The premise of NBC’s “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” is so ludicrous that it takes an incredibly charming ensemble to pull it off. Smartly, that’s what the creators and producers of this dramedy, which premieres its pilot tonight, January 7th, before returning for its regular run in February, assembled. Led by the always genuine Jane Levy (“Evil Dead”), who is assisted by a collection of performers up for the challenges of this unique blend of whimsy, heartache, and pop tunes, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” is a pleasant diversion at a time when so much television feels like it’s trying to be actively unpleasant. A show that could be pitched as “This Is Us meets My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is naturally going to be a little inconsistent and some of the melodrama feels manipulative, but then, like a catchy hook in a song, it will win you over no matter how hard to try to fight it.
Levy returns to TV after “Suburgatory” and “Castle Rock” to headline her first hour-long dramedy as the title character, a young coder living in San Francisco who has a headache and goes to the doctor for an MRI. While she’s there, an earthquake happens and, well, Zoey wakes up with unique powers. Without warning, people around her break into song. And the popular tunes that her friends, colleagues, and family members belt out reflect what’s going on in their hearts and minds, sometimes even on a subconscious level. For example, someone who appears to have it all together sings “Mad World” by Tears For Fears, reflecting that their façade is hiding pain. (It’s a dark song.) In another scene, Zoey’s boss, played by Lauren Graham, belts out The Rolling Stones, while the big emotional pull of the show will come from the beats in which Zoey’s father (Peter Gallagher), who has been struck by a disease that leaves him unable to talk, can express himself again to his daughter through song.
There are moments in the first three episodes in which the high-concept of Zoey’s life feels almost too literal. A person in Zoey’s life bursts into song and then Zoey figures out how to solve the problem that led to the Top 40 moment. In these beats, it’s almost like a musical variation on “Highway to Heaven” or “God Friended Me” or any number of problem-case-of-the-week shows. And I’d be lying if I didn’t feel a little manipulated by the sick father arc, but Levy, Gallagher and the wonderful Mary Steenburgen as Zoey’s mother smooth over the heartstring-pulling bumps.
“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” is at its most charming when it allows itself to be silly. The musical numbers aren’t overly polished or elaborate but have just enough potential for a visual surprise—and I hope the show leans into that more as the show progresses—but the main reason the show works is that it’s a cast of characters that are also interesting to hang out with between the tunes. There’s a much worse version of this show that doesn’t understand that angle and relies too heavily on the concept. There’s enough of a dramatic arc to Zoey’s story, including not just a sick father but a tough boss and a potential love triangle at work, to keep people unengaged by the Spotify-cation of the genre watching. And the cast doesn’t just rely on the familiar faces but introduces us to some solid new performers, including Skylar Astin, Alex Newell, and the great John Clarence Stewart.
So, in the end, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” is a solid dramedy that also happens to include Mary Steenburgen singing Van Morrison, Peter Gallagher tackling Cindi Lauper, and Lauren Graham nailing Katy Perry. You would need a real dirge of an inner song yourself to not at least smile a bit at that.
Three episodes screened for review.