To kick off the second episode of “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” the eponymous lead played by Jane Levy wakes up in bed with a song in her head. This constant condition, in case anyone has forgotten the events of the pilot (which first aired more than a month ago), serves as the foundation of the series: After an earthquake strikes during a routine MRI, Zoey can hear anyone’s innermost feelings, but these deeply felt emotions are only expressed through elaborate song-and-dance numbers.
So why not start with one? Set to Kiki Dee’s infectious “I’ve Got the Music in Me” and performed with comparable energy by Levy herself, the number builds and builds as she brings in character after character to join her ever-expanding dance troupe. Skylar Astin, Peter Gallagher, and Mary Steenburgen all happily jump and clap along, as Zoey leads a well-choreographed romp from her bedroom to her parent’s house to her office and beyond. It’s an impressive intro that doubles as a reintroduction to NBC’s new series and a spectacle musical enthusiasts will appreciate. Just as Zoey can’t stop tapping her feet, it’s hard not to let the music get you, too.
And then a piano drops on her head. Zoey wakes up, again, and it turns out the elaborate sequence is nothing more than a silly dream. But while the song doesn’t represent the show’s reality, it does come to exemplify why “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” can’t translate its fun premise beyond simplistic storytelling. Austin Winsberg’s NBC sing-along drama series relies on cliches even when they don’t fit the established tone, making the brief flashes where you get caught up in the moment feel eye-rollingly silly in hindsight, if not just plain icky.
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Let’s go back to the core of the show: Zoey is a coder at a successful San Francisco tech company who’s just been promoted over her peers — a mix of ambitious workaholics, sexist bros, and friend-zoned besties. Each week, as she goes about her day-to-day life — whether it’s taking care of her PSP-afflicted father (Gallagher) or flirting with her handsome co-worker Simon (John Clarence Stewart) — Zoey encounters someone who needs her help. Once she hears them singing a very well-known song that hints at what’s troubling them, it’s Zoey’s moral imperative to help them sort out their baggage.
In the first episode (which has been available for over a month), Zoey first finds out her helpful co-worker Leif (Michael Thomas Grant) is actually a super-competitive rival, then learns what her mute father is really thinking about all day, and finally discovers who’s been harboring a secret crush on her for years. (Yup, it’s Astin’s friend-zoned bestie, Max!) All of these revelations come from her newfound condition, which means they all spill out in song. Leif’s number is the worst — mainly because DJ Khaled is the worst, but also because the super-on-the-nose “All I Do Is Win” goes on for a verse too many — but each singer is solid, each dancer smooth enough, and each sequence very clear in what it means to the narrative.
In other words, it’s a pretty good pilot… that soon veers off course. The next three entries all take on a procedural, “case of the week” structure where Zoey must balance her personal life with the responsibility of her powers. Twice the musically-dense do-gooder is asked to solve a mystery related to the song she hears, and both answers are so painfully obvious you worry how the MRI accident affected Zoey’s faculties beyond the music. The long wait for her to figure things out isn’t tempered enough by the extended song-and-dance numbers, and the paper thin plots can’t hold interest on their own.
Not enough work is done to make the characters and story pop without the pop music, and there’s not enough time in a broadcast schedule to make each number as grand as what audiences have come to expect from onscreen musicals. Despite the admirable efforts of its cast (especially an inexhaustible Levy), “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” feels very ordinary — which leads to a lot of questions the show doesn’t seem prepared to answer. For instance, what’s happening in reality when Zoey hears someone singing? A few scenes offer explanations for that specific moment, but others are impossible — like when Zoey sees Leif dance around the office for two minutes when, in reality, he only had time to pause between two words.
At times, “Zoey” is lighthearted enough to get the audience to go along with such leaps of logic, but when the show tries to get deep — tackling everything from a parent’s suicide to a gender fluid individual’s relationship to God — the conflicting tones rarely mesh. “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” is as broad as the top layer of a pop song and, like Sting in 1983, never looks beyond that superficial messaging to make an actual connection.
“Zoey” may have worked as a sharply written 30-minute dramedy, but if it wants to be a “This Is Us”-level heart-tugger, the writers can’t use the extra runtime on redundant songs. This show has to be worth watching when they’re not singing, and so far, it’s incapable of sustaining any drama. Not everything can be explained away by a dream, and what’s working feels like it can only last as long as it takes for the piano to hit.
“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” premiered via an advanced preview in January and debuts in its regular timeslot February 16. New episodes air Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.