her sleep and one made her forget her problems. Does that equate to Jessica’s lack of empathy? There aren’t that many adults who haven’t suffered in some way. Simon’s dismissal of Jessica echoed the way Zoey initially thought Simon wouldn’t be able to understand her troubles.
And why cast Peter Gallagher as a vegetable who occasionally sings? You could pay someone a lot less than him to do that. Having him help Zoey solve a medical mystery and prescription pill overprescribing scandal through song would be cool and a very timely story.
Tobin’s misogynist behavior isn’t necessarily unrealistic, sadly, but as a character he doesn’t add much. Tobin is just Leif’s incel sycophant, who makes unnecessary, unfunny insults aimed at women. If the writers are going to purposefully throw harassment at us every week, they need to do more to justify it and make it more entertaining. Otherwise, the number of lines he gets could be cut way down. Or the character could be dropped.
Leif has a sharp edge and is delightfully two-faced, providing a worthy adversary for Zoey. I’m interested to see if he can become someone like Betty White’s character in the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Sue Ann Nivens, the acerbic villain you secretly love. I could even see him evolving into a third love interest for Zoey, the way Nathaniel did on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
I feel like Lauren Graham and Mary Steenburgen got a little lost in the shuffle, so I hope they get more to do in future episodes. Peter Gallagher and Skylar Astin were wonderful, but I’d like to see more of them as well.
I have loved Alex Newell since he was on The Glee Project, so I’m happy to see him here. But his character is strangely marginalized into a cave-like apartment and in this episode Mo came perilously close to acting as a magical negro who existed only to explain the spiritual/magical/emotional/artistic world to the inexplicably culturally deprived, emotionally stunted white woman. It’s not a good look for either character.
Hopefully Mo will become a more well rounded, connected character in future episodes. As the main character, Zoey has already grown in the process of accepting her powers and opening her eyes to the deeper realities of the world.
The biggest issue with this show is the lack of women, which is becoming a common problem in female fronted shows. Zoey has no female friends or coworkers that we met in the pilot. She has a mother, a female boss and a gender nonconforming gay male friend, who is not a woman. And she is surrounded by a raft of men who are her own age. There is simply no excuse for the lack of women. None.
Dear TV Creators: Including a queer male friend is a lovely thing to do. But women make up more than half of the world and there is more than one female coder in San Francisco. Women usually have female friends, just like men have male friends. I shouldn’t have to say this.
Why couldn’t Zoey have a sister or a lesbian neighbor, or, let’s go crazy and be realistic and say, both? Why can’t Leif’s sycophant be an overly competitive queer woman of color? Why can’t Leif be a woman??? Why are TV women so frequently smothered by a battalian of men?
You can’t actually get rid of us in real life by deleting us in fiction.
Images courtesy of NBC.