by Julian Spivey
NBC’s “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” had one of the best opening seasons of any show I can remember in some time. Of course, it helps that it’s the most unique show currently on network television with its mixture of hilarious moments, heartfelt drama and musical numbers where the cast takes popular music and inserts it into everyday situations and feelings. There’s no guarantee the series will see a second season – which would be a real bummer – but even if it doesn’t, I believe the show set out to do all it intended in a near perfect first season.
In the pilot episode Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy), a programmer recently promoted to engineering manager at a San Francisco-based tech company, is receiving an MRI when an earthquake hits and somehow has seemingly every song ever recorded download into her brain and gives her the power of hearing the thoughts and feelings of those surrounding her in the forms of these songs. It’s a quirky idea for a series, but it doesn’t take long for us to completely fall in love with it.
Levy, in her first network TV role since ABC’s “Suburgatory” (2011-2014), is the absolute perfect choice for Zoey. Truly one of the funniest actresses around she can display so much sarcastic humor in her voice and facial expressions and this series has shown she can handle drama with the best of them and also sing and dance, although her character being the one that sees and hears the music doesn’t get as many musical numbers as the rest of the cast.
The first season sees Zoey primarily dealing with two issues: deciding between two guys who like her (both of whom are co-workers and one of which is her best friend) and the debilitating disease that’s killing her father Mitch, played by Peter Gallagher in a terrific performance that sees him sitting wide-eyed and out of it for much of the season, while coming brilliantly to life in musical numbers only Zoey can see.
The which-guy-will-Zoey-end-up-with plot doesn’t come to an end with the season finale – they have to give the show something to look forward to in a potential second season, after all. But, for the first time it feels like Zoey is leaning toward her best friend Max (Skylar Astin) over Simon (John Clarence Stewart) as she is about to hook up with him before receiving a devastating call about her father.
The whole season has been leading up to the heartbreaking moment where the Clarke family must say goodbye to Mitch and it’s a moment even though you could see coming from a mile away I hoped the show would find away around because the performance by Gallagher is so good, whether doing song and dance numbers solo or beautifully with Mary Steenburgen, who plays his wife Maggie. But, despite the fantastical musical numbers this isn’t a fairytale and tragedy strikes, just as I recently learned it did in the real world for the show’s creator Austin Winsberg, who patterned Mitch and his disease after his own father’s struggle with the rare progressive supranuclear palsy.
Watching the Clarke family say goodbye to Mitch was absolutely heartbreaking, with the most emotional performance coming with the father and son and daughter-in-law performance of Billy Joel’s “Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel),” which would seem written specifically for this show/scene had you not realized it’s an actual previously recorded song, with the wrenching moment of knowing Mitch will never meet his grandchild.
Steenburgen, who’s seemingly perfect in everything she does rather drama or comedy, tears and the heartstrings with “Dream a Little Dream Of Me.”
And, then as Mitch is taking his last gasps of breath before succumbing to his illness he, seemingly the only one who knowingly communicates with Zoey via the “heart songs” as she calls him, calls her over and assures her that everything is going to be OK before the two do a ballroom dance number to an instrumental “True Colors,” which played an a major role earlier in the series between the two. It’s potentially the show’s most beautiful scene of the entire season.
While the father/daughter dance might have been the show’s most beautiful moment, the freshman series saved it’s most impressive number for last with the entire cast doing a seven-minute nearly uncut performance of the Don McLean classic “American Pie” as the Clarkes gathered with friends and family back at their residence following Mitch’s funeral.
Something that is truly amazing about “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” is that the series probably did 60 or more musical numbers in the season and I never once felt a song selection was misguided or out of place, but the moment that Steenburgen’s Maggie went into “American Pie” I cringed ever so slightly. I felt like the show was about to make its first misstep in this department in the very last scene of the season, possible series if it’s not renewed. It probably only took about 30 seconds before I realized how wrong I was and that I never should’ve doubted this show. As the entire cast danced and sang these classic lyrics that somehow fit perfectly with what was happening in the scene and series I marveled at how perfect it all was and after reading an interview with Winsberg after the finale it became even more amazing when he mentioned it was his father’s favorite song.
“Zoey’s Extraordinary Dad” made for an amazing send-off to a show that had one of the best first seasons of any series I’ve ever seen and Winsberg and his entire cast and writing staff deserves a huge standing ovation.