Warning: Plot spoilers for the show Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist are below.
I’m a big fan of musicals.
While seeing a musical on stage is my preferred method of consumption, I will gladly accept it in any form. This includes quirky TV shows.
I was a big fan of the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I thought it did a wonderful job of bringing musical theater to the small screen. When I heard about the premise for Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, I wondered if it would just be a carbon copy of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Turns out, it’s not.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is more in line with traditional musicals. The songs forward the plot and (in most cases) characters do not acknowledge they are singing. Most importantly, the songs are original. Over 100 songs were written for the show over its four-season run.
In Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, the songs themselves are a plot device. Zoey is a software coder whose life is changed after an earthquake occurs while she’s getting an MRI. Something in her brain goes haywire, and now she can hear people’s most private thoughts. People unknowingly convey their deepest feelings to Zoey through — you guessed it! — song.
Unlike Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the songs featured in Playlist are not originals. As I watched the pilot episode, I was disappointed to hear nothing but tired pop songs. In my view, this was not a real musical show. I was about to dismiss the show entirely as something akin to a jukebox musical on Broadway. Still, I decided to stick around for the second episode. I’m glad I did.
A Much Needed Message
Yes, I’d prefer a musical show to contain original songs. But the message of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is beautiful. By the end of the second episode, I had tears in my eyes. It won me over.
At its core, the show is about realizing how complex people are. What we see isn’t what we get. There is so much going on inside a person beyond the happy face they show to the world. This is a message we desperately need right now.
As I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized Zoey has the superpower of empathy. By getting a raw glimpse into how a person is feeling, Zoey can respond with kindness and compassion.
Watching the show has given me a desire to want to be more empathetic to the people around me. Here are a few examples of the ways Zoey has tapped into the power of empathy.
Empathy for Those in Tough Circumstances
One of the saddest story arcs is that Zoey’s dad, Mitch, has a neurological disease called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. The disease has taken away his ability to move and speak. This is frustrating because although his mind still works, communication is difficult.
When Mitch sings a song encouraging Zoey, she realizes her dad is still all there, albeit trapped in a body that won’t cooperate. It helps her connect with him again.
Zoey is also able to help other family members make connections with Mitch. In one episode, she witnesses Mitch sing the song Moondance (by Van Morrison) to his wife, Maggie. The song holds a special place in their love story. With this knowledge, Zoey helps her parents reminisce on their first kiss.
Maggie is also going through a rough time since she has now become Mitch’s primary caregiver. Although she puts on a brave face, Zoey sees she is feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Knowing this, Zoey offers to help and not let all the responsibilities fall on her mother.
Like Zoey, we are surrounded by family and friends in tough circumstances. Is there anything we can do to come alongside them and lighten their burden a bit?
Empathy for Those With Secret Hurts
A common theme of Playlist is we don’t know what hurts people are hiding from us. A smile and confident attitude can be used to mask a lot of pain.
Take Simon, Zoey’s co-worker. He seems ready to conquer the world, but then Zoey sees him singing a sad song. After some prodding, Simon reveals he’s still in pieces over his father’s recent suicide.
Then there’s Mo, Zoey’s neighbor. Mo, like Simon, comes across as confident and put together. But then Zoey learns Mo is genderfluid and is afraid of what his church community will think of him if they found out.
Knowing these secrets doesn’t mean Zoey can fix everything for Simon and Mo. Empathy doesn’t mean “fixing” people’s problems. It means sitting in the pain with them, listening, and supporting them in whatever way we can.
Is there anyone we know who is hurting? How can we sit with them in their pain?
Empathy for Those Who Are Lonely
Zoey works as a coder at a tech company. Her boss, Joan, comes across as brash and all business. Zoey is intimidated by her.
But as Joan unknowingly sings her feelings to Zoey, Zoey sees a different side of Joan. Zoey finds out Joan is stuck in a bad marriage. She feels lonely and forgotten, and Zoey decides to be a friend to her.
Zoey also has an agoraphobic neighbor. Although they’ve never met, Zoey hears her singing from inside her apartment. She has a longing to visit a tropical island. (The song Zoey hears her sing is Kokomo by the Beach Boys!) After a bit of coaxing, Zoey helps her take a small step beyond her apartment door. It’s not the tropics, but it’s progress!
We lead such busy lives. It seems like every moment of the day is packed to the brim. But if we take a little time to stop and look around, we may find people who are longing for connection.
Empathy for Our Enemies
One of the most poignant and touching moments of Playlist came at the end of episode 2. It was the moment that made me a fan of the show.
Zoey gets a promotion and is put in charge of a team of coders. Thanks to her power, Zoey realizes the other coders are not happy to have her as their manager. A colleague named Leif is especially sour Zoey got the promotion instead of him.
How does Zoey handle this conflict? She gathers her team together and reads an entry from her private journal to them. The entry was written on her first day working for the company. She wrote about how happy she is to be working with such a brilliant group of coders. She mentions Leif by name and how much she admires his coding skills.
At that moment, we see Leif’s entire demeanor change. He stops seeing Zoey as a threat and begins seeing her as a leader. Zoey unifies the team, not through force, but kindness.
We may not think we have any “enemies.” But who are the people we see as a threat? Who are the people in our lives we can’t get along with? Those are the people who might need to experience kindness from us the most.
The One Character I Worry About
I’m glad to see a show that celebrates empathy and kindness. But as good as Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is, there is one character I worry about. And that’s Zoey.
Having empathy is not a one-person job. Even superheroes need help. As Zoey runs around helping the people in her life, I wonder if she’ll get burnt out. Now that she’s in touch with the emotions of those around her, she’s become a trusted confidant. But does she have anyone to confide in?
I am hopeful the show will address this. At the end of episode 4, Zoey meets a pastor from Mo’s church. He gives her some advice, and I’m guessing he will become someone who Zoey learns to trust. I also wonder if, at some point, Zoey will sing a song to herself, helping her identify the emotions she has.
For me, the show is a reminder that we need each other. We need to be vulnerable enough to share our stories with others. And we need to be empathetic enough to carry the weight of the people’s stories.
It takes patience. It takes kindness. It takes love.
But if we did it, imagine how extraordinary the world would be.