Ain’t no shame in holding on to grief. As long as you make room for other things, too.
-Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins
Some spoilers for Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist season 1 follow, though I tried to stay as vague as possible when possible. It was often not possible.
When I first heard about Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, I was immediately interested, but not on a particularly deep level. A network-friendly Crazy Ex-Girlfriend ripoff? Maybe. Jane Levy as the star? Okay, I quite liked Suburgatory. Mary Steenburgen, Peter Gallagher, and Lauren Graham? Now we’re talking. Skyler Astin? Boy, they’re really committed to this Crazy Ex-Girlfriend ripoff thing, huh?
I expected an entertaining show, if not particularly noteworthy or groundbreaking– it’s a jukebox musical, so you don’t even get the original songs of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. What I got was so much more.
Zoey Clarke is a top programmer on her fourth-floor team at a Bay Area tech company called SPRQ Point. She’s a striver with a loving family, though her father Mitch is suffering from a rare degenerative disease and has months to live. (Steenburgen and Gallagher play her parents; Andrew Leeds and Alice Lee recur as her brother and quite pregnant sister-in-law.) Her team at work includes boss Joan (Graham), best friend Max (Astin), and new hire Simon (John Clarence Stewart).
One day, Zoey (worried said disease might be genetic) goes in for an MRI and an earthquake causes an event of Premise Magic; somehow the playlist the technician was listening to is downloaded into Zoey’s brain, and she starts hearing people’s innermost feelings and desires as popular songs (usually with choreography). She enlists the help of her neighbor Mo (Alex Newell) to help her understand what they call “heart songs,” and together they resolve to use Zoey’s powers to help others.
The rest of this essay gets more serious, so I wanted to highlight that Zoey’s is funny. Often it’s in a hilariously unexpected song performance or choice (any time Graham gets ready to sing, you know it’s going to be good), but also in the little well-observed details, like Zoey hearing her father singing “Moondance” and (after having to look up what “Moondance” was– come on!) inquiring, as awkward as you might expect, with her mother as to whether they’re having sex. (Maggie: “Oh, that is not a problem.”)
The first thing that makes Zoey’s work is the strength of its characters and their relationships. Zoey has a lot of relationships to navigate– family, friends, coworkers, love interests, places where two (or three) of those overlap– and they’re all handled well and believably, with a maturity level that transcends lesser shows. And many of the characters seem to start from a stereotypical place before developing into so much more.
Lauren Graham as Joan is a great example. Zoey’s boss is first presented as a typical cold-and-difficult woman-in-a-man’s-world boss, but (as befitting someone of Graham’s talent) is eventually revealed to be so much more. After she promotes Zoey to manager, she starts to warm up to her; you can tell that, despite her stern manner at work, she really likes Zoey (and more generally, her team), and wants to both befriend Zoey personally and mentor her professionally. Unlike the stereotypical hard-ass boss, she’s fully understanding that Zoey needs to be able to work around her father’s needs and offers her as much leeway and time off as she needs for that. She’s also slightly a mess, it turns out– but just the appropriate amount; Aaron Sorkin didn’t write this show.
Similarly, coders Leif and Tobin (Michael Thomas Grant and Kapil Talwalkar, both recurring) start out as more stereotypical tech bros, Leif with American Psycho ambition and Tobin acting like a human Maxim magazine, but as the series goes on we see them more deeply, that they have sincere feelings and emotions and even a sweet side.
Alex Newell (Glee) is a total delight as Mo, in what I find to be a really well-handled portrayal of a genderfluid character. When we meet Mo, he is presenting as female; we have no reason to think at all he is anything but cisgender. But in one episode, Zoey decides to investigate when Mo sings a heart song Zoey can’t figure out the meaning to, and discovers he still sings in his church choir while presenting as male. While, of course, this becomes a plot where Zoey tries to encourage Mo to come out to his church, it isn’t about Zoey; Mo retains a lot of his own agency in the decision, and even chides Zoey at one point for trying to be his white savior.
There’s also the love triangle. Zoey’s best friend and co-worker Max has had a crush on her for a long time, which she inadvertently discovers when he sings her a heart song. Meanwhile, Zoey’s got a crush on Simon, but he’s engaged (to someone I keep accidentally referring to as “Valencia“). Zoey’s powers mean she can sense when he’s not feeling well (it’s usually “Mad World”) even when he puts a brave face on; she uses that to pry and discovers that Simon’s father committed suicide last year, and they end up bonding over shared tragedy and helping each other work through it.
This setup could easily give way to melodrama and immaturity, plots that could be resolved in two minutes if two people would just talk, and the kind of grotesque behavior that flies in romantic comedies but in reality would just make you think this person is an unhinged asshole. (In other words, like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend season 1 if the writers didn’t know Rebecca Bunch was mentally ill.) It doesn’t, because the pace of the story (the “structure of incidents,” if you will) means that confrontations happen when they need to happen, and aren’t artificially delayed. Any delays in conflict come from plausible character choices, like Zoey avoiding Max after hearing his heart song, because she doesn’t know how to deal with this information. (The scene where Max confesses his feelings ends up being hilarious in a delightfully unexpected way, without undercutting the sincerity of his emotions.) When conflicts happen, they are real and genuine, like Max’s anger at Zoey when she discloses her power and that she’s been hiding her knowledge of his feelings.
Simon’s another character that could be done poorly in the wrong hands. As Zoey uses her powers to get closer to him and help him heal (and bond over their shared tragedy), he starts falling for her even though he’s engaged, and he doesn’t know what to do. He’s not a cad or someone who thinks the grass is always greener; he’s someone who’s genuinely torn between one woman he loves and has built a serious relationship with, and another who seems to understand him in a way nobody else does.
The love triangle is plausible because both options are plausible, because both men are good men with real merits and able to give Zoey what she needs, and because nobody is hiding information or acting ridiculous for the sake of a plot contrivance. (And since I’ve barely mentioned Zoey as a character, I should add that she’s a total catch: smart and driven and warm and caring and occasionally endearingly awkward but also funny, and of course she also looks like Jane Levy.)
But what really elevates the show is a portrayal of grief and loss like I’ve never seen on television.
Zoey’s father, Mitch, has progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare neuromuscular degenerative disease. (Creator Austin Winsberg’s own father died of the same disease, and much of Mitch’s story is taken from Winsberg’s own experiences.) When the show starts, Mitch has largely lost control of his body; his mind works, but he cannot communicate. Mitch’s disease is degenerative and his prognosis fatal; the recurring storyline for the family, then, is how both to make Mitch’s remaining months as comfortable as possible, and prepare themselves both emotionally and materially for his impending death.
This is the sort of thing that could be handled horribly, that could be maudlin or manipulative or so ham-handed and overwrought that the viewer gets too burned out to care. I’ve been listening to Felix Biederman’s “This Is Sus” series on Chapo Trap House lately; he’s covered This Is Us and the shows that seemed to be inspired by its success, like Council of Dads and A Million Little Things. These shows seem to have a few things in common:
- One is an inexplicable emphasis on coincidences being incredibly meaningful (something This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman seems to specialize in, if the reviews on this site of his piece of cinematic fanta-crap are any indicator).
- Another is the absurd amount of tragedy, piling it on to the point where it seems like half the cast has cancer and the other half committed suicide. (This Is Us jumps around in time to wring out more heart-wrenching deaths; the premise of the other two shows literally revolves around a tragic death. And there’s a whole lotta cancer goin’ on.) A Million Little Things manages to combine the two, with an inciting incident of a suicide… and, coincidentally, a member of the main cast was also about to commit suicide at the exact same time, then decided not to!
- A third is that, despite the show’s intended message of the importance of family and friendship and all that, a lot of the people are just assholes. The best example here is again A Million Little Things, where the premise is supposed to be about how it’s inexplicable that Jon, this great guy, took his life when he’s so successful and has such great friends, and now the rest of them all have to be great friends for each other, because friendship is [TITLE DROP]… but one of the friends was fucking Jon’s wife before he killed himself!
I worried that Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist could be like this. (It’s on NBC, home of This Is Us and Council of Dads.) Fortunately, it’s none of these things.
While Mitch’s story is present in every episode, it doesn’t hang over everything. Zoey’s has a lot going on; the story of Mitch’s decline and the way the family deals with it is but one element of the show. (We probably spend more time at SPRQ Point than at Mitch and Maggie’s house.) By keeping Mitch’s story to relatively limited screen time, the show manages to make the emotional impact of each moment work, rather than deaden us to it through overexposure. This goes back to the very first episode, when Zoey hears a heart song from Mitch (the first time Mitch has been able to communicate with anyone in the family since his illness) and realizes he wants to go outside and on a boat, later convincing the rest of the family to take him there. (Among other things, Zoey’s ability to hear Mitch’s heart songs helps the rest of the family devise methods he can still use to communicate, such as a buzzer to signal yes/no and a computer to type short phrases.) The moment on the water where Mitch squeezes Maggie’s hand is genuinely moving; honestly, I don’t think I saw a single episode where I didn’t at least tear up once.
And let’s be clear, a major reason this works is the outstanding portrayals of Mitch and Maggie. Played by Peter Gallagher, Mitch is always someone you can tell is mentally active and observant but deeply physically limited in how he can communicate with others. And the show’s conceit means he’s not just playing an immobile half-dead man; he gets a few musical numbers and special moments with Zoey, that work in the context of this show in a way that couldn’t without the premise. (And it would be a waste of Peter Gallagher to have him be nearly unable to move for his entire run on the show.)
Steenburgen is perfect (how could she be otherwise?) as the loving mother and wife who is dealing with Mitch’s condition the best she can, and trying to juggle not only taking care of him, but taking care of the arrangements for his funeral and burial, and just plain having the support system and activities she needs to continue on living after he’s gone. (In one episode, the delightful Bernadette Peters guests as a widow Zoey encounters at the funeral home; Zoey convinces her to talk to Maggie and offer her advice and support on making the transition.)
One particularly wonderful touch is Howie, the in-home caregiver the Clarkes hire midway through the series (played by Zak Orth). When interviewing candidates, two stand out from the rest: One is professional, dignified, and with a resumé of this type of work that spans decades. The other, Howie, is more slovenly in appearance and suggests Mitch take up online poker to stay engaged and entertained, but one moment from his interview catches our attention: He makes Mitch laugh.
Maggie hires the first applicant, but her bedside demeanor is cold, and after she begins ignoring Maggie and Mitch’s wishes in order to provide the best medical care she can regardless of Mitch’s comfort or how Mitch wants to spent his last days, Maggie fires her and hires Howie.
While Howie is not particularly professional in presentation, he’s got a natural warmth which is ideal for the job, and he has a real grasp of Mitch’s needs not only medical but personal: The point isn’t just to keep him alive as long as possible, the point is to keep him feeling human as long as possible. Howie not only provides for Mitch’s physical needs but also provides him companionship, a sense of normality, someone who can help Mitch exit gracefully without losing himself. And someone who will still make his chocolate milkshakes, though Howie sneaks some spinach in to make sure Mitch gets his vitamins.
Mitch’s story comes to its head, as it must, in the season finale. Zoey wakes up in the morning, and when she looks in the mirror, her reflection sings back “Bad Moon Rising” at her. (Another song she doesn’t know– come on, Mr. and Mrs. Clarke, didn’t you play any classic rock in the house?) Obviously, that song’s as ominous as you’d expect, but most of Zoey’s day goes quite well– she gets Mo and his boyfriend Eddie back together, she gets Max his job back, and even has a moment of intimacy with Max. (Speaking of funny, Zoey gets distracted by Max’s heart songs and asks him to “think of something sexier,” and he immediately launches into Pitbull’s “I Know You Want Me.”)
Then the call comes.
Howie asked the rest of the family to come home, and all gathered, he breaks the news to them: Mitch’s organs have begun to fail and he only has hours to live. It’s time to say goodbye. This leads us to some really moving goodbyes, and Howie offering Zoey some sincere wisdom about death and how one might consider it. (“Perhaps it’s not the end. Perhaps it’s just when our human bodies are no longer sufficient to carry us, and we move on to something else.”) Zoey offers her own last words to her father, a marked contrast from her plea to him in the first episode: “I just wanted you to know that your daughter is okay.” Then she gets one last dance with Mitch in her song-mind, before, abruptly, he’s gone.
I didn’t lose too many peers when I was young, save one family member, my cousin Donovan, my age, who was born in Cancer Alley and lived that destiny by the time we were 12. As an adult, though, I’ve lost many people dear to me, and far too many far too young, mostly not even thirty. I still keep the list in my head: Stone and Holt and Jay and Danny and Jack and Pat and Gus and James and Mark. (And, shit, I’ve come close to appearing on many other people’s lists.) Most of them were my peers, save two: James was 70 by the time I met him in Mexico, but he still haunts me; the last words I ever said to my friend before I returned to the States were “I promise I will see you again.”
The other was Pat, my would-be father-in-law, who died six years ago unexpectedly, somewhat estranged from my wife, and that made Zoey’s hit me on another level, too. A chance to imagine all the things you might have said if you knew life was finite, if you knew– not intellectually, but deep down– that a day would come when you could say no more. But Zoey’s is not just transferred therapy for those of us who fit that bill: It works as a story because we see these characters struggle to deal with the same process, without the experience or expectations with death that I have, and we see them act like real people would, preparing their best and doing their best to stay strong and positive, but of course having only so much they can do in the face of something they’ve never dealt with and that there’s no way to fully prepare for.
This all comes to a head with the climactic scene of the season, Mitch’s wake. In the last musical number of the season, the show does the impossible: It takes a full-cast rendition of “American Pie” and makes it work, balanced by a tracking shot that follows the wake for the length of the song, and passes off the singing to different cast members at just the right parts. It shouldn’t work at all. It works perfectly. (Warning before you press play: I have no idea if it will work if you haven’t seen the series.)
Aside from last year’s season of True Detective, no show in recent memory has made me reflect on death as much, no show has made me think as much about how I will handle my own sign-off (if I get that choice), and no show has given me a framework to think about death like Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. I checked in hoping for a fun Crazy Ex-Girlfriend knockoff. I ended up with a show that not only keeps the sense of fun and heightened emotion one would expect from a musical, but deals with single adult ambitions and desires plausibly, and tells one of the most real and moving stories of dealing with death that I’ve ever seen on television.
When was the last time you said a network show could plausibly and effectively deal with love, death, ambition, grief, desire, and loss?
I don’t know, either.
I certainly don’t know the last time someone was able to wring sincere emotion out of “American Pie.”
Season 1 of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist aired on NBC and is now available on Hulu. Season 2 has not been confirmed as of yet, but creator Austin Winsberg seems optimistic about its renewal.
Don’t play “American Pie” at my funeral. Play this.