There are some programmes that make you wish there was a special award every year for Hardest Grafting Actors. Not those who are in everything – they are generally earning and being petted enough to make their game worth the candle already. I mean actors who find themselves in a second-rate production and can still be seen giving it their all on screen, selling the shit out of whatever lacklustre material they have been given.
Were there such a piece of industry recognition, the cast of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (E4) would surely be contenders for this year’s prize. What an extraordinary band of high-energy, high-talent people they are, in a show that must have looked so full of potential on paper, but fails.
Jane Levy plays Zoey, a brilliant coder at a San Francisco tech firm, who suddenly develops the ability to hear people’s thoughts and feelings as musical numbers, thanks to an earthquake that takes place while she is having a brain scan. Soon she is an unwilling party to the news that most people you pass on the street are wrestling with some form of misery: her work crush Simon (John Clarence Stewart) is still mourning the death of his father when he was a child; her best friend and colleague Max (Pitch Perfect’s Skylar Austin) is in love with her; and her tyrannical boss Joan (Gilmore Girls’ Lauren Graham) is sexually frustrated.
The musical interludes are the best bits but even these are a mixed bag. The logic of the two-step conceit (that is, hearing thoughts through songs) doesn’t work properly, even if you don’t feel that a two-step conceit is already one step more than a conceit should have. Why do all the people around a thinker-singer join in as choreographed backing artistes, for example? Why would entire groups of unrelated people all suddenly have the same specific gripe? Internal consistency matters.
Then there is the leaden literalness of the song choices on the playlist.
Lonely people get Celine Dion singing All By Myself, as if they aren’t suffering enough. We discover Joan’s problem because she sings the Rolling Stones’ I Can’t Get No Satisfaction in the office loos. Elsewhere, Zoey’s rival for promotion is revealed to be more ambitious than she thought via DJ Khaled’s All I Do Is Win and so, very much, on.
When Zoey first confides in Mo (Glee’s Alex Newell) – whose gender fluidity is a twist that that does nothing to disguise the fact that the character is given little else to do than other than fill the role of the sassy black neighbour, a figure that should have been retired long ago – they explain “good music can make you feel things you can’t express in words”.
This is only partially true – music’s greatest property is surely to express things you are feeling but can’t put into words – and not what’s happening with the characters in Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.
Metaphors, evocation, anything less instantly comprehensible than a woman eyeing a hunk in the street and singing Whatta Man have no place here. When you compare the life, vigour and inventiveness of something like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, with original lyrics pushing the story forward, it seems like even more of a terrible, enervating waste.
There is also a remarkably distasteful strand to the whole thing. Zoey has been given a father (Peter Gallagher, a Broadway veteran as well as an eyebrow-wrangler, it seems) who is paralysed by a non-specific neurological disease. His condition seems to exist solely for the dramatic potential that is unleashed when Zoey goes home and reads his mind (which would surely be the first thing you did if you suddenly developed her gift?) and we see him get up and dance round their living room.
There’s also some woefully underbaked dialogue (“I’ve become a real expert at bottling and hiding my pain and shame from the world,” Simon tells Zoey, as they bond over their troubles after she hears him singing Mad World late one night at the office. “We live in a very, very bad world, Simon,” replies Zoey. “But if you open up … it’s amazing.”)
But the actors – every one of them, every minute – work like Trojans to hold it all together. That they come so close to succeeding – you will pass a mildly diverting hour, maybe even go back once or twice – deserves recognition. An award, perhaps. Or, ideally, better parts in a better show next time.