A dark screen.
The beginnings of a soulful acapella rendition of Andra Day’s “Rise Up” lilting from the shadows.
This is how the second season of the NBC original, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist begins – with the angelic voice of Alex Newell pulling viewers out of the, both literal and metaphorical, darkness with which the season begins.
The first season of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist was a raw and imaginative analysis of grief and loss, all set through the eyes of the pragmatic and quirky computer programmer, Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy). After an MRI gone wrong, Zoey gains the ability to hear people’s inner thoughts, but her amazing new power comes with a caveat: she can only hear people’s thoughts through the form of song. Her newfound musical telepathy helps her connect with those around her in a way she was never able to before, as well as allow her to communicate with her father dying of a rare neurological disease that has stolen his ability to speak.
The first season was an unmitigated success on multiple fronts, and it’s obvious this second season is following suit already – made clear in the colorful, yet painful first episode that released last Tuesday.
(For those interested in hearing my reflections and opinions on the episode and first season, scroll down to the “My Thoughts” section to skip over the recap)
SEASON 1 – EPISODE 1 RECAP:
The episode begins with the golden pipes of Mo (Alex Newell), Zoey’s gender queer best friend/next-door-neighbor. He sings in real life to a depressed Zoey dreading her first day back at work. It’s been six weeks since the death of her father, Mitch (Peter Gallagher), and the family is still reeling from the loss, now having to deal with the addition of a new baby in the house. As Zoey gets ready for work, she explains to Mo that she hasn’t heard a “heart song” – the adorable term she uses to describe whenever she hears a deeply personal , musical internal monologue – since her father died.
Before work, Zoey meets up with Max (Skylar Astin) for coffee, where he surprises her with a gold ring shaped like a shield and engraved with a backward musical note, a reference to her superpower. The moment is charmingly awkward, and Zoey is touched by Max’s explanation of the ring, telling her he hopes it will act as both a shield and source of strength to help her through her grief and first day back at work.
Believing to be off the hook from her powers, Zoey arrives at work and, much to her chagrin, is met with a rousing performance of “Hello Dolly” from the entire staff at SPRQ Point. The performance is fit with amazing choreography, a full chorus belting their hearts out, and a literal kick line. Overall, it was a scene that truly made the musical theatre fan in me giggle with joy – especially after an entire year of being deprived of live theatre. Zoey, on the other hand, is less than impressed by this euphonious welcome, and instantly starts to feel overwhelmed by the barrage of changes that have been made around the office.
The facilitator of these changes? Leif (Michael Thomas Grant), who you’ll remember from the first season as the overachieving social climber on the hunt for Zoey’s job. Leif has been named interim-manager in Zoey’s absence and used his power to enact major changes, including standing desks, dogs roaming about the floor, and, most jarring of all, Max’s replacement, George (Harvey Guillén). George is chipper, bubbly, and slightly overeager to become friends with Zoey, who he sees as an ally against his coworkers, who have forced him to endure weeks of hazing while Zoey was gone.
Joan (Lauren Graham) arrives shortly after and pulls Zoey into her office, where she informs her that she took a huge promotion overseas and wants Zoey to replace her as the Executive Manager of the fourth floor at SPRQ Point. Feeling bombarded by the chaos of the day, Zoey agrees to think about the offer and escapes the office as fast as she can.
Unable to catch a break, Zoey returns home and is greeted by Max and Simon (John Clarence Stewart) hanging out at Mo’s apartment. The trio invite her to stay, but Zoey is too unnerved by the friendship that blossomed in her absence between her best friend and two-thirds of her love triangle. The men try to reassure her, publicly letting her know they don’t want to be in competition with each other, while privately breaking into a killer duet battle set to “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” by Jet. Zoey, once again feeling overstimulated by the events of the day, attempts to sink into self-pity. Mo gently scolds her, providing her with some much needed tough love, and she returns to her family’s home with a great deal to consider.
While at home, she helps her equally overwhelmed mother log into the deceased Mitch’s laptop so she can finish getting his affairs in order. While searching through his files for their marriage license, the two discover a trio of videos made by Mitch, addressed to Maggie, Zoey, and David. The videos were made prior to him losing the ability to speak, so the family gathers around the computer in hopes they will provide some sort of solace. Instead, the videos are difficult to watch and, as a result, upsets Maggie so much she shuts the computer.
The next day, Joan reminds Zoey of the time limit on her offer, adding to her growing stress. After being berated by friends and coworkers alike in the form of texts, check-in’s, and yet another heart song, Zoey snaps and storms out of the office. Her meltdown concerns Joan, who swings by Zoey’s childhood home later for a heart-to-heart. This is followed by another meaningful talk, between Zoey and Maggie, about the struggles of maneuvering grief after losing someone so pivotal in your life. The two talk about how it feels impossible to exist in the world after Mitch’s death, as well as the guilt they both feel at experiencing joy without Mitch there.
Maggie, in a raw and truthful moment, says to Zoey, “I just cannot process how someone so alive and so vital is just not here” – a line that hit me like a truck the first time I heard it. The emotions of the scene are only further amplified after David encourages the family to sit down and actually watch one of their father’s videos in full. It was taken on one of the “good days” and intended for Maggie. He encourages her to move on with her life and not get stuck in her grief. His words have an impact on everyone and, after closing the laptop, the family sings a tender rendition of Fun’s “Carry On” as they set the table for dinner, emphasizing their collective decision to move forward as best they can.
Zoey returns to work the next day, with a newfound invigoration. She accepts the promotion and makes some much needed changes around the office – most importantly, scolding Tobin (Kapil Talwalkar) for his immature hazing of George. This leads to George pulling Zoey aside and thanking her for defending him, letting her know that, “small acts of kindness like that are gigantic.” They embrace and Zoey holds on tightly, needing the hug more than she thought.
The episode concludes with a meaningful montage, set to an acoustic version of “Carry On,” where we see Zoey settling into her new office, Mo and Max discussing their exciting new business venture, and Maggie holding her grandson for the first time as she shows him photos of Mitch. The montage ends with Max arriving at Zoey’s house, eager to tell her about his new app idea. Zoey apologizes for being so distant over the past few weeks and for the way she left Max in relationship limbo as she grieved. She quickly clarifies her feelings for him by pulling him into a passionate kiss, saving viewers from agonizing over a cliché love triangle. It’s an exciting cliff hanger to leave the first episode off on, to say the least, and I personally can’t wait to see how the consequences of Zoey’s choice plays out next week.
Listen. I love this show. Like a lot.
The first season of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist was a beautiful and heartbreaking look into the aspects of grief we rarely see portrayed on television. I think a lot of shows and movies like to rush through character’s grief, getting to a neat end point as soon as they can out of fear of making viewers uncomfortable. Yet, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is a refreshing outlier, providing us with equal parts heartbreak, and equal parts celebration.
The writers do a brilliant job of allowing viewers to sit in the sadness of the show, acknowledging that grief cannot be wrapped up in a bow in a series finale. Death hurts. It’s awful and painful and gut-wrenching, but it’s also funny and weird and it can bring people together in a beautiful and unexpected way. And the writers of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist manage to acknowledge that fact in a gentle and subtle manner with every moment of screen time – their use of “American Pie” during Mitch’s funeral being a standout example of this in season one.
The show was created by Austin Winsberg and based on his own experience of losing his father to PSP, the degenerative neurological disease featured in the show. Winsberg used his own painful experience to craft an ode to all the ugly, funny, and heartbreaking aspects that go along with grief, through a lens that never feels overly heavy or hard hitting. This helped him create a show with unexpected depth and resonance, despite it’s peculiar elevator pitch.
The sunny San Francisco setting of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist juxtaposes the darkness of some of the topics the show covers: from suicide, to being gay in the church, to parental loss. Yet, it manages to cover these topics in a way that feels relatable and warm, opening viewers up for a chance to grieve alongside Zoey and her family. It’s a show that provides some much needed catharsis during a time in our world where people have been facing immense loss themselves at the hands of the Coronavirus Pandemic.
I love that in this second season we are already getting to see Zoey struggle and stumble through finding her footing again in her “new normal.” It’s messy, but it’s also realistic. Life moves on, and for most people, it’s a difficult by necessary adjustment you have to make after the death of a loved one.
I also appreciated that Winsberg didn’t feel obligated to drag out the love triangle throughout the entire second season. It’s a tired and used trope that most writers rely on too heavily. Thankfully, Winsberg was aware of how tiresome this stereotype is and allowed Zoey to make a mature and thoughtful decision that felt in character for her, especially considering the journey she’s gone on these past two seasons so far.
Another highlight of the episode was the musical numbers. I was hesitant at first to start watching this show, worried it was going to be a Glee knock-off that favored generic pop songs to set up “emotional” moments that felt more corny than genuine. But from the very first episode of season one, it’s glaringly clear that Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is no Glee. The show continuously explores the very clumsy experience of being human, and all the awkwardness, pain, joy, and weirdness that we feel privately every day. The song choices work to amplify the story and heighten the character’s emotions, much like a real musical. They favor songs of all genres which allows characters to express themselves without limitations. The choreography is constantly astounding me and manages to be both hauntingly beautiful in the quieter ballads, and entertaining and exciting in the larger, more energetic numbers.
I’m also intrigued to see how the show carries on without Lauren Graham as Zoey’s blunt, but caring boss, who played a pivotal role in Zoey’s character development last season. I think her departure was a necessary choice on the writer’s end, mostly because it gives Zoey a chance to continue forward on her journey and expand as she faces new challenges in her high-pressure position. Thankfully, although we lost Lauren Graham, we got the addition of the charming and energetic Harvey Guillén, who brings a breath of fresh air to the show with his smiley demeanor and plucky attitude. All in all, I expect lots of shenanigans this season with the addition of his character – maybe even another hilarious glitch episode if we’re lucky?
Overall, this show continues to astound me. I think this season has already proven itself to be a worthy successor to the first one, and I can’t wait to see what else is in store for Zoey as she navigates her new job, romantic relationship, and family dynamic. I expect we have lots of musical exultations and dulcet ballads to look forward to this season, so hop on board with me as I cover this brilliant show every week for the remainder of the season.
Watch Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist on Tuesdays on NBC at 8 PM ET/7 PM C, or stream it on NBC.com or Hulu.