Have you seen this show yet?
On the surface, it’s based on a ridiculous, very sci-fi premise. Software developer Zoey Clarke is getting an MRI (while listening to “It’s the End of the World as We Know It…And I Feel Fine” by R.E.M.) when an earthquake hits. After she leaves, she discovers she has a strange new superpower: She can hear people’s innermost emotions expressed in song. She literally sees people singing and dancing in often elaborate musical numbers to express their true feelings, even though they are completely unaware of it. It’s so overwhelming the first time it happens that she tries to physically run away from everyone on the street singing The Beatles’ “Help!” to her in choreographed desperation.
But the show is so much more than an excuse for its whimsical (and sometimes hilarious) musical numbers. In fact, it’s surprisingly grounded. The reason Zoey was getting that MRI was that her father, Mitch, is dying of a degenerative neurological disease, and she thought she was developing symptoms herself. So while she’s adjusting to hearing the “heart songs,” as she calls them, of everyone from strangers on the street to the co-worker she’s attracted to and the best friend who’s in love with her, Mitch’s rapid decline and imminent death is the real dominant force in her life. At its heart, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is a musical about navigating grief. Because of that, it makes a beeline through the clutter of my thoughts and reaches straight into my heart.
Like Zoey, I had to watch a parent slowly die. (In my case it was my mother, who had cancer.) And like it does for Zoey, it permeated every area of my life. I loved my mother deeply and the idea of a world without her was (and often still is) unfathomable. I think when a parent dies, no matter what your relationship is, you become unsteady, as if you’d been standing on a platform your whole life and then someone saws off one of the legs holding it up. At the beginning of the series, Zoey, is facing a death that hasn’t happened yet on top of a loss that has already begun as Mitch slips further away every day. And then the superpower comes in: Zoey’s newfound gift means she can still connect with Mitch in a way she thought was lost to her forever.
In the very first episode, Zoey breaks down while she’s sitting next to Mitch after heartbreakingly begging him to snap back to normal, and she hears his first heart song. It was almost more than I could bear, watching him sing “True Colors” to her, and yet it was like food for my hungry soul. There are moments like this throughout the show that feel, despite their absurdity, achingly real, and touch the deepest parts of my heart. In that moment, I was hooked.
Now in its second season, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist sometimes feels like it was written just for me. In actuality, it’s a perfect show for these batshit crazy, chaotic, pandemic, political, wildly unpredictable times we live in. In a world of “we’re all in this together” when we are very clearly NOT, it speaks to the deep emotion going on under the surface as we stand in line to get groceries, have family reunions in tiny little boxes on Zoom, and react to daily Bizarro world headlines. It’s hard not to feel emotionally adrift in this surreal world. Like Zoey, we’re nostalgic for a time that once seemed mundane. But unlike Zoey, we can’t hear the deepest feelings of the people we connect with; instead, we’re having trouble connecting with them at all. In Zoey’s world, when people can’t tell each other how they feel, they sing it.
And that’s the point; the show is about emotional truth. Zoey’s truth is that she doesn’t know who she is anymore because of her father’s terminal illness, but she still goes to work, gets promoted, has romantic entanglements, helps her friends. Her mom, Maggie, throws herself into the details of managing her husband’s care. Her brother David is a successful public defender, but his work has lost its meaning and he just wants to be with his newborn son. I get it: I lost my job about six months after my mother died, because I’d just stopped paying attention. So many different characters on this show echo my own loss and my inability to deal with the impact of grief, which kept its hold on me far longer than I could possibly have anticipated. What’s long enough to get through grief? A week? A month? A year? Five years, ten?
And who would’ve thought you could balance a deep exploration of grieving with constant singing and dancing and make it work? Austin Winsberg created the show after losing his father to Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP)—the same disease as Mitch—that made him unable to move or communicate. “What if the way my dad saw the world when he was dying was through big musical numbers?” Winsberg told Entertainment Weekly. “That was my way in to the show. It actually made me feel happy. It actually felt joyous rather than just sad, the idea that suddenly he had this musical take on the world.” Maybe this is why I continue to feel emotionally full after watching each episode, even as it jolts me back to some of my saddest moments, like in Episode 11 of Season 1, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Mother.”
When Zoey’s family goes to the funeral home to make plans for Mitch, Maggie delivers a desperate rendition of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and is joined in by every other person there for the same reason she is. As I watched, I was jerked back to my own experience at the funeral home where my mother was cremated. My anti-funeral home rant is always on deck and ready to go, but I’ll skip it for the moment and just say that the song spoke to me in a way it never had before—and made a very surreal moment feel like it was rooted in the deepest reality possible. I remember laughing, even at the time, about how awful it was, but if I had the pipes and the bravado, that’s the song I would’ve been singing. Maybe screaming.
And lest you think this is a bleak depressing watch, I haven’t explained it right, because there’s comedy everywhere. From the funeral director (played by writer-director Paul Feig, one of the executive producers) telling Zoey and her family that “we have poets on hand, some of them are very good at haiku” to a hilarious attempting-to-have-sex scene where someone (I won’t say who) keeps belting out songs as things get hot and heavy, the show manages to be absurd in just the right way. The dialogue is whip-smart, and you never know who’s going to burst out in song and what that song’s going to be. One minute Bernadette Peters shows up in an unforgettably gorgeous coat to belt out Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” and the next, Zoey’s two love interests are doing an almost-duet to Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again On My Own.” Kudos to choreographer Mandy Moore—no, not THAT Mandy Moore—for her relentless creativity, episode after episode. “Here I Go Again” included a perfectly timed elevator moment that was truly inspired.
Also inspired: the casting. Zoey’s parents are played to perfection by Mary Steenburgen and Peter Gallagher. Another familiar face: Lauren Graham (in Season 1), who can do no wrong in my book thanks to Gilmore Girls and Parenthood. There’s ample musical talent in the Jane Levy-led cast: Alex Newell of Glee fame plays Zoey’s neighbor, and most of the main cast has serious Broadway cred. Gallagher isn’t known for his singing, but Mary Steenburgen had a fascinating and bizarre experience in 2017, when she emerged from anesthesia for minor surgery with a completely new relationship to music. “The best way I can describe it is that it just felt like my brain was only music, and that everything anybody said to me became musical. All of my thoughts became musical,” she said, making her a perfect casting choice for this high-concept show. (She was subsequently signed to Universal Music as a songwriter and now has dozens of songwriting credits.) Whether they’re singing and dancing like pros or making their way through an interpretive dance and warbling like the rest of us, every single performer makes those heart songs work. The song choices are surprising and delightful.
Star Jane Levy (now a Golden Globe nominee for Best Television Actress in a Musical/Comedy Series) manages to carry it all: the heavy emotional weight, the lighthearted banter, the utter confusion about what she’s going through and how she’s supposed to react to it, and the absurdity of life along with its tragedies. If that isn’t a perfect show for these times, I don’t know what is. Have I been crying while writing this? Maybe. But I’ve been singing, too.