It’s obvious from the moment you see the all-singing, all-singing, technicolour quirky trailer for Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist that this is one show that knows its way around a whimsical storyline.
It practically shouts out in every gleefully-delivered frame that Zoey Clarke (played by Suburgatory‘s (Jane Levy) is a newly-extraordinary person who, thanks to an MRI scan, an earthquake and a metric ton of streaming playlists, can now hear the innermost thoughts and feelings of everyone around her, including workmates, close friends and family and random strangers getting coffee in her favourite java joint.
So far, so delightfully wacky.
As premises go, it promises light and frothy, semi-dramatic silliness that will be playfully diverting, richly warm and fun to watch but which may not necessarily be all that meaningful in the short or long term.
All of which is perfectly fine; not every show on TV has to be an excoriating examination of the soul and in a year blighted by all kinds of pestilence, being able to escape into Zoey’s brightly-hued musical world is no bad thing.
But then something totally unexpected happens.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist ends up having the most profoundly empathetic of narrative souls, injecting a thoughtful sensibility into every episode, driven mostly by the fact that Zoey’s dad Mitch (Peter Gallagher) has Progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), a degenerative and fast-moving brain disease that means his life is now measured in months, not decades, and Zoey as you might expect, is not coping well with the news.
No one would, and it clear from the sensitive way in which every episode is written that someone on the production team has gone through something similar; there is simply too much authenticity and truthfulness in the way Zoey and her family grieve, before and after the death of Mitch, for this not be at least a partly-autobiographical.
And as it turns out that is exactly what is at work here.
Series creator Austin Winsberg’s father died of PSP, an understandably painful experience that informs every last fibre of this otherwise bright and chirpy now.
What makes Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist such an impressively affecting achievement is that Winsberg and his team have managed to combine such light and fluffy comedy-drama with an exploration of grief so raw and real that it is impossible not to feel your heart getting ripped out of you in the very best of ways.
As someone who lost my dad to a variant of Parkinson’s, Focal Dystonia, back in 2016 and my mother to ovarian cancer in 2019, I am intimately acquainted with the way in which the death of a loved on upends the normal course of your life, disrupting the day-to-day rhythm of life in ways that become overwhelmingly difficult to deal with.
Having Zoey cope not only with the sickness and impending death of her father as the time as she is grappling with her new superpower (acquired much like Spider-Man) of hearing peoples’ “heart songs” as she calls them adds so much emotional weight and substance to Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist that while it is in many ways light and diversionary entertainment, it is also one of the most heartbreakingly real things you will watch this year.
So, while Zoey is coping with the romantic dilemma of both best friend Max (Skylar Astin) and fellow manager Simon (John Clarence Stewart) at tech start-up SPRQPoint being in love with her, or getting to dissect her strange new life with sassy gender fluid DJ bestie across the hallway at home Mo (Alex Newell who steals every scene they are in) or trying to impress manager Joan (Lauren Graham) with her coder acumen and managerial verve, she is dealing with two massive changes in her life.
Two changes by the way that work together to elucidate how messy and complicated life can be way in ways that are immediately accessible to anyone watching.
After all, who of us hasn’t tried to deal with a situation in the best way possible only to have it all turn to poisonous ashes in our hands?
It happens to Zoey repeatedly because every time someone “sings” her a song – for the record, only she sees them singing and dancing; to everyone else around her, the singer, whether they are warbling about joy, heartbreak or estrangement, they are standing still and whisper quiet as normal – she is impelled by the universe to solve whatever their issue may.
It’s a great hook for every episode meaning you can dip in and out of them in no particular order if you wish to – but seriously why would you? What is wrong with you? – and still be entertained in a perfectly satisfying way.
Threading these one-episode great dilemmas – which can include anything from Max getting a new job away from Zoey or marriage issues for Zoey’s brother David (Andrew Leeds) or whether her mum Maggie (Mary Steenburgen) should continue with the family’s high-end landscaping business or even whether Mo can find love with the handsome Eddie (Patrick Ortiz) – is an arc which examines how Zoey hopes with two seismic shifts in the landscape of her life.
Thus Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is that rare successful hybrid – a show that exists in a rarefied world where people sing out their heartaches and joys and where in something approaching sitcom-level ease, Zoey sorts them out so they are better off, if not entirely absolved of whatever their existential crisis happens to be, but which is also so profoundly emotionally resonant that you can be laughing one minute and pondering the mortality of everything around you the next.
If that sounds like an unlikable or unworkable dynamic for a show, take a look at the twelfth and final episode of season 1, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Dad” in which Mitch finally succumbs to PSP and each member of the family, watched over by in-home palliative care nurse Howie (Zak Orth), has to say their goodbyes.
You could reasonably expect such an episode to rip your heart out, unleash an unceasing flow of tears and ponder the extreme sadness of permanently saying goodbye to someone you will never, ever see again.
All that happens and more in ways that will resonate deeply with anyone who is in Zoey’s situation or has been there and is dealing with the seemingly endless fallout of unyielding grief.
But because each character gets to say their goodbyes in song – “Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel)” by Billy Joel and “American Pie” by Don McLean, in particular, are used to devastatingly powerful effect – we are given an altogether different approach to the death of a loved one, which stays true to the show’s quirky spirit while still getting so deep into your soul that you will wonder, quite rightly, if you will ever feel anything so intense ever again.
That is remarkable television on every level and testament to Winsburg’s creative vision and execution for Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist which manages to deliver on the easily-accessible warmth and vivacious quirkiness and colour of the trailer while taking us to some very dark and heart-sick places all while assuring us that this is life, it is normal and it too shall pass.
But until it does, there are people who love you, music to soundtrack everything that happens to you and a power in connection and belonging that won’t always make life better but which will sustain when the music dies and you can have to face life in its stripped-back, unadorned agony, wondering as you do if you will ever sing again.