Sometimes when one is facing down a surprising new skill it’s best to call in the experts.
That’s exactly what the titular character in “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” did when she realized she could see and hear the innermost emotions of those around her coming to life through song and dance in the NBC musical comedy. And in many ways, that’s what the show itself did in its casting.
Zoey, played by Jane Levy, seeks counsel from her music-loving neighbor Mo (Alex Newell) early on in the series, as she struggles to understand her new power because she doesn’t know which song she is hearing or what it is about. Levy had an extensive background in comedy, from Showtime’s “Shameless” to ABC’s “Suburgatory,” but had yet to truly stretch her musical muscles prior to this show. Newell, on the other hand, comes from such a background, even participating in the “biggest boot camp” for the genre, “The Glee Project” and soon after, “Glee.”
Just as Mo advised Zoey about music and the meaning behind it in Season 1, Newell was also able to help Levy adjust to the extra performance demands of the show.
“She was killing herself, going full-out each and every time in rehearsals before we even started shooting,” Newell says. “I told her to pace herself and give a half-performance when the camera’s not on because you don’t want to waste it and you can’t do it again and again and again and again if it’s never going to be seen.”
Levy calls Zoey and Mo “an unlikely couple” because Mo is “artistic and fluid and intuitive and a feelings person,” while “Zoey is a cerebral, mathematical, problem-solving coder.” But both actors say it didn’t take much to create chemistry with each other. It may have helped that in the beginning Zoey and Mo, too, were just finding their way around each other, but very quickly Levy and Newell found a mutual level of respect.
“That’s the base,” Newell says, “and the banter is just us figuring it out as we go.”
Their on-screen friendship may have been borne out of a specific need, but quickly it proved to be about much more.
“Zoey is pretty awkward in relationships,” Levy says. “This is an almost-30-year-old woman who doesn’t have her own family — a boyfriend or a husband or children — and doesn’t seem like that’s even close in her future, and she doesn’t even really have any friends. So, she starts talking to her neighbor, who doesn’t even like her very much [at first] and a relationship develops.”
In the fourth episode of Season 1, when Mo is struggling with being his true self at church, Zoey is able to help him because their relationship and her new power has “strengthened her and [is] teaching her about empathy,” Levy says.
The idea that Mo wouldn’t just be the “tropey best friend who has all the answers” was especially important to Newell, who admits feeling like that is the “thing that I’ve always been” in past work. Through collaboration with showrunner Austin Winsberg, as well as in scene work with Levy, the duo found a flow that felt balanced.
Going into the second season, Zoey is not only still adjusting to her power, but also now grieving the loss of her father. Although things start off with Mo “being the cheerleader” and continued confidante for Zoey, Levy says, he is facing the challenge of being in a long-distance relationship and may need some advice from time to time, too.
“Last season was us going into Zoey’s world and this season is Zoey has to come into our world and see what each character has to offer,” Newell says.