Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist

This show has heart, a whole big load of it and something we really need right now is a show about empathy, in a big, overblown, musical number kind of way.

Zoey Clarke is a programmer for a tech-firm in San Francisco.  Her father is very ill and she’s concerned it may be inherited so to set her mind at ease goes for an MRI.  She’s nervous so the technician gives her some music to listen to but as soon as she’s in the machine, the city has one of its infamous minor quakes.  One improbable plot device later and Zoey gains the power of ultra-empathy as the innermost thoughts of people around her are performed to her as song and dance numbers.  At first, it’s anyone she comes across but later on it, thankfully, gets more focussed on her nearest and dearest.

The obvious comparison is to ‘Glee’ but it’s got a bit of an ‘Ugly Betty’ in there with the melodrama toned down somewhat.  It’s big on the feel-good factor and I’ve shed more than a few tears at some of the lovely, touching moments.

The message of this show is that you never know what someone else is going through.  You see what they want you to see, or what you choose to see.  People have problems they can’t express because they’re held back by shame or pride and it just takes one person to ask them how they’re feeling to make a difference.

Obviously, as with anyone new to having powers, Zoey is shocked, bemused and overwhelmed but as each episode passes, she learns to deal with it and with some help, she learns that she can help others in a big way through small gestures.

I love a musical and they’re executed superbly here, the choreographer of the show being one Mandy Moore.  Some of the singing has that over-produced Glee quality and I’m not sure if all the actors are singing their parts but given that the show relies heavily on a fantasy element, it doesn’t matter.  There are some genuine laugh out loud moments when a character will suddenly burst into song, and in some of the song choices.

One of the cute touches in this show is that Zoey has terrible musical knowledge, she’s rarely heard of any of the songs being sung to her and she doesn’t have much of a clue of any of the artists’ names.  Maybe this is where it’s also really clever in that she’s properly listening to what the person is saying without having anything filtered out by an emotional attachment to any of the songs.

To help in deciphering some of the messages, and telling her what the actual songs are, is Zoey’s across-the-hall neighbour Mo, who played by Alex Newell is a revelation.  Their first appearance comes right at the start of the show and they just drop straight into the role of fun, witty sidekick but as we later learn, there’s a lot more going on with Mo.

The rest of the regular supporting cast is outstanding, having binge-watched seven seasons of ‘The Gilmore Girls’, as well as the special, I’m always going to have a soft spot for Lauren Graham.  Here she plays Zoey’s’ spikey boss, Joan.

Mary Steenburgen, as always is lovely, and here she’s Zoey’s Mum, Maggie Clark with Peter Gallagher as her Dad, Mitch. He’s battling a degenerative neurological disease, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), so it’s hard for him to communicate but as the show progresses, and with Zoey’s new power, we come to hear him with as much clarity as we do anyone else.   This core of the story is how Zoey and her family deal with Mitch’s declining condition and it’s based on the show’s creator Austin Winsbergs’ experience with his own father.

Everyone else is pretty much unknown (to me) but her office crush Simon, played by John Clarence Stewart and her co-worker/friend, Max (Skylar Astin) play a couple of very sweet, handsome guys.  There’s a fascinating and very complicated interplay between these three characters as Zoey isn’t sure which one she likes more, or does she like both equally, or both equally but in different ways, or…. It gets complicated.

I also really enjoyed the occasional cameo from some recognisable faces: Justin Kirk (Angels in America), Renee Elise Goldsberry (The Good Wife) and the ubiquitously awesome Bernadette Peters.

If I were to try to categorise this show, I would say it was a musical / superhero / comedy / drama.  At the time of writing, this hasn’t yet been renewed for a second season, but needless to say, I hope it is.

NetworkNBC / Netflix
CastJane Levy, as Zoey Clarke
Skylar Astin, as Max
Alex Newell, as Mo
John Clarence Stewart, as Simon
Peter Gallagher, as Mitch Clarke
Mary Steenburgen, as Maggie Clarke
Lauren Graham, as Joan
SeasonS1 (2020): 12 episodes

Normal People

Based on the successful book by Sally Rooney, this adaption, co-scripted by Rooney, tells the tale of Connell and Marianne.   Growing up in the Irish town of Sligo, they’ve known each other since they were 12 but only really begin to interact after Connell’s mum goes to work for Marianne’s mum as a cleaner.  Connell is quiet, thoughtful and popular; Marianne, is intelligent, assertive but alienates people and so is friendless.  Connell is pretty much the only other person that interacts with Marianne in any positive way and in her inimitably assertive way, she declares that she ‘likes him’ in the first episode.   They then embark on a secret affair, the secrecy is a destructive choice made by Connell out of fear of being judged by his friends for going out with the unpopular girl, and Marianne goes along with it out of fear of being rejected.

The story takes us from their last year of school to their last year at college and it’s as much of an emotional rollercoaster as you’re likely to go on.  The story has its very dark times but there are lighter moments and also ones of great beauty.  Some very complex issues are addressed such as the mental health of young men, domestic abuse and explorations of sexuality.   It’s in looking at these issues that this series excels, some of the scenes are heart-breaking and go right into your core to make you connect deeply with the characters.  They don’t seem like plot devices or the ‘issue of the week’, they seem like problems we all have, or easily could have.

Having watched endless movies and tv shows, read many books and listened to many songs, we’ve been conditioned into thinking that most relationships are between two fairly well-balanced people.  Often there’s some kind of quirk, or obstacle, but that’s overcome and usually there’s a positive resolution.   About halfway through this series I realised I was watching a story portraying real people, normal people.  Real people are fucked up, they have issues, they make mistakes.  Most people are fundamentally decent and have the best intentions, but emotional baggage, trauma and peer pressure throw bumps into our paths that prevent us from reaching the end in one perfect piece.

I guess one of the more controversial aspects of this show is in its depiction of sexuality.  I’ve never seen it as deftly, respectfully and so intimately portrayed as it is here. The tenderness in some scenes is palpable and stops just before it becomes intrusive or lurid so that we’re left with a deeper understanding of the protagonists.  Those scenes drive the story forward rather than becoming the reason for watching.

The two leads, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal both give incredible performances that make me excited to see what they’ll do next.   They imbue the characters with the truth required to tell the story of these two complicated individuals.  Marianne comes across as spikey and unlikeable (but cuttingly witty) when we first meet her but then we quickly gain some understanding and then fall in love with her.  Callum is a character you fall in love with instantly and that grows as the series progresses.  This isn’t to say they’re perfect, they really aren’t but despite the mistakes, the bad choices, the careless words or actions, they are a couple of good young people.

Aside from the two leads, I thought the character of Connell’s Mum, Lorraine played by Sarah Greene was the other outstanding role in this series.  Through her, you see why Connell is so morally grounded, she’s warm, loving and supportive of his choices but not afraid to put him right even if there’s a threat of alienating him.    Marianne’s mum, on the other hand, couldn’t be more different, and then there’s her brother…

The production of this show was impeccably done, there’s an idyllic quality to every location, from the home they repeatedly return to in Sligo to their lives at Trinity College in Dublin, to the house in Trieste, Italy and to Marianne’s year in Sweden.   The music is also perfectly chosen to suit every mood and is worth listening to in its own right as a soundtrack.

Normal People – The Soundtrack

One track that stood out for me, in episode two, was the appropriately titled ‘Hide and Seek’ by Imogen Heap as Connell and Marianne embark on their secretive relationship.  I recognised the tune and then the lyrics seemed familiar before it finally dawned on me that Matt Alber covered this on his 2008 album ‘Hide Nothing’, it was such a pleasure to hear this beautiful song in this beautiful story.  For those who don’t know Matt’s version, here it is:

Rather than binge-watch this, I wanted to enjoy it like you would a good meal or an expensive bottle of wine.  We watched it over the space of two weeks and in fact, I started watching it alone but by the second episode was so captivated that I got my partner to join me, so I watched it again from the start.    Having looked forward to every episode and just revelling in its beauty, I was enjoying the journey so much that I didn’t want it to end.  I was a little afraid that after all the brave storytelling there would be a ‘too-neat’ resolution but no, this is a masterclass in how to produce a satisfying resolution without resorting to tying everything up perfectly.

NetworkBBC / Hulu
CastDaisy Edgar-Jones, as Marianne Sheridan
Paul Mescal, as Connell Waldron
SeasonLimited Series (2020): 12 episodes