Once Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist gets to the point where it kicks off its shtick, it became somewhat difficult to keep track of what was happening as a flood of imagined responses by those who hadn’t watched it clamored for my attention. Sounds like something that happens all the time. It does not. That’s because it’s the sort of thing that only happens when a show is really aiming at a niche demographic, and believe it or not, that’s exceedingly rare.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist stars Jane Levy as a coder for a large-ish company who, after a freak accident, suddenly hears people’s thoughts as songs, but that’s woefully inaccurate. Actually, she starts seeing people sing songs during a kind of time-freeze encounter, often with backup vocals by whoever happens to be nearby. Much as she fears she is simply insane now, her new “ability” seems to be revealing people’s innermost thoughts, desires, and problems.
It’d be nice if Zoey were just a billionaire who got to sit back and figure out what to do with her superpower, but she has to go to work with her best friend (Skylar Astin), boss (Lauren Graham), and the guy she has a crush on… who she learns is perhaps rather sad. If that’s not enough, her father (Peter Gallagher) has a rapid-onset, degenerative disorder that has left him without the ability to speak and very limited capacity to move, and while her mother (Mary Steenburgen) puts on a brave face, she is only dealing with that as well as one might actually expect.
It’s a show that reminds of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (even insofar as the comparable neighbor character played by Alex Newell), but not just because wild musical numbers pop in out of nowhere, or there are larger-than-life characters, or we’re using the same color palette that apparently suggests “hang on, this is a weird show,” but because it’s just that niche.
There are a lot of shows that are “genre,” or even, “sub-genre,” but at the heart of what is going on with most of them is an effort to “expand” that genre so that more people want to watch. That’s just the business. ZEP is niche-upon-niche, and even if there are names you know, it doesn’t care if you show up. A lot of people are going to hate it, but some are going to love it with a passion TV didn’t always manage. That’s the new world order, and it’s nice to see members of “the big four” getting on board.
Ultimately, ZEP is one of those great shows that isn’t about it’s gimmick at all. It’s like one of those bouncy, happy-sounding songs about something dark or tragic. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is about something so horrifically dark you can’t really talk about it at all, unless it’s screwy comedy turned into a vehicle to look at the world through the eyes of someone outside of it. Then it’s hilarious and clever, and you hardly remember that you’re talking about someone who was abducted and held captive for a decade.
Jane Levy and Skylar Astin might be the perfect duo for a constant battle of one-upping each other’s ability to put points in charisma (and they are), and Gallagher may be the perfect choice to walk an incredibly thin line (he is), but the whimsy and spectacle of familiar songs and wild dance numbers is just the juxtaposition that lets the show focus on the staggering darkness of everyday life and ask a lot of questions about it. Once you get past the shock of Zoey walking through her life with songs bursting out at her randomly, you (and she) begin to wonder how she managed to walk through her life before, because really, this crazy, awful thing isn’t actually any more difficult to deal with than the rest of the crazy, awful things in the grand scheme of things. The other things may happen to just about everyone, and on an almost daily basis, but really, how the hell does anyone get anything done?