Monday, January 6, 2020

TV REVIEW: NBC's 'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist'

NBC will debut its new original drama series Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist with a special preview on Tuesday, January 7 at 10/9c. following the season premiere of Ellen's Game of Games. The drama stars Jane Levy, Skylar Astin, Peter Gallagher, Alex Newell, John Clarence Stewart, Lauren Graham and Mary Steenburgen.

Read on for my thoughts on the musical drama after screening its first four episodes.

It would be easy for the broadcast networks to embrace the generic formulas that continually work for them. And yes, that does define the majority of their schedules. They each have a specific type of broad programming that brings them success. It's a business model that requires attracting the largest audience possible. That has grown more and more difficult over the last few years because of the increasing fragmentation of viewing options as well as the rise of streaming. There is no longer the urgency to watch things live. As such, even small premieres can ultimately be seen as a success story. That means the broadcast networks have the opportunity to experiment in the hopes of creating something truly unique. Every year at least one of them takes a bold swing for a show that typically debuts as part of their midseason lineup. They are almost always interesting. Some of them don't work after an engaging first episode. Some simply don't have the ability to cultivate an audience. Others are destined for relatively minor but passionate success. It's hard to judge those things based on the quality before it is released to the public. Right now, it should only be commended that NBC is broadcasting a show like Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist. Sure, the tone is wildly over the place as it is struggling to figure out what it wants to be exactly. At times, it is a whimsical musical dramedy that would be right at home on The CW alongside Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Other times, it is an emotionally fraught family drama in the vein of This Is Us and the numerous copycats that have popped up since that show first broke out. It's because of that discrepancy that the show may be hard to recommend based on the first four episodes. It's also probably unfortunate that the first episode will be previewed on January 6 but the remaining episodes of the season won't start airing until February 16. That is a long wait to see if the premise can be maintained and even grow. But again, there is a creativity to be found within this narrative. That should be appreciated. Audiences may have to be patient to find something worthwhile. But it's swings like this that make a viewer eager to sample something from a broadcast network again even if it may not work out in the end.

This drama centers around Jane Levy's Zoey, an introverted coder working for a tech company in San Francisco. Due to a family history of rare neurological disorders, she schedules an MRI when her only symptoms are headaches. An earthquake hits while she is in the machine. She emerges with the sudden ability to hear people's thoughts expressed through song. It's a silly premise the audience has to buy into right away. There isn't some grand search for answers as to how she got this ability and what specific purpose it now provides to her. It's simply something new that she has to deal with as she embraces drama both at home and at work. The show is rather in-your-face with the musical selections as well. The Beatles' "Help!" plays as a crowd swarms around Zoey showing just how insane her life is about to become and that she needs to help others when it comes to expressing these thoughts. The Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" is meant to articulate that Zoey's boss, Joan (Lauren Graham), isn't satisfied in her marriage. Gary Jules' "Mad World" and Freddie Mercury's "The Great Pretender" tell Zoey in no uncertain terms that her co-worker Simon (John Clarence Stewart) and gender fluid neighbor Mo (Alex Newell) aren't as happy as they initially present. It can all be cloying in a very obvious way. Plus, Zoey comes across as very music illiterate. When the local cafe bursts out into "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," she describes the experience to Mo as "I think it's Whitney Houston." Zoey doesn't exactly know how to react to these musical moments now happening in her life. Now, that is an understandable impulse because of the sheer absurdity and oddness of it. However, things are constantly being explained to her about the messages of these various songs and what the people in her life are trying to tell her through them. She isn't exactly trustworthy enough to follow her gut about what emotion is trying to be expressed. That's unfortunate because it's communicated over and over again that music helps people express what they don't know how to put into words themselves.

All of the subtext present in this story essentially becomes the text as expressed through the musical moments. That could help allow the audience to better understand who these characters are. However, most of the time it just helps express one note of their individual personalities. It is difficult to see many of them as multi-dimensional characters after four episodes. Even Zoey may be seen solely as a conduit for helping others process their lives and come to big decisions. Her life is perfectly pleasant but not all that exciting. This new ability helps add a sense of interest to her. Mo wasn't interested in Zoey's life until he learns that she possesses this talent and needs his help processing it. He has various suggestions for how these powers work and what they may potentially mean. However, it's not until the fourth episode that the show provides him with any true emotional depth or agency in his own life. That's unfortunate. And yes, there is a predominate quality of many characters feeling beholden to others because of a great amount of trauma that has come to define their lives. It's a narrative full of young adults struggling to process the mortality of their parents. Both of Zoey's are still alive - played by Mary Steenburgen and Peter Gallagher. But her father is in a near catatonic state as a result of a rare neurological disease. Zoey's new talents provides her with a way to communicate with him that is valuable in helping him feel seen and valued in the world. But it's also obvious that the show is going for these big heartwarming emotions in this section of the narrative while the laughs and levity come from Zoey's workplace. Again, it's a mashup of tones that doesn't quite find that perfect balance just yet. Everything remains a little too isolated and controlled. The music is being sung perfectly well though. However, it may be produced a little too much and remove some of the specificity out of the individual voices. That can make all of this seem like performance art instead of engaging drama for television. It's a solid idea with execution that hasn't been fine tuned just yet. It may get better. It may not. It's still too early to decide which will very likely be a turn off to some viewers in the target audience for a show like this that embraces musicality in such a full-hearted way.