Zoey is a San Francisco Millennial who wakes up one day to find she can hear the songs that go through the heads of the people around her.
What makes this ability even more powerful is that those songs are what she dubs their “heart songs” – the music expressing their innermost feelings.
That unique gift, and the universe of wonderful people surrounding her vibrant spirit, forms the heart of the terrific new NBC musical comedy series “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.”
Packed with elaborate musical numbers yet still possessing a huge heart, the show represents a bold stylistic move that makes it one of very few musical comedies in TV history. The reason for that is simple. The genre is expensive to pull off well, but “Zoey’s” succeeds in spades.
Zoey (Jane Levy, in a starmaking role) is a computer programming wizard who suddenly is able to hear others sing around her. She learns of her new gift while walking to work and overhears a woman singing a sad song even though her lips aren’t even moving.
As she keeps walking, she can hear several other women ogling a guy while singing “Whatta Man” by 1990s rap stars Salt N Pepa, and then is chased through the streets of San Francisco by dozens of people singing and dancing their way through the Beatles’ “Help!”
Zoey has plenty of other things to contend with besides her newfound ear for those “heart songs.” Her best friend Max (Broadway star Skylar Astin) secretly pines for her (a fact that’s revealed in his stellar rendition of the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You.”)
Meanwhile, Zoey has a crush on Simon, a quiet African-American colleague whose rendition of Tears for Fears’ 1980s classic “Mad World” hides the fact he’s devastated by the loss of his father.
Zoey feels Simon’s pain because her own father Mitch (Peter Gallagher) is dying from Alzheimer’s, which has left him unable to talk or communicate except – you guessed it – via his own “heart songs.”
With her mother (Mary Steenburgen) putting on a happy face to mask her deep sadness, Mitch’s rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” is powerful, as Gallagher explodes into full-throated singing and dancing that only Zoey can see and hear.
It’s a conceit that creates a beautiful emotional subtext to the entire series.
Lauren Graham of “Gilmore Girls” fame plays Zoey’s boss Joan with fiery comic zest. She’s had to be hell on wheels throughout her career. Now? She’s slowly burning out but hoping to pass the reins of her company to Zoe.
Graham displays fun comedy chops, but episode three’s focus on her contained the series’ only annoying songs so far,. The episode features grating renditions of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” and Katy Perry’s “Roar.”
Those titles alone should show how impressively eclectic the series playlist actually is. And the fourth episode provided a particularly stunning story line.
Zoey’s discovers her downstairs neighbor/apartment manager Mo (Alex Newell) is a”gender fluid” soul. At home Mo lives as a woman but nearly everywhere else he’s a man, including while singing in a church choir.
This may sound like a show shoving an LGBT agenda down viewers’ throats. In fact, the episode becomes a touching exploration of faith, acceptance and being true to oneself.
One surprising aspect is that Zoey admits that – like far too many Millennials – she has been raised without any strong sense of God, much less a relationship with Him.
With her father a lapsed Catholic and mother describing herself as a “seeker,” Zoey dives in on religion herself, winding up quoting Scripture and by the end, jumping to her feet with the rest of Mo’s congregation to back him in singing a joyous rendition of “This Little Light of Mine.”
Mo also delivers a stellar “Amazing Grace” earlier in the episode, which leaves me with the question: when was the last time a major network’s prime time show featured classic hymns, respected major characters’ quest for peace with God, and allowed young adult characters to pursue love relationships without requiring them to sleep around?
— Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (@ZoeysPlaylist) March 9, 2020
“Zoey” is slowly exploring the question of whether its heroine’s gift is a means of God expressing a deeper message to her. It’s a shame that the show airs opposite CBS’ religious winner “God Friended Me,” as these are both series that offer refreshing looks at the spiritual without becoming sacrilegious.
The show’s handling of Alzheimer’s and of the power of music to heal families and marriages is also a great element of the series.
“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” airs at 8 p.m. EST Sunday nights on NBC.