This is what living within a big historical event looks like
NBC’s latest musical drama, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, reflects the network’s attempt to achieve Fox’s Glee-like success with a modern, TV update to the musical. But lightning rarely strikes twice in the same place.
The network’s previous attempts include Smash, Rise, and Perfect Harmony. Smash aired for two seasons. NBC canceled Rise and Perfect Harmony after only one each. Zoey’s chances depend on whether audiences hunger for more “glee.”
Jane Levy (perhaps best known for ABC’s Suburgatory) plays Zoey, a clever but meek software coder vying for a promotion in a high-tech company. After experiencing an earthquake during an MRI, she suddenly has the ability to “hear” people’s innermost thoughts expressed through impromptu musical numbers. Initially in a panic, Zoey seeks counsel from her cross-dressing neighbor Mo (Alex Newell), who helps her interpret the messages behind the songs.
Zoey uses her new talent to dispense advice to her work crush, Simon (John Clarence Stewart), and her boss, Joan (Lauren Graham). The ultimate and predictable benefit is that Zoey can now communicate with her father (Peter Gallagher), who suffers from a medical condition rendering him unable to speak or move. Veteran actor Mary Steenburgen plays Zoey’s mother. As Zoey resigns herself to her new empathic ability, she finds creative ways to help people with their unspoken issues, only to discover that helping people is not simply a “one and done” matter.
A musical’s success relies on good song selections and performances. Glee veteran Newell and Skylar Astin (Pitch Perfect) exhibit their vocal bona fides. Gallagher, Steenburgen, and Graham bravely offer respectable musical numbers as well.
But man does not live by song alone. The show’s writing must match, if not exceed, the contagion of the melodic earworms. Zoey’s, modeled after Glee’s format, contains the same not-so-subtle promotion of the liberal worldview with Newell’s LGBT character. Viewers willing to overlook Hollywood’s left-leaning agenda will probably enjoy Zoey’s, with Levy’s humble and compassionate portrayal of a reluctant “song-whisperer.”
Glee appeared during a time of musical famine on the networks. Its combination of ’80s, ’90s, and modern music provided viewers with a nostalgic hour of air-drumming (or toe-tapping) fun. Glee’s rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” in its first episode gave it a better than 50 percent chance of success. Whether NBC can mine that same ground with Zoey’s is unclear. Will Glee fans flock to the show or check it off as “been there, seen that”?