Jane Levy stars in NBC's cute musical dramedy as a woman who suddenly begins hearing people's innermost thoughts through elaborate song-and-dance numbers.
Musical TV shows usually center on extroverts. They’re all about big, attention-seeking personalities, like striving performing-arts students (Glee), dueling Broadway divas (Smash), and lawyers with borderline personality disorder (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). But in NBC’s endearingly odd dramedy Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, creator Austin Winsberg (Gossip Girl) imagines what would happen if a self-conscious introvert became the reluctant heroine of her own inner musical.
Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy) is the lone woman on a team of coders at SPRQPOINT (pronounced “sparkpoint”), one of those San Francisco-based tech companies that provide their employees with ping-pong tables and bottomless cereal bars in exchange for making them work burnout hours. Though there’s a management job up for grabs and Zoey’s the most qualified applicant, she lacks the confidence of her male peers. “I’m not really comfortable with anything,” she tells her hard-driving boss Joan (Lauren Graham). “That’s why I became a coder.” Anxious about recurring stress headaches — her dad Mitch (Peter Gallagher) has Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, a rare neurological disease — Zoey goes in for an MRI. A minor earthquake causes the machine to malfunction, and voila! Suddenly people are sharing their innermost thoughts and desires with Zoey through elaborate song-and-dance numbers only she can see and hear.
The first four episodes follow a fairly similar blueprint: Zoey is confronted with a set of problems spanning both home and work. Her newfound “power” complicates matters with ill-timed musical numbers, as when her best friend and co-worker Max (Skylar Astin) reveals his true feelings by busting into a performance of The Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You.” But the songs also lead Zoey to unexpected realizations that help her solve those aforementioned problems. Her father’s disease has progressed to the point where he is all but catatonic, leaving Zoey and her family — including her mom Maggie (Mary Steenburgen) and brother David (Andrew Leeds) — to wonder if he even hears them anymore. In an exquisitely-crafted scene in the pilot, Mitch serenades Zoey with Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” reassuring his daughter that he is still with them. It’s also reassuring as a viewer, knowing that the show won’t limit Gallagher to portraying his character’s paralyzing illness; he’s too joyful a performer to be underutilized.
The always-likable Levy, last seen giving a valiantly grounded performance in Netflix’s psycho soap opera What/If, brings a winning and needed wryness to the show’s quirky universe. Zoey responds to the flash-mob musical numbers with a relatable mixture of sarcasm and mortification. “Oh good, the dance break,” she sighs, as a douche-bro co-worker (and rival for the management gig) named Leif (Michael Thomas Grant) taunts her with DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win.” Alex Newell brings an entertaining energy to Mo, Zoey’s fierce black neighbor who helps her make sense of what’s happening to her. Eventually, Mo’s character expands beyond the “fierce black neighbor” template, and episode 4 deals with his faith and gender fluidity. Astin’s Max has the inoffensive appeal of a “safe choice” rom-com hero, while his romantic rival — Zoey’s office crush, Simon (John Clarence Stewart) — is a bit more comfortable with his charm. As for Graham, she doesn’t have much to do in the first two episodes besides act alternately impatient and exasperated, but by episode three, Joan’s issues with her video game guru husband (Justin Kirk) have her belting out the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.”
Of course, it’s hard to know how long Zoey can sustain its high-concept premise. For now, it’s off to an enjoyable start. Light-hearted but not too whimsical, starring a heroine who solves low-stakes emotional puzzles with angsty pluck, and delivering entertaining musical numbers that supplement rather than dominate the story, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is certainly worth keeping on shuffle. (Editor’s note: This review was updated on Jan. 1.) Grade: B
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist premieres Jan. 7 at 9 p.m. on NBC.