Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” (NBC) isn’t “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” … or “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” … or “Zoey 101.” Watching the pilot episode of the series (which will return Feb. 16, in its regular Sunday slot), I could never forget that it is trying to cash in on the current popularity of musicals and that it uses a title that evokes things people already like. That said, this series — whose producers include “Freaks and Geeks’ ” Paul Feig and “The Perfection’s” Richard Shepard (who directs the first episode) — is far from terrible.
The versatile Jane Levy, who played a wry teen in “Suburgatory” and a thief in “Don’t Breathe,” is the adorkable lead of the title – but not too adorkable. She’s in line for a promotion at the coding company run by Lauren Graham’s Joan, but if she doesn’t get it, it will be because she’s too meek and modest, not because she’s too quirky.
That’s the more-appealing-than-you’d-think tone of this episode written by Davah Avena and Austin Winsberg: These cusp-of-30 millennials are snarky and quippy, but not in the totally self-centered way I feared. The premise of “ZXP,” in fact, is that people bottle up their feelings. Zoey, after a goofy (but I assume the writers know it’s goofy) MRI/earthquake superpower-origin story, gains the ability to read people’s thoughts and feelings via that person singing.
Zoey is the one person whose thoughts we don’t learn via song, but she’s also the person we know best, and she is likeable, relatable and self-aware. In her interview for that promotion, she jokes that she doesn’t particularly like working with other people – after all, that’s why she became a coder.
The pilot episode delivers a pitch-perfect example of a person crushing on someone, believing that person likes them back, only to be hit with the bombshell revelation of a previously unknown significant other. The feelings were going one way all along, and that can make a person feel pretty small.
That’s communicated via writing and acting, not with a song. So, actually, when “ZXP” does break out its playlist, it’s not necessarily the best part of the show, as it often was with “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Glee” and “Rise.” Partly it’s because these songs aren’t original (although they are expensive) – for example, the Beatles’ “Help,” Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” and The Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You.” Partly it’s because the dance numbers that go with them are merely OK.
I knew when I saw name actor Peter Gallagher cast as Zoey’s dad, who can’t speak and can barely move, that Zoey would see him perform a song – Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” as it turns out. It’s not at all surprising, and it’s a bit schmaltzy.
I’m glad “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s” Skylar Astin, as Zoey’s coworker Max, has another role where he can belt out songs, because he’s good at it. At the same time, every time he sings a familiar tune, I’m going to think about how “ZXP” is not “CXG.” This series doesn’t produce original songs, and it’s not as daring overall. So far, Zoey leans toward having TV problems more so than real-world problems.
Still, Levy is darn appealing, and you could do a lot worse among the glut of music dramedies (see “Perfect Harmony” — or better yet, don’t). Come Feb. 16, I might just flip “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” to Side B.