The musical component may be what attracts audiences to “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.”
It will doubtfully be what keeps them engaged.
Set for a preview airing Tuesday ahead of its full launch in February, the new show chronicles a coder named Zoey (Jane Levy) who endures an unusual experience during an MRI exam. After leaving, she learns that she can hear people’s thoughts in the form of (often elaborate) musical numbers.
Make no mistake – some of these musical moments are effective. Like the best numbers in Broadway musicals, there are certain performances that humanize characters and further storylines. They help make the show matter.
But these powerful numbers are not the default for the show. Far too many other numbers rely entirely on visually impressive choreography or superficially relevant lyrics. These uninspired selections add excitement to the premiere, but they quickly lose their luster. After just a few episodes, they feel more distracting (if not annoying) than engaging.
The quality of the cast may, however, help viewers tolerate the distractions. Though their characters are written in broad strokes, Levy and fellow principals Alex Newell, Peter Gallagher, Lauren Graham, Mary Steenburgen, John Clarence Stewart and Skylar Astin play their roles with undeniable charisma and conviction.
Not simply great at playing their own roles, the actors demonstrate remarkable chemistry. Across the four episodes screened for critics, Levy (the titular Zoey) establishes tremendous, believable relationships with her friend and confidante (Newell as Mo), boss (Graham as Joan), best friend (Astin as Max), crush (Stewart as Simon) parents (Gallagher as Mitch and Steenburgen as Maggie) and brother (recurring Andrew Leeds as David).
This near-instant chemistry leads to emotionally resonant moments (storylines involving Zoey and her family prove particularly so). The problem is that the musical numbers do not always add to the chemistry. In some cases, they feel like a burden taking viewers away from “the good stuff.”
When the music numbers work — a performance involving a song that means something special to Zoey’s parents, a song that reveals Mo’s inner struggle — they really work. They tell stories and uncover feelings in a way more interesting (and meaningful) than what would be achieved using cliche TV exposition.
The other performances, however, lack this clear artistic vision. They are not trying to achieve anything beyond communicating superficial feelings or wowing viewers with spectacle. In either case, they increasingly feel like a waste of time.
It would be one thing if the show chose to deeply investigate the “mythology” behind these visions — and how they are emotionally impacting Zoey. And, to be fair, the show may tackle this element in the future (some very early seeds are planted in the first few episodes). For now, however, they are more of a (not-so) fun diversion. In just four episodes, Zoey goes from being confused, to mildly annoyed, to somewhat thankful for her new “power.”
Making matters worse: the musical performances are not especially good. Some contain dazzling visuals, great choreography and heartfelt vocal performances (some cast members have clear musical theater skills), but many are “artificial yet flawed.” They contain distracting levels of vocal production (admittedly standard for this sort of show) but don’t involve technically talented vocalists (and, therefore, still sound pretty weak).
This “non-pop star” approach to singing is fine — and, in fact, preferred — during the honest, emotional moments involving key characters. But it’s problematic during the random, high-energy musical numbers involving strangers. If we don’t care about these people or their songs and are primarily watching to be impressed … shouldn’t the vocalists impress us?
NBC screened four episodes to provide critics with a fair taste of the show. The fourth episode, it should be noted, also features an emotional storyline — and a true powerhouse vocal number.
These four episodes, interestingly, do not establish an exact format for the show. They still carry an “introductory” vibe — it is not year clear how the show will tackle Zoey’s power (or whether the episodes will adhere to a clear template) in the months, if not years, ahead.
They do, however, make it clear that the strong cast, not the musical gimmick, is what gives the show promise. Hopefully, the writers took that into account when developing the rest of the first season.
The premiere preview airs at 10PM ET/PT on Tuesday, January 7.