It started with Glee. Well, actually, it started with Cop Rock, a short-lived musical drama from 1990 in which LAPD officers fight crime in between musical numbers. It was a bizarre experiment, critically panned, and yet Hollywood clearly hasn’t learned its lesson. That’s evident with NBC’s new dramedy, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.
The premise is touted as “high-concept,” which feels like code for “highly questionable.” Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy) is a coder at a fancy San Francisco tech company who is extremely unversed in music (she’s more of a podcast gal). After a freakish incident inside an MRI machine, Zoey gains the power to read the minds of those around her, including her terminally ill father (Peter Gallagher), her work husband (Pitch Perfect‘s Skylar Astin), and assorted horny women on the street. But—and here’s where the “high-concept” comes into play—she can only hear these inner thoughts and emotions in the form of popular songs, performed by the actors with exuberant dance numbers included. Take, for instance, Zoey walking down the streets of San Francisco while everybody’s singing and dancing to The Beatles’ “Help!,” because they’re all in need of connection! Human bonding and understanding! It’s Tech Bro Rock!
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, which premieres tonight, actually has promise. There’s a certain level of emotional depth there, even if it uses a cutesy, annoying premise to make a plea for people to actually connect and lead with love. But the musical numbers… dear god. With the exception of Glee alum Alex Newell, who plays Zoey’s flamboyant gay neighbor with a not-so-subtle Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess’ character in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) edge who delivers room-quaking vocal performances, the musical numbers are painfully whitewashed and Kidz Bop-ian. Also, watching Lauren Graham (who plays Zoey’s tough tech boss) awkwardly do jazz hands is kind of upsetting.
As a person with a degree in theater, who spent many years box-stepping and warbling the alto parts in Oliver!, Hello Dolly! and countless others, I’m not opposed to musicals. I may be one of the few people that developed a slight distaste for musical theater as a result of early overexposure, but I still have love for the art form and believe in its power to entertain and provide important representation to communities who deeply need it. Disparaging musical theater is a hate crime. However, musical TV shows need to be put to a stop. If I have to watch another white person blandly chirp through a cover of a 90s R&B song, painfully body-rolling throughout, I will toss myself into the ocean and offer my soul to Poseidon. The flavorlessness of the covers in these musical series tends to be their biggest weakness, and where they can easily fall into corny territory.
The popularity of 2001’s Moulin Rouge! helped bring the musical spectacular back in Hollywood. While the 90s had some cult musical classics—like Cry-Baby, Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, and the awards-friendly Evita—the movie musical remained a mostly dead form. When Baz Luhrmann trotted out Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in a romantic, visually explosive musical where they sang pop-rock covers like Elton John’s “Your Song” in a stylized, refreshing way, the people were smitten, even if critics had mixed feelings. It’s easy to draw a throughline from the popularity of Moulin Rouge! to the onslaught that followed, with 2002’s Chicago, 2005’s The Producers and Rent, 2006’s Dreamgirls, 2007’s Hairspray and Across the Universe, the current pop culture thud known as Cats, and others. The popularity of 2012’s Pitch Perfect and its sequels kept the theater kids rich in audition material, and forced us to live through Anna Kendrick’s cringy cup-based performance of “Cups (When I’m Gone).”
The razzle dazzle that sparked on the big screen was translated on the smaller screen with 2006’s High School Musical and its sequels and the 2009 premiere of Glee, arguably to far less exuberant or rousing results than when we first heard Ewan McGregor cover Elton John. Some really fantastic TV versions did emerge, and shone bright; 2007’s Flight of the Conchords and 2015’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend pushed the genre to fun, kooky places, and 2019’s Guava Island fueled it with tropical effervescence and social consciousness—and of course there were other not-so-great ones (remember Smash?). The network live musical has also found a sweet spot for viewers of the hate-watch variety that revel in the camp factor of those productions. Alison Williams’ Tinkerbell wig in Peter Pan Live! alone was a sight to behold.
The screen musical revival went from a vibrant return to a beloved form, and flattened into watered-down entertainment safe for wider audiences and lacking in the originality and sparkle that makes people love them. What made Moulin Rouge! dazzle audiences got Xerox copied to death until it barely mustered a shimmer. There’s still room to make these series, but it’s clear they need major reinvigoration. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is certainly attempting to do that, as is Netflix’s Soundtrack, which premiered on December, in case you didn’t notice (and who did?). ( Soundtrack uses interspersed pop performances to tell the story of two people falling in love and chasing their dreams of stardom in LA.)
It’s still early days for Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, which may find an audience with theater kids of all ages who will latch on to its cheese-heavy musical performances. So far, there’s very little hope that audiences will get anything fresh, or dare I say cool, out of the newest crop of musical series, though it can be argued that musicals in general lack coolness and provide a home for the cool-free, and that’s what makes them special.