Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist. PHOTO: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC
Music and grief have always been inextricably linked. There are endless lists of ballads to the ones who have gone before. For instance, the episode of Glee after the death of Cory Monteith (who played Finn Hudson) is one of the most memorable episodes ever. The new musical-dramedy Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist makes use of a supernatural element to depict the main character’s grief and in turn, is cathartic for both the protagonist and the viewer.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist follows the character of Zoey (Jane Levy) who is a programmer who experiences an earthquake while she is getting an MRI. After this, she is able to sporadically hear the thoughts of other people as elaborate musical numbers that she calls “heart songs.” Zoe’s father, Mitch (Peter Gallagher) has been diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) - a terminal illness which results in him losing the ability to speak. The heart songs are one of the only ways that Zoey can communicate with him.
The concept is based on creator Austin Winsberg’s own experience after dealing with his father’s diagnosis of PSP which resulted his eventual death. The show is lifted from what happened in his personal life, as well as how suddenly this diagnosis subsequently took a toll on the entire family. It makes you wonder if the show was Winsberg’s own form of grieving and catharsis – a way to create a world where he could have communicated with his father during the last few months of his life.
Throughout the first season, we explore not only Zoey’s relationship with her father, but with her job, her romantic interests, her friendships and with herself. The heart songs help her become more self-confident and prompt her to start living her life instead of just being a bystander. It’s clear that her father was worried about how Zoey would handle her grief. As the heart songs allow her to connect to other people, Zoey is able to build up a support system to deal with the inevitable.
What makes Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist interesting is that we are seeing Zoey and her family mourn their father while he is still alive. We only see what Mitch was like before he fell ill in flashbacks (and when he is singing and dancing during his heart songs). When we meet him, he is already ill so Zoey and the family are mourning the person he used to be. They also know that they have to prepare for the inevitable – a life without Mitch. Through this, we get to see how Zoey, her mother and her brother deal with this.
Masked between fun musical numbers and comedic love triangles is a very real story of the journey of grief. And although the heart songs are a supernatural element, it also talks to the use of music – not only to express our grief – but our hearts’ desires. Although Zoey is fun and comedic and adorable, it is not simply a light show to pass the time with, it’s a beautiful and relatable story about family, love and most of all – learning to say goodbye.
- Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist is available to stream on Showmax