Say this for “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”: The expansiveness of its music-rights budget is to be admired.
In the pilot, Zoey (Jane Levy) hears the inner thoughts of those around her, as expressed through a group performance of the Beatles’s “Help!” It’s a splashy statement of purpose for a show whose willingness to spend on big-name songs covers over some other sins. Zoey can hear what’s going on inside anyone she meets put to music, but the fact that those songs come from the familiar songbook of big, broadly recognizable emotions limits just how much complication or shading the show can achieve. People around Zoey are enamored, or happy, or really sad; they’re too rarely anything that would take more than a couple of words to describe, anything that merits a lengthy musical performance. The ambitions of “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” seem, in its early going, more focused on assembling that legitimately impressive playlist than in making it really sing.
Zoey, a San Francisco-based computer programmer, is given little in the way of personality other than broadly appealing traits for a protagonist. She loves her family and works hard at her job. (Levy is an appealing enough performer to carry off a slightly written character like this one, but she’s working hard, too.) The performances she hears tend not to be at the level of Levy’s own non-singing performance. In casting actors not known for their singing, the show hews to the longstanding practice of digitally sweetening performances so much that they sound less like the human voice than like the a synthesizer approximating song. (Levy’s co-star, Skylar Astin, appeared in the “Pitch Perfect” films, a forerunner of this trend.)
These mixed-bag performances speaking to big, obvious emotional beats — Levy’s coworker is sad, so he sings “Mad World,” a contender for the most morose song ever — tend to overshadow what in the show works interestingly and well. The plot about Zoey’s family life puts the show’s musical conceit to moving use. Her father (Peter Gallagher), afflicted with a degenerative illness, can newly communicate with her through song in a way he no longer can through spoken word, and rises to sing about what he desires only to sink back into silence. These transitions between father-daughter communion and emptiness are movingly done, not least because — in a detail that is not overdrawn — Zoey’s sparking new power may, possibly, be more than coincidental with a family history of neurological issues.
It’s a mystery that isn’t solved, nor does it need to be; Zoey’s power is interesting less for how it occurred than for what it can show her about herself and the world around her. The development of her family story over the show’s first two hours suggest a drama with a growing awareness about the most interesting way to use its premise. After a splashy, somewhat obvious beginning, the show may yet come into itself.