January 8, 2020

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”


ZOEY’S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST – Sundays 10PM on NBC (starting February 16)

In a broadcast network landscape musty with procedurals and the mildest possible sitcoms, NBC deserves credit for commissioning Austin Winsberg’s ZOEY’S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST, an original musical fantasy (the collected works of Dennis Potter and ABC’s short-lived Eli Stone aside).  It’s a genuine attempt to stand out, and deserves some time to prove it’s more than a distinctive premise.

That premise is oddly literal.  Zoey (Jane Levy, from Suburgatory) is a mid-level coder in San Francisco nervous about her stress headaches because her beloved father Mitch (Peter Gallagher) is fading from a fast-moving neurological disease.  Zoey is undergoing an MRI, with playlist music piped in by the technician to calm her down, when an earthquake hits, the result being a sudden ability to hear the inner thoughts of those around her expressed through song, which leads to full-scale musical numbers breaking out around her.  Zoey is, as one would expect, initially gobsmacked by this, but by the end of the pilot, she’s beginning to cope with and even appreciate her new powers.

It’s a fun concept, and pilot director Richard Shepard (his work includes the pilot for Ugly Betty) gets to stage song and dance routines in various genres.  Levy remains a charmer, and the supporting cast in addition to Gallagher includes Mary Steenburgen as Zoey’s mom, Skyler Astin as her platonic buddy Max, John Clarence Stewart as her engaged office crush, and (technically a recurring guest star) Lauren Graham as her boss.

The shortcoming of Zoey is that gimmick aside, its underlying story isn’t particularly interesting.  Zoey herself is a yearning singleton who struggles to express her own ambition, with one co-worker she secretly likes and another who secretly likes her.  Her neighbor Mo (Alex Newell) is an African-American DJ whose character can unfortunately be summarized as “sassy.”  Her mom is sweetly understanding.  Without the music, the show would be easily dismissible.

And in the pilot, at least, the songs are blandly chosen.  A depressed colleague sings “Mad World,” distraught people on the street perform “Help!”, Zoey’s dad momentarily arises to render “True Colors” to her, and Max expresses his feelings with “I Think I Love You.”  Everything is entirely on the surface, and the message is aspirational, with the suggestion that every week Zoey will use her magical insights to help out someone around her, as though it’s God Friended Me with a beat.  For a show that aims to be a big swing, it feels too often like its imagination is being held in check, as though NBC and Winsberg think viewers have enough to handle just absorbing the basic idea of the show.

With time and confidence, perhaps Zoey can generate more excitement.  Even in its current form, it’s a refreshing change from the rest of the shows being offered by the networks, and when it returns to the air next month (in a quiet Sunday timeslot) it will have a chance to prove the second word of its title to be justified.  For now, it has plenty of potential.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."