If fictional TV characters Ally McBeal and Eli Stone had a love child, it would be Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy). She's the winsome title character on NBC's most refreshing musical to date, Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, which premiered with a sneak peak in January and moves to its more permanent timeslot on Sunday.
Like Ally and Eli did on their self-titled romantic musicals, Zoey can hear tunes others can't. It's a power the awkward computer coder inherits following a mishap during a standard MRI scan. Armed but initially burdened with the ability to hear people's heart songs, Zoey eventually comes to appreciate her gift and her opportunity to connect with loved ones and even strangers on a deeper level. Loved ones like her father Mitch (a now cuddly Peter Gallagher), who is slowly dying from a neurological disorder that has rendered him speechless, and Zoey's office bestie Max (Skylar Astin), who secretly has a crush on her. There's also Zoey's boss Joan (Lauren Graham) and Zoey's neighbor and confidant Mo (Alex Newell).
Sure, Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist is derivative of Ally McBeal and Eli Stone -- it's even set in San Francisco like the latter -- but viewers under 25 aren't familiar with those shows so this musical will seem super original. Besides, at least Zoey isn't a lawyer. And the lovable people in her life are unique and talented enough in their own right to make this show fun and fresh-ish. As Mo so wisely points out in the pilot, "Songs are just an expression of our deepest desires" and NBC's desire to make this show a success is abundantly clear in the high production quality, pricey song licensing, choreography, and casting, and Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist is all the better for it.
For instance, Broadway fans know Gallagher can sing but the average viewer will be blown away by his ability to not only belt out a ballad but to touch the heart with songs like "True Colors." Graham also has a couple of performances worthy of The Masked Singer when she delivers empowering pop hits such as Katy Perry's "Roar." (Unfortunately, Graham fans will have to wait until the third installment, which airs Feb. 23, to hear and see her perform.) Astin, who will eternally be Jesse from the Pitch Perfect movies, also shines with a ditty here and there. Levy and Mary Steenburgen, who costars as Zoey's mom Maggie, aren't as vocally strong as everyone else but they figure out cute little ways to downplay their warbling weaknesses.
Viewers will also have to be patient with Newell's character Mo. Although he is a welcome and spicy addition to the cast with the vocals of an angel, there are far too many moments where he crosses the line into stereotypical gay black sidekick territory, replete with fabulous costumes, wigs, eye rolls, and catchphrases. Thankfully, Mo gains depth in the fourth installment which delves into his backstory and raison d'etre.
But it all comes back to Levy, who does a great job bouncing from scene to scene as a sweet-faced millennial who doesn't know a lot about music but has a real knack for helping out those in need. This is the price of her power, of course, but a lesser actress would have been too syrupy-sweet to relate to. As she proved on Suburgatory, Levy has a ridiculously expressive face as well as the necessary comedic timing to headline a series and make you want to watch. This time around, you'll even want to sing.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist will air an encore of its pilot Sunday, Feb. 16 at 8/7c before the premiere of its second and newest installment at 9/8c on NBC.