'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist': TV Review

Sometimes manipulative, but often full of joy.

Jane Levy, Peter Gallagher and Mary Steenburgen lead the superb cast of NBC's new musical dramedy.

Something unusual happened this fall with the debut of three broadcast shows that were, by most accounts, actually pretty good. CBS’ Evil and ABC’s Stumptown and Emergence aren’t revolutionary, but they’re broadcast dramas done well, each driven in part by a strong leading lady.

Of course doing something well and getting audiences — trained to expect broadcast dramas to mostly focus on weekly procedural storylines set in New York or Chicago — to watch are two different things. That will be NBC’s worry with the premiere of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, a likably inspired musical dramedy boasting a strong cast led by a never-better Jane Levy and running the risk of being too quirky for broadcast and not quirky enough for cable.

Levy plays Zoey, long-toiling coder at a Bay Area startup run by Lauren Graham’s Joan. There’s a big promotion coming up at work, but Zoey isn’t assertive enough to take credit for all of her hard work, plus she’s distracted by the desire to help her mother (Mary Steenburgen) care for her dad (Peter Gallagher), who has become nearly incapacitated by a neurological condition. Because she’s been experiencing headaches herself, Zoey submits to medical tests and finds herself trapped in an MRI machine when an earthquake hits. Somehow this leaves Zoey, never a fan of music previously, as something of a human antenna, picking up on how people are feeling in the form of fully sung and occasionally danced cover tunes that range from brief melodies to a full-scale production number of “Help!” featuring strangers chasing Zoey up and down the hills of San Francisco.

This new power has positives, as it allows her to communicate with her previously nonresponsive father and to connect with the co-worker (John Clarence Stewart’s Simon) she’s crushing on, but it produces anxiety as she realizes that her best friend (Skylar Astin’s Max) is in love with her. As Alex Newell’s Mo — Zoey’s neighbor and a character who, at least in the two episodes sent to critics, has nothing better to do than dedicate herself completely to Zoey’s mystery — observes, songs are a way to articulate our innermost feelings and Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist creator Austin Winsberg wants to run the gamut from rom-com chipper to emotionally devastating.

It’s the latter element, centered around the ailing father, that often feels more manipulative than earned, but still absolutely brought me to tears on multiple occasions. But, let's be honest, compared to the leaden, overbearing tear-jerking of NBC's short-lived The Village, Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist feels practically gentle in its calculation.

Just as Stumptown and Evil are strong variations on a network procedural formula, and even Emergence is ABC's latest in a long line of mythology-driven shows with a science fiction twist, Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist has some elements of freshness, but at least as much familiarity for those seeking it. In fact, the San Francisco setting and use of songs to represent a gift that might be prophesy or could just as easily be a serious medical ailment will cause some select viewers instantly to recall ABC's Eli Stone, a two-season wonder that still has fans. Parts of the DNA will also call to mind Wonderfalls and Joan of Arcadia. This was a genre broadcast really wanted to mine back in the '00s, with mixed success.

The energetic Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist pilot was directed by Richard Shepard and benefits to no small degree from the choreography by multiple Emmy winner Mandy Moore, carrying into the second episode as well. The cast boasts a wide range of singing and dancing skill levels, with eagerness as the most consistent asset, across the assortment of hugely recognizable covers, not always perfectly matched to the performer. Gallagher, for example, is given a song in the pilot that finds him in an uncomfortable high register, but the former Guys and Dolls star soars in the second episode dipping into the Van Morrison playbook.

Gallagher and Steenburgen have to ground some of the tougher emotional beats and reduce mawkishness as best they can, but most of the show is carried by Levy. It’s no surprise at all that the Suburgatory star is able to use her trademark sarcasm to cut through occasional treacle. More revelatory is how much she’s able to add to the series’ joy, especially in the show-stopping opening to the second episode. Very few actors are better at making too-cool-for-school attitude likable, but this level of giddiness from Levy seems new.

I’m less convinced by the chemistry between Zoey and either of her love interests — Astin, as ever, displays amiably theatrical chops — and there’s been no indication thus far on what this show did to attract a performer as overqualified as Graham for an underwritten “snippy boss” role.

The question for any show with a tone this precarious, especially in the broadcast world, is how long Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist can remain in tune. Broadcast isn't designed to let odd shows maintain their oddness, something Winsberg knows all too well. He created ABC's Jake in Progress, a 2005 John Stamos comedy that started with a format-bending premise — events taking place in a single night, etc. — and became a conventional rom-com after network tinkering. It would be sad to see Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist follow in that direction, so it's worth saying that with Levy and Gallagher leading the way, this incarnation of the series is at least off to a promising start.

Cast: Jane Levy, Skylar Astin, Alex Newell, John Clarence Stewart, with Peter Gallagher and Mary Steenburgen, plus special guest star Lauren Graham
Creator: Austin Winsberg
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT, before airing Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT starting Feb. 16 (NBC)