Why NBC's 'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist' gets emotional with Van Morrison, Jonas Brothers tunes
Imagine if you could hear other people's thoughts.
Now imagine if all those thoughts were famous pop songs, and your brain was the living, breathing, dancing equivalent of a jukebox you could never switch off.
That's the unique dilemma Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy) finds herself in after getting an MRI during an earthquake: Everyone's deepest desires, anxieties and fantasies become elaborate musical numbers in her mind.
That cute co-worker she's been friends with forever? Zoey discovers he has a secret crush after he serenades her with the Jonas Brothers' "Sucker" during an important meeting. And that chipper barista at her local coffee shop? She's actually super lonely, which Zoey learns after hearing her belt Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" during a midday shift.
Music is the soul of NBC's "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist" (Sundays at 9), but is Zoey hallucinating, or does she have a higher calling? The series has an emotional core behind its cutesy concept. The surreal, whimsical dramedy was created by Austin Winsberg (Broadway's "First Date"), who was inspired to write it after his father died in 2011 following a battle with Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), a rare neurological disorder that rendered him speechless and immobile.
"I was thinking about the last six months of my dad's life, and how my whole family didn't really know what was going on in his head during that time," Winsberg says. "Because I had a bit of a musical background, I had the idea one day of, 'What if my dad saw the world during that time as a musical?' "
In the series, Zoey's dad, Mitch (Peter Gallagher), also has PSP, and it's a constant struggle for her, mom Maggie (Mary Steenburgen) and brother David (Andrew Leeds) to communicate with him. But in one of many fantasy musical sequences, Zoey hears Mitch crooning Van Morrison's "Moondance," expressing his desire to reconnect with his wife.
Winsberg is "talking about something that impacted his life very profoundly," says Steenburgen, whose own mother suffered from a similar illness. "So in addition to all the parts of (the show) that deal with flights of imagination and music and dance, there's also this grounding reality a lot of people are living with who will be watching the show, sitting next to somebody they're being a caregiver to. I feel the need to honor them."
Levy, who starred in ABC's 2011-14 comedy "Suburgatory," had no professional singing or dancing experience, and says it was "really humbling" to be thrown into a role that requires vast amounts of both.
The actress says she can relate to many of Zoey's neuroses, as she tries to navigate a big promotion, demanding boss (Lauren Graham) and office love triangle with co-workers (Skylar Astin and John Clarence Stewart) at their San Francisco-based tech startup.
"When we meet her, she's in the process of losing her father," Levy says. "She is a (computer) coder, so she has a very mathematical, problem-solving brain, and is constantly trying to control things so that she doesn't have a breakdown. And what happens with this new gift is that she starts to gain some empathy and compassion, and a wider worldview."
Winsberg says he managed to get permission to use every hit song he wanted for "Zoey." He wrote heartfelt letters to musical idols including Paul Simon, the Beastie Boys and Van Morrison, explaining his dad's story and why their music was important to the show.
"Moondance," in particular, "was definitely a real nail-biter, and we wanted to do whatever we could to get Van Morrison himself to say yes to it," Winsberg says. But ultimately, being on set and watching Gallagher and Steenburgen dance to it, "I wrote on Facebook that day, 'I got to see my parents dance together today.' And that was definitely one of the days they felt very emotional and impactful."
Contributing: Gary Levin