'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist' Review: It May, Or May Not, Be Your Jam NBC mixes music and drama in a risky new TV show about a woman who sees (and hears) people express their innermost thoughts in song.


TV Reviews

'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist' May, Or May Not, Be Your Jam

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This is FRESH AIR. Tonight NBC presents a sneak preview of a new series that won't begin presenting weekly episodes until mid-February. It's called "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist." And though our TV critic David Bianculli is intrigued by the program and its very unusual genre, he's less impressed by NBC's method of unveiling them. Here's his review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: There are two main theories about how the commercial broadcast networks can continue to compete against the onslaught of such streaming video operations as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and Disney+. One is to attack them directly by offering the same sort of unusual and imaginative programming. The other is to retreat and offer familiar comfort food like police procedurals.

NBC right now is mostly playing it safe. But it has the bold and brilliant sitcom "The Good Place," which returns this week to show its final batch of episodes. That was my favorite TV series of last year. And another new NBC series this week shows promise and is a definite risk. It's called "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist," and the title role is played by Jane Levy, star of ABC's "Suburgatory."

Before the show unveils its central gimmick, Zoey is just another computer coder at a typical San Francisco high-tech company. The characters and dialogue start out arch and artificial, but the roles are played by very good and likable actors. Zoey's parents are played by Mary Steenburgen and Peter Gallagher. And her boss, Joan, is played by the equally wonderful Lauren Graham from "Gilmore Girls" and "Parenthood."


LAUREN GRAHAM: (As Joan) So Zoey, tell me why you think you're manager of engineering material.

JANE LEVY: (As Zoey) Great question, Joan. To start with, I think that I proved my programming skills when I helped design the interface for our photosharing app.

GRAHAM: (As Joan) OK. But how much of your work personally contributed to that project?

LEVY: (As Zoey) You want, like, a percentage?

GRAHAM: (As Joan) No, I want a latte. Yes, I want to know how significant you feel your contribution was in terms of the end result.

LEVY: (As Zoey) Well, I mean, it was definitely a group effort. But if I had to give you a concrete number, I guess I would say six.

GRAHAM: (As Joan) Six?

LEVY: (As Zoey) Tee (ph)?

GRAHAM: (As Joan) Sixty?

LEVY: (As Zoey) Four?

GRAHAM: (As Joan) Sixty-four percent?

LEVY: (As Zoey) Correct.

BIANCULLI: Up to this point, "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist" is nothing special, but then comes the show's go-with-it premise. Zoey goes to the doctor and gets an MRI, which is made less claustrophobic by adding music to the procedure - except there's an earthquake which overloads the system, bombarding Zoey with musical input while her brain is being scanned - presto. Slowly, she discovers that she occasionally hears and sees people express their inner thoughts through music. The rules are fluid. In one scene, it seems like all of San Francisco is singing The Beatles' "Help!". In another, she hears the quiet, depressing inner thoughts of one seemingly happy co-worker.

It's the addition of music that is the rarity and the risk here. When employed imaginatively, it can be great. Think of the stand-alone musical episodes of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" or "Ally McBeal," for example, or as the very best examples in TV history, think of Dennis Potter's astoundingly powerful dramas with music - the British miniseries "Pennies From Heaven" and "The Singing Detective." Now, those were extraordinary. "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist" isn't in that league. But Austin Winsberg's show, like its characters, comes to life once the music element is introduced. That's never more true than when Zoey is alone with her father. He suffers from a degenerative neurological condition and basically is locked within his own body unable to speak or move much. But Zoey confides in him anyway. And that's where Jane Levy and Peter Gallagher get to act and react and reach the audience. She sits on the couch next to him, his face slack-jawed staring blankly ahead, as she reveals what has happened to her and how emotionally raw she is.


LEVY: (As Zoey) Hey, Dad. I'm going through a little bit of a rough patch and could really use your help. I'm flailing at work. I just found out a guy like is engaged and I am either going totally nuts or I suddenly can hear people's innermost thoughts as big musical numbers. Don't ask. I just feel like everyone's against me. I'm losing my mind.

BIANCULLI: She gets up from the couch and looks at a framed family photo on the wall, one showing her and her dad in happier, healthier times. Suddenly, we see his face in the reflection of the glass. He's standing behind her and smiling and breaking into song.


PETER GALLAGHER: (As Mitch, singing) You with the sad eyes, don't be discouraged. Oh, I realize it's hard to take courage in a world full of people. You can lose sight of it all, and the darkness inside you can make you feel so small. But I see your true colors shining through. I see your true colors. And that's why I love you. So don't be afraid to let them show, your true colors. True colors are beautiful like a rainbow.

BIANCULLI: If that small taste doesn't intrigue you, you probably can skip this show. Movies like "La La Land" and even TV shows like "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" may have made the mixture of music and drama easier for younger viewers to approach. But there's no denying this new NBC series is an acquired taste. And NBC is making it particularly difficult to acquire. "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist" doesn't fully hit its stride until the second episode, which starts with Levy leading the whole company on a musical daydream set to Thelma Houston's "I Got The Music In Me." But NBC, after this week's sneak preview, isn't showing that episode or any other for more than a month. But at least "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist" isn't another police procedural or a musical one. What? You think I forgot about "Cop Rock"?

GROSS: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and a professor of television history at Rowan University. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Andrea Bernstein, co-host of the podcast Trump, Inc. - as in Trump Incorporated - and author of the new book "American Oligarchs: The Kushners, The Trumps, And The Marriage Of Money And Power." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.

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