Saturday, July 25, 2020

Emotional Storytelling: Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist

Jane Levy in Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.
This review contains spoilers.

Listen. You know how sometimes a song pops into your head that embodies exactly the emotion you’re feeling at that moment? Well, if you happened to be standing next to the titular protagonist of the NBC musical dramedy Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, she might be able to hear it. In this show, music isn’t just a gimmick. It channels the emotions that are the main driver of this uncommonly empathetic show.

Zoey’s was marketed as a high-concept show, and that, plus the somewhat uneven first three episodes, probably led to the generally mediocre reviews. But the back half of the season’s dozen episodes are much, much more heartfelt and sincere.

Here’s the high concept: Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy) can hear the innermost feelings of those around her, manifested in the form of pop-hits song-and-dance performances. Not always, but when she does hear what she calls a “heart song,” she has to help the people singing it work through their complex of feelings, else the song will keep haunting her. The show aims the emotional appeal of the musical numbers at not just the viewer but also the protagonist, so the performances are extradiegetic for everyone but her. This arrangement may sound complicated, but in practice it’s intuitive and full of possibilities.

And here’s the low concept that grounds the high concept: Jane’s father, Mitch (Peter Gallagher), has progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), a neurodegenerative disease (actually suffered by creator and showrunner Austin Winsberg’s father) that robs him of most of his motor functions, including speech, and will ultimately kill him. Zoey, her mother Maggie (Mary Steenburgen), and her brother David (Andrew Leeds) are understandably devastated, and frustrated every time they want to communicate with him but can’t. Gallagher’s performance is purposely stiff; he mainly acts with his eyes and a grunting throat-laugh. But when he has deep feelings, he, too, sings and dances for Zoey, creating a powerful emotional contrast.

Once Zoey finds her power, it seems like everyone around her needs her help. Maggie’s worries mostly stem from Mitch’s condition. David and his pregnant wife Emily (Alice Lee) often don't see eye to eye. Joan (Lauren Graham), Zoey’s scary tech-startup boss, has marital issues that bleed into the workplace. Max (Skylar Astin), Zoey’s coworker, best friend, and later subordinate, has the hots for her; Simon (John Clarence Stewart), a marketing executive at the same startup, does also, but he’s engaged to Jessica (India de Beaufort), and they have their own problems. And Mo (Alex Newell), Zoey’s gender-fluid neighbor, building manager, and general sounding board, finds himself needing Zoey’s help from time to time as well. Other coworker-turned-subordinates get song-and-dance numbers, too. Even a barista (Stephanie Styles) gets one.

The key to the show’s success is that it prioritizes emotion, followed closely by the music and Mandy Moore’s choreography; other aspects of character development and (especially) plot take a back seat. Most characters’ emotional challenges don’t change much across the twelve episodes, and the writers are wise enough to show them working through their issues at their own pace rather than turn them into allegorical caricatures that are suddenly healed upon hearing the right uplifting phrase. Episode 10 is about how Zoey’s efforts to move things along backfire. The advice the writers put in her mouth is more honest than anything else you'll hear on TV, or even from most people in life. In episode 5, when Simon blames himself for not noticing signs of his father’s impending suicide, the very first thing she says is “It’s absolutely possible that you missed the signs.” Such radical honesty and empathy is much more consoling than the usual pablum, “There’s nothing more you could’ve done.” Grieving and hurting people don’t want inspirational quotes; they want someone to say, “I see you, and I’m here for you.”

Mary Steenburgen and Jane Levy in Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.

Everyone can sing, albeit Steenburgen and Gallagher are a bit wobbly at times, which is unexpected given his musical-theatre experience and her tap-dancing background. On the other hand, when Mo tells Zoey that he has perfect pitch, it is entirely believable; his performance of Harry Dixon Loes’s “This Little Light of Mine” takes us to church – literally, as the scene is set in one. And Levy shines in her first professional musical role. Zoey is usually an audience surrogate and not a performer herself, but episode 8 flips the premise around and has Zoey sing her innermost feelings aloud to others, whether she wants to or not. Levy is undaunted as she performs number after number in fantasy-breaking settings (like during a business meeting) with no music or dancers to back her up, and even does Steve Martin’s fight-my-own-body shtick in All of Me (1984) when she struggles in vain to keep from singing Jimmy Boyd’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” at Joan and her subordinate/secret lover, Leif (Michael Thomas Grant).

The choreography is excellent, as is typical of Moore; out of the multiple numbers in each episode, only two fall flat (both in episode 7). Stewart and de Beaufort’s performance of Marshmello’s “Happier” when they finally break up is heartrending, featuring a move that can only be described as a one-handed back-against-back dip of de Beaufort by Stewart. (You can see it in this short clip.) Astin is the most energetic dancer of the group, and as he’s the male lead, we get to see a lot of his dancing. The choreography is greatly aided by the decision to film each number as a one-shot, and the Steadicam ensures that, unlike in some of the Pitch Perfect films or Taylor Swift’s concert videos, we get to see everything at once.

The characters remain coherent throughout the show, and hopefully future seasons will keep it that way. The major and supporting characters all feel grounded and lived-in, but with all of the emotional throughlines happening at once, frequently in the same episode, the minor characters can feel expendable. Autumn, the aforementioned barista, briefly becomes Max’s girlfriend, but she’s written as a New Age caricature, an obvious foil for Zoey. When Zoey helps Howie (Zak Orth), Mitch’s caretaker, navigate his fraught relationship with his daughter Abigail (Sandra Mae Frank), she discovers that Abigail is deaf (as is Frank); Abigail performs a signed version of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” (supported by players from the Deaf West Theatre Company) and later talks to Zoey about Howie’s attempts to integrate her into hearing culture, but then she never appears again. Other one-episode wonders who could’ve been expanded on include characters played by Naoko Mori, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Bernadette Peters.

With the focus on the characters’ emotional – maybe not journeys; more like coordinates – the realism of the plot suffers greatly. For a show that works hard to embed the musicals in the diegetic storyworld, Zoey’s gives us little sense of people’s lives besides the Clarke family, only a vague understanding of the workplace mechanics and employees’ downtime activities, and no idea at all about the material aspect of people’s lives, especially if we don’t get to see where they live. Episode 6 ends with Max trying to get Zoey to her parents’ place by looking for a ride-share electric scooter, but in the last episode, we see him driving an Audi – where was that car when he needed it? This lack of realist detail threatens to unmoor the show’s emotional grounding, but the writing compensates: it’s full of blunt exposition that the actors deliver expertly. Not a few times Zoey begins a conversation, sometimes with her boss, by saying something to the tune of “Okay, tell me what’s wrong.” The aggregate effect is often of a rushed therapy session, which, in a sense, it is.

Faults there may be, but all is forgiven, because the finale is a showstopper. Mitch has died, and the Clarke family is returning for his wake. As they exit their car, one by one they start singing Don McLean’s “American Pie” – not just one verse, but all of it, soon joined sequentially by all the main characters, who are waiting inside. The performance, captured in a single roaming shot, is the wake, and after everyone has left, Zoey sits on the couch next to her father’s usual place to sing the ending chorus aloud, alone, with no music. It’s the perfect choice for a wake.

That final scene encapsulates the merits of the show: the singing and dancing, the characters’ emotional bonds, and – its greatest strength – writing that takes complicated human emotions seriously. Polish up some of the other elements, and maybe critics will start to take the series seriously.

CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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