A very strange and welcome thing has happened this TV season: The broadcast networks are trying again.
You remember the broadcast networks, don’t you? They were mighty beasts that once dominated the earth, with impressive names like National Broadcasting Company or Columbia Broadcasting System (NBC or CBS to their friends). For more than 50 years, they were television, for all intents and purposes, representing everything good, bad, and in-between about the medium. More often than not, they opted for programming that would offend and/or confuse the fewest number of potential viewers. But from time to time, they would aim high and produce a more challenging work of art like All in the Family or Roots or Twin Peaks. Even into the first decade of this century — the early days of the cable-TV insurrection led by The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and other more complex shows like them — the traditional broadcasters were still producing ambitious classics like Lost and Friday Night Lights. As easy as it was to be lured by the new and shiny over at HBO or FX, it was still incredibly satisfying to see something bold happening in one of the places where the medium started.
And then, sometime around when Netflix and Amazon opened up a second front in this war for the nation’s (and the globe’s) eyeballs, the old-fashioned networks more or less gave up. They still provide a place for reliably warm and funny comedies like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Bob’s Burgers. And on very rare occasions, something smart and wholly new like The Good Place will emerge on a broadcaster, as if by accident(*). But for the most part, the people who run the Big Four have seemingly decided that viewers who want anything even slightly complex will look for that on cable or streaming, and that they had best lean on easily-digestible procedural and/or franchise dramas that won’t challenge viewers any more than they seem to have challenged their creators.
(*) True story: Over the summer, a coworker binged the first three Good Place seasons on Netflix, and raved to me about how audacious it was. “They even have fake act-breaks,” he marveled, “like it was made for network TV!” It hadn’t even occurred to him (someone who, like me, grew up on NBC, et. al.) that a show this good and creative could have been produced by a broadcast network at this moment in history.
Yet last fall, I found myself setting DVR season passes for three new broadcast series: Stumptown and Emergence on ABC, and Evil on CBS. None are reinventing the narrative wheel; Stumptown is a private-eye drama, Evil an investigative procedural with hints of supernatural mythology (akin to The X-Files), and Emergence the latest in a long line of network attempts to remix the sci-fi and mystery elements of Lost. But all three nailed the casting of their leads. I care about the larger story on Emergence, for instance, almost entirely because of how charismatic Allison Tolman is as the small-town cop at the center of it. And all three shows seem to be making an effort to sweat the small stuff and find little surprises amid familiar formats, versus the complacency that’s plagued nearly every new broadcast drama over the last five or six years. None of these newbies will be spoken about in hushed tones years from now, but in a crowded Peak TV landscape, I’ve been doing my best to keep up with them.
Perhaps the most notable thing about those three shows is that they all debuted in the fall. To the extent that the broadcasters have attempted to spread their wings of late, it’s tended to be at midseason (American Crime) or in summer (Hannibal, BrainDead). But we got three reasonably smart, and (particularly in the cases of Evil and Emergence) reasonably sprawling network dramas not only in the same season, but at the time of that season that’s mostly been left for the blandest, most formulaic shows in existence.
Which brings us to Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, a new musical dramedy debuting next week on NBC. The show stars Suburgatory‘s Jane Levy as a coder at a San Francisco tech company who, after a mishap in an MRI machine, develops the ability to eavesdrop on other people’s innermost thoughts, but as elaborate musical numbers that only she can see and hear. So when her normally icy boss Joan (Lauren Graham), for instance, begins vamping in the ladies’ room to the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” Zoey has a good idea that Joan can’t get none of the titular feeling — and that the song won’t go away until she tries to help.
It’s a whimsical high concept, the kind which was a network TV staple forever and ever. See also CBS’ Joan of Arcadia(*), where a teenage girl had weekly conversations with God; or Fox’s Wonderfalls, where a directionless young woman began getting ordered around by the tchotchkes in the souvenir shop where she worked; or ABC’s Eli Stone, which also took place in San Francisco and also had a hero who had musical visions. Not quite the dominant format for a medium that never met a cop, doctor, or lawyer drama it didn’t like, it was nonetheless common enough that Zoey wouldn’t have seemed that unusual 10 or 15 or 20 years ago. On the other hand, it would have felt like manna from heaven a year or two ago: a sign that someone, somewhere in Network Land wasn’t content with endless variations on the same two or three franchises.
(*) Joan’s mom was played by Mary Steenburgen, who happens to play Zoey’s mom here. All of this has happened before…
Zoey might still play that way to viewers starved for more lighthearted hour-long shows. (There are a lot of great half-hour drama-comedy hybrids like Fleabag and Russian Doll, but the longer kind are a bit harder to come by, especially since Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend ended early last year.) For the most part, though, Zoey arrives a bit less burdened by the need to carry the torch for broadcast TV as a whole.
But that also means it gets fewer bonus points simply for existing. Judged entirely on its own merits? Well, then Zoey is the kind of show that doesn’t get made much anymore, but a very uneven example of such.
First, the good. The musical numbers are energetic, and the supporting cast is packed with gifted performers in that area. Mo, Zoey’s gender-fluid neighbor and confidante about her new gift, is played by Glee alum Alex Newell. Skylar Astin, who plays Zoey’s best friend and coworker Max, comes from the Pitch Perfect movies and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Peter Gallagher, who plays Zoey’s father Mitch, was once a great Sky Masterson on Broadway. If Gilmore Girls fans fondly recall anything from that show’s final season, it’s Graham’s Lorelai singing “I Will Always Love You” at karaoke.
At times, Zoey creator Austin Winsberg makes potent use of the gimmick, particularly regarding Mitch. In the real world, Zoey’s dad is locked inside his own body due to a degenerative neurological condition. But thanks to her powers, she can see him dance around the living room and belt out “True Colors” and “Moondance,” every bit the comforting and charismatic father she remembers from before he got sick. And Levy is an appealing straight woman in the center of the show’s madness. Again and again with each fantasy sequence, she’s asked to find a new variation on slack-jawed astonishment, and she manages to pull that off.
But the song choices themselves tend to be too literal-minded. One character sings “I Think I Love You” in the presence of their crush. Zoey hears an agoraphobic neighbor singing “Margaritaville” and “Kokomo” and realizes the woman is desperate to leave her apartment and travel. Early on, Mo tells Zoey, “Songs are all just expressions of our deepest wants and desires. Good music can make you feel things you can’t express in words.” But the best songs dabble in metaphor more than Zoey is comfortable with, as if Winsberg and the rest of the creative team feared the song conceit was too confusing in and of itself to make the audience expend additional mental effort to follow it all.
The non-singing portions tend to be even more formulaic and literal. Zoey’s office is a big, colorful space clearly designed to be a good backdrop for production numbers. But all of the conflicts there — Zoey pines for marketing boss Simon (John Clarence Stewart); Zoey struggles to win the approval of both Joan and her smug male colleagues — are generic in the extreme. There are some promising sparks to the odd-couple friendship between repressed Zoey and free spirit Mo, but the scenes involving Mitch’s condition are the only ones that would be compelling in a non-magical version of the series.
Joan of Arcadia, Early Edition, and this show’s other spiritual ancestors needed time to figure out how best to use their magic. In general, this type of show levels up significantly once the hero accepts their weird power and just goes with it. So there’s hope for Zoey, especially with a cast this likable. But it also feels like I’m wish-casting based on what it represents versus what it is so far. And in a season when the broadcast networks are showing a pulse, that kind of blind faith feels less necessary. I’d like for Zoey to really sing, but if it doesn’t, there are plenty of other promising acts out there, for once.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist debuts January 7th on NBC, though additional episodes won’t air until February 16th. (Don’t ask me why.) I‘ve seen the first four.