A couple of years ago, a good, funny sitcom, an actual breezily satiric comedy, arrived on ABC. It was called Suburgatory and involved the travails of a teenage girl raised in Manhattan, but moved to the suburbs by her worried single dad. The main character, Tessa, had a biting take on all things suburban. It was a jaunty, likeable show that rested mainly on the shoulders of Jane Levy, who played Tessa.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (Sunday, NBC, CTV, 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., two episodes) is also anchored by Levy – and sublimely so. Like Suburgatory, this new series is a highly unusual item on network TV. It’s a risky, expansive show – not quite comedy, drama or musical, though it has elements of all three. It’s been some time since mainstream TV shifted from variations on the police procedural and the family sitcom, so in that context, this show borders on extraordinary.
All you need to savour it is a bit of soulfulness and tolerance for whimsy. Levy plays Zoey, who works in one of those startup tech firms somewhere near San Francisco. She’s a little bit brilliant and a little bit shy. She is also worried about her mom (Mary Steenburgen), who is now caring for her dad (Peter Gallagher), who has become severely restricted mentally and physically by a neurological condition.
One day, after Zooey’s been having a lot of headaches, she has an MRI. Something happens when she’s briefly in the MRI machine, so that when she emerges, she has this odd new ability – when she encounters certain people, she understands their innermost thoughts through music. A snippet of a song appears in her head, or, as happens in the opening episode, an entire street of people launch into a full-on stage-musical production of Help! by the Beatles.
Not since Glee aired on Fox has music been used in such an inventive, plot-driving manner. Zoey, a rather standoffish and self-effacing millennial, can suddenly see the vulnerabilities and anxieties of others. Besides, her life sometimes erupts into singing-and-dancing ensemble performances that are unfolding in the workplace or on the street. There’s one thing you can say for this series – no expense was spared. Obtaining rights to powerful songs isn’t cheap, and those big performance numbers are choreographed and executed without regard for budget constraints.
In a way, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist harks back to two much-loved series from about 15 years ago – the twisted wit and flaky sensitivity of Wonderfalls, starring Caroline Dhavernas, and the subdued but acute spirituality of Joan of Arcadia, starring Amber Tamblyn. Both featured young women as savant-like figures with formidable insight. Here, with Zoey, the connection between her coming-of-age self and her incapacitated father is what gives the series an emotional heft, certainly in early episodes.
It’s not perfect, this gem. Zoey’s next-door neighbour in a less-than-nuanced character named Mo (Alex Newell), and the neighbour’s fervent feelings about music seem to exist only to mentor Zoey. Also, while the workplace setting is an eye-popping creation, some of the male characters who surround Zoey are one-note figures in the early episodes. But then there’s a nice turn from Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls) as Zoey’s boss. It is brimming with both joy and compassion, this strange contrivance, and highly recommended.
Also airing this weekend
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (Sunday, Crave/HBO, 11 p.m.) finally returns after what seems like a very long absence. Or maybe it’s just that so much has happened and Oliver’s take on things has been AWOL. The show could probably do with freshening its format. While often scathingly hilarious, Oliver does tend to sermonize with the vigour of a young priest and just adds rude jokes to the sermon.
Outlander (Sunday, W network, 9 p.m.) is back for its fifth season, and this column’s heart is beating fast. Whither Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and her manly but sweet guy Jamie (Sam Heughan)? They are in the Carolinas at the end of the 18th century and Claire, being from the future, of course, knows what’s coming: revolution. In an advance clip, Claire says, “If I am to keep us safe here, then time, space, history be damned.” She’s the boss.
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