Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” and the importance of world-building

Winter Term. The doldrums of every Lawrentian’s life. Having gone through three Winter Terms successfully, I thought myself well-equipped to navigate the brutal malaise of classes conducted in only six hours of daylight, the siren call of blowing off work, the naps lying in wait. And then suddenly, like a single drop of antimatter dropped into the core of a star, my delicate equilibrium was detonated in conflagration of furiously pure emotion, emotion that is only forged in the heart of dying dreams. Unfamiliar with what I describe? Then watch “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” for yourself.

For those who did not see the millions of Hulu ads, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” is a show that premiered this January, and currently only the first episode is available on Hulu. The concept is simple: a young woman becomes gifted with the ability to hear the thoughts of others. However, she hears those thoughts as songs from American pop culture of the last half century, thus giving an excuse for all the highly attractive people in the show to sing and dance. “What a great idea,” everyone who was sold on this show said. “It’s a great concept, it’s a clever concept. It’s foolproof.” 

And it is a good concept. But oh, studio executives, how wrong you were. You have fallen to one of the classic blunders. The most famous blunder is to never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well known is this: never confuse a great idea for a great product. It is a long, long road taking a great concept and making it into a great product. And once you get into the details of a great concept, it takes effort to build the world — effort that this show lacks in spades. 

The most common failures of great ideas are in execution and world-building. And this show absolutely revels in a lack of world-building. The premise of Zoey seeing and hearing people’s thoughts as musical numbers is completely un-fleshed out. When the people sing, what is Zoey seeing? Is she seeing a mirage? Is she able to touch these people dancing? Maybe she is in a potentially life-threatening hallucinatory state. Imagine for a second that Zoey sees a ton of people singing “Help Me” and dancing in the street. If a character happens to stand in front of an oncoming Toyota Camry, is the character hit or does the car pass through them? When Zoey stands in the middle of an intersection with lots of people dancing around her, is she hallucinating all this and actually in mortal danger from traffic? Or is she standing in a trance, right where she first stood at the beginning of the song, imagining everything happening? It could be that Zoey is not seeing this all in real time, and what she sees as a three-minute long number is actually only a couple of seconds. But when she is walking down the street, we clearly hear the woman next to her walking and thought-singing at the same time. These are specifics of how her power works that need to be addressed immediately, because the lack of any answers just makes viewers confused. The fact that they are not addressed at all in the first episode’s 45-minute runtime says, clear as day, that the writers gave no thought to these specifics either.

In fact, I will go ahead and say the writers are flat-out lazy. For evidence, look no further than the on-the-nose song selection. Oh, is there a character at work we need to know is depressed? Have them sing “Mad World.” Does a fit-looking guy walk down the road? Have all the ladies leer after him and sing “What a Mighty Fine Man.” Where is the dramatic tension? Where is the nuance? This is the “let’s spend two minutes brainstorming songs for situations” edition. The whole movie has this halfheartedly-brainstormed feel. You can almost imagine the writers staring at a blank page and asking, “What would happen if you could hear people’s thoughts?” and then picking the most boring option! Need Zoey to realize something is wrong with her? Have her see old people on the street sing about needing help. Need Zoey to figure out what is happening or explain what is happening to the audience? Have her neighbor explain it. Why not have Zoey hear that her new co-worker is depressed and use that to get close to him? All the dialogue is equally on-the-nose and horrible. This episode appears to be a rough draft constructed around the writers spending a meager two minutes brainstorming what would happen if you heard people’s thoughts, because the show has 45 whole minutes and still does not manage to establish strong characters, connect the scenes, have an engaging plot or even have engaging, re-watch-on-Youtube-worthy numbers. The most egregious sign of this shoddy writing is when Zoey’s father, who is in a vegetative state, sings to Zoey in his thoughts. I personally nominate this for unearned, wasted moment of the year. But above all, the problem is that nothing drives the show, nothing gives momentum and flow to the scenes, besides the occasional bald machinations of in-over-their-heads writers. 

There are far more problems with the show than just these. Zoey’s father is singing way higher than he should. The dancing is unremarkable. The show emanates a weird desire to be hip, with boomer-worthy lines about millennials and their Adderall dealers. But what makes this so bad is the sheer wasted promise. A studio took a chance on a musical TV show with an intriguing and clever premise. And the writers stalled at the basic level of fleshing out that clever premise into a clever yet logical world. I know this is what happened, because it has happened to me. It has happened to everyone. Every time we get drunk and pitch our friends something like “What if Kohler residents got together every Saturday night and curse someone in a drinking dorm to have a massive hangover?” Once you dig deeper into the details, it takes hard work to fulfill the promise of a clever or interesting premise. And when the work to flesh it out is not done, you are left with this: a work that belongs in the Freshman Studies course because its sheer terribleness will make you at every turn want to dissect the process and decisions behind the final product. To quote Zoey’s annoying and bland best friend, we have so many questions.

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