‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’ just might have the range

Sunday, January 12, 2020 - 4:14pm

NOSELL

NBC

Amid the revival of the movie musical, NBC’s new pilot “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” seeks to capture the camp of Broadway classics along with modern millennial cynicism. A slightly magical premise and some genuinely funny moments make this show stand out from more formulaic sitcoms.

Zoey (Jane Levy, “Don’t Breathe”), owner of the titular “Extraordinary Playlist,” works as a coder at a San Francisco start-up and struggles to connect with other people. After receiving an MRI during a small earthquake, she finds herself able to hear the inner thoughts of those around her in the form of pop songs and choreographed dances. With this ability, she discovers her male coworkers are targeting her for her gender, her crush Simon (John Clarence Stewart, “Luke Cage”) is coping with a death in the family and her near-comatose father (Peter Gallagher, “American Beauty”) is trying to reach out in his catatonic state.

At first confused and terrified by her musical semi-hallucinations, Zoey gradually comes to accept that her telepathy can work to her advantage. By the end of the pilot, Zoey has secured a promotion at her start-up and has helped repair her family relationships. 

Unfortunately, Zoey’s powers begin to reveal things that she did not want to know: Zoey’s love interest is actually engaged to another woman and her best friend and coworker Max (Skylar Astin, “Pitch Perfect”) is secretly in love with her. Employing the help of her eccentric neighbor Mo (Alex Newell, “Glee”) Zoey sets out to hone her newfound powers and avoid completely losing her mind to the music. 

“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” has an undoubtedly ridiculous premise. It makes almost no sense. An MRI giving someone superpowers is too unrealistic for even the most absurd comic book. But it’s not a complete bust. At their best, musicals are campy and fun, so why not make TV the same way? After years of somber movie musicals like “Les Misérables” and box office disasters like “Cats,” there’s a distinct lack of truly joyous, respectably nonsensical music-based media.

The musical numbers of “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” are entertaining, the humor is self-aware and the characters are original and compelling. Overall, the silliness of the musical magic is balanced out by the genuine fun of the guilty pleasure sitcom format. The pilot sets up multiple storylines, establishing quick pacing. It does a good job of keeping the mood up when working against the idyllic San Francisco scenery. Still, the main issue with the pilot is its attempt to force tragedy into the mix. 

By introducing Zoey’s father as having a debilitating neurological condition that renders him unresponsive to most stimuli, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” sets up tearjerker moments in his musical sequences that feel more exploitative than heartfelt. In equating Zoey’s quirky relationship drama with a family tragedy, the show doesn’t leave room to confront the more difficult themes of loss and grief that don’t mesh well with the pop soundtrack.

Whether “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” can balance the wildly differing issues in the main character’s life with proper sensitivity remains to be seen. Regardless of this potential blindspot, the show had a promising start and has given itself ample room to grow and improve. If “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” can identify its weaker components, this show could fully capture the best aspects of the musical genre in a creative and innovative way.