Review: Stick with ‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,' despite its flaws

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WHAT: "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist"

WHEN: Premieres in its regular time slot, Sundays at 9 p.m. on Feb. 16 on NBC

WHAT IT’S ABOUT: When San Francisco coder Zoe Clarke (Jane Levy, “Suburgatory”) gets an MRI for headaches, something freaky happens: A bunch of old songs are downloaded into her brain, and when she later sees strangers on the street, she can read their inner thoughts, which are expressed in song-and-dance. Same thing happens with her co-workers at the Big Tech company where she is angling for a manager spot. They include close friend Max (Skylar Astin) who reveals his inner thoughts via the Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker,” or Simon (John Clarence Stewart), the guy she has a secret crush on. Her neighbor, Mo (Alex Newell) is amused by this talent, but Zoey — whose father (Peter Gallagher) is comatose after a stroke and whose mother (Mary Steenburgen) is just coping — is horrified.

MY SAY: “I left my heeeeaarrttt in San Francisco …” For some crazy reason, that’s the song that went through my head during “Zoey,” but — failing to recall the rest of the words — it just went on repeat (“I left my heart … I left my heart …”) Soon enough, I started to think, “fine, stay in San Francisco for all I care.”

With its well-worn tunes, “earworms” and overly familiar playlist, “Zoey” can do that to you after a while. The songs in the recently aired pilot, which once meant something to a great many people, have now turned into sonic wallpaper — the adult contemporary elevator soundtrack to our lives, on an endless loop. Her playlist therefore isn’t “extraordinary” so much as an instrument of torture. It’s the gateway to Zoey’s own private hell, where Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” doesn’t just cycle through her head but inspires an impromptu softshoe by a stranger on the street.

Which raises another question: What self-respecting millennial would have a playlist like this anyway? That’s the whole idea, or better part of the decent joke here. No self-respecting millennial would. In an opening scene, Zoey cryptically refers to her own tastes which aren’t necessarily even musical ones (she’s a podcast fan). So where these songs came from and why to her remains its abiding mystery.

Maybe we’ll get answer some day, or maybe an answer doesn’t matter, but the show does, and that’s where “Zoey” gets complicated, and at moments commodified into just another network product that demands instant emotional engagement from the viewer without earning it first.

Meanwhile, there are eccentricities. A zombified Peter Gallagher can be off-putting enough but a suddenly animated Peter Gallagher who breaks into Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” is just plain weird. You’ll want to recall during this musical interlude that Gallagher is in fact an accomplished Broadway veteran (and starred in the ‘92 revival of “Guys and Dolls”).

He’s not alone in the experience department either. Astin, from the “Pitch Perfects” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” launched in “Spring Awakening.” Newell was in the recent revival of “Once on This Island,” not to mention “Glee.” There is talent here and the numbers are well-staged, while the opener to February’s second episode — set to Kiki Dee’s old hot jam hit, “I’ve Got the Music in Me” — is terrific.

So here’s my friendly New Year’s advice: Stick with “Zoey.” Get past the treacle, network cliches, and force-fed emotions, and it does improve. Earworms, too.

BOTTOM LINE: “Zoey” unsteadily launches a new decade for network TV, but where there’s talent, there’s promise. “Zoey” at least has both.


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