“If you had the power to know what was going on in other people’s heads, do you think you’d feel guilty?”
It’s a question that poses a significant moral dilemma, and it also happens to be exactly what socially awkward computer programmer Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy) asks her co-worker Max (Skylar Astin) at one point in the pilot episode of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. For Zoey though, the question is more than hypothetical. That’s because in this new NBC musical dramedy, which officially debuts with a two-episode premiere on Sunday, February 16th, a freak accident leads to Zoey suddenly having the power to do just that… through song!
Right from the show’s opening moments, music wastes no time establishing itself as an integral part of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. Ironically, the left-brained, logical Zoey initially sees it as being something of a nuisance. She chastises her melodramatic neighbor Mo (Alex Newell) for blasting loud music in the morning, saying it’s a distraction, and chooses to tune into podcasts instead of pop songs on her way to work.
The fictional software development company SPRQ Point, where Zoey works, feels inspired by real-world equivalents like Apple and Google. It’s a work environment that’s vibrant, colourful and full of youthful energy — much like Zoey’s own personal style. Zoey is highly proficient at her job as a coder there too, so much so that her boss Joan (Lauren Graham) is considering her for a promotion. But despite her work life going well, not all is right in Zoey’s world.
Confiding in her mom Maggie (Mary Steenburgen) that she’s worried her headaches mean she’s developing the same neurodegenerative disease as her dad Mitch (Peter Gallagher), Zoey bravely decides to undergo an MRI. That’s when things first start to take a turn for the weird. The lab tech is playing music while Zoey’s under the MRI machine, when all of a sudden, an earthquake hits. The computer goes haywire, and so does Zoey’s brain scan.
In a montage that overwhelms with light and sound, the screen flashes back and forth between pop-up windows showing (and playing) all kinds of musical genres to a terrified Zoey, stuck inside the machine. And then, everything goes quiet. “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine,” the music plays, a rather foreboding song choice. That’s because although she doesn’t know it yet, Zoey’s life — and brain — has forever been changed by the power of music.
With witty, contemporary dialogue (at one point, Joan makes a quip about “all the other entitled millennials you’ve been chatting with on Slack”), and a catalogue of music that spans many different genres and decades, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist manages to appeal to a wide-ranging demographic. However, what ultimately makes it work so well — and makes it different from other musical shows and films — is the way in which its central conceit operates.
Due to the nature of Zoey’s newly acquired ability, whenever someone starts singing for her, the world doesn’t stop to listen. In fact, they don’t even see someone bursting into song! Instead the “singing” is shown to be more like a telepathic link between Zoey and the person (or people) she’s become attuned to — a psychic connection existing in a vacuum, that just so happens to take the form of a musical number.
Whether it’s seeing a whole flash mob of strangers burst into The Beatles’ “Help!” or hearing a depressed co-worker belting out Tears For Fears’ “Mad World”, all of a sudden Zoey’s life has turned into one big mental musical… and she’s kind of freaking out. Overwhelmed by what’s happening to her, Zoey begins to wonder if what Mo suggested is true — what if she really is “getting a glimpse into other people’s heads”? And if she can do that, she realizes, then maybe she can use her newfound “power” to make a difference. It’s an intriguing premise, and it’s one that the pilot episode of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist has a lot of fun with.
One of the best things about Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is how it embraces the insanity of its concept while also staying grounded in emotional truth. The show’s musical element could easily have run the risk of being too gimmicky, seeming to exist as nothing more than a way to shoehorn in well-known songs just for fun. Instead, the show structurally adheres to conventions of the musical genre, ensuring that all the songs people are “singing” for Zoey serve to advance the story in some way.
The show uses music as a tool that gives Zoey (and in turn, the audience) insight into someone’s actual situation or motive, which can have surprising consequences. Sometimes the resulting performances are comical, with dance breaks and elaborate choreography. Sometimes they’re much more simplistic, leading to a genuinely touching moment — like the one Zoey shares with her dad. But there’s intention behind every single musical number, and in each situation Zoey has to decide what she’ll do with the truths revealed in song to her alone.
Interestingly enough, Zoey’s newfound ability also empowers her to become more self-assured. Throughout the course of the first episode she begins to take control of the scenarios that present themselves in her everyday life, using intuition to solve problems instead of doubting her self-worth. “I know that I have the power and ability to be a great leader,” Zoey confidently tells Joan, meaning every word of it. And she’s right, having already risen to the occasion and proven to herself she’s capable of doing exactly that.
While it remains to be seen how Zoey’s ability will continue to manifest throughout the rest of the season, and where the show will go from this point onward, you can’t help but root for it to succeed, because in a way, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is a lot like Zoey herself. It’s unique with lots of potential, as well as wonderfully quirky and full of heart. And, most of all, it has the power to be something truly special. Something extraordinary, if you will.