When a show appears out of nowhere on my TV grid in the middle of December, I have to assume that it’s ... not that good. Sorry, it's how I was raised: August and December were always the traditional network burnoff months, the low-viewing purgatory where busted pilots got dumped along with unseen episodes of shows that had previously “gone on hiatus,” in that off-to-rehab euphemism of the TV business. Just last week some of us around the Primetimer offices were expressing concern about NBC airing a whole bunch of episodes of Making It, the project show where Nick Offerman finally shows us his sexy side, in the first two weeks of December. But hey! It tied Stumptown in the demo one night, so fingers crossed.
Anyway, we keep hearing how Netflix, and streaming generally, is so not like network television. And yet it kind of looks like Netflix went ahead and offloaded its least-promising shows in the black hole of December — V Wars, which our Josh Zyber described as “of laughable quality” and “a very cheap show”; the second season of Lost in Space, a remake nobody asked for; and a couple of B-tier comedy specials.
So you can imagine my trepidation at peeling back the lid on Soundtrack, a musical series dropping this month on Netflix, where fresh-faced actors sing covers of pop songs, just like they used to do on Glee. Not raising my hopes was the foreknowledge that Soundtrack had been in development a long time, so long that its original title was — I am not making this up — Mixtape. Not every slow-gestating show lacks promise, but given that this very concept was executed perfectly only 10 years ago by the same studio (Fox produced both Glee and Soundtrack), the long delay did not bode well. Plus, December.
Well, my fears were unfounded, though I can see what took so long to get this ear- and eye-pleasing show out of production hell and onto the red letter N bursting into a spectrum of colors.
Soundtrack is a musical romance set in the gentrifying parts of L.A. That much I can say with confidence. From there it gets hodgepodgey. It’s set both in the present day and in 2009, the action periodically shifting between the two decades. Mm hmm, just like that show. But there’s also some South Central thug life and broken-family drama. Oh, and also young artists searching for fame, or at least a job that doesn’t involve food and drinks.
Before I confuse you further by talking about the music, let me just say this is all smoothed over very nicely in that most television of ways. In Soundtrack’s opening scene, Paul James, who plays one of the show’s leading characters, speaks into the camera.
“Every song is a love song,” he declares. “Even a diss track! Biggie loves to hate Tupac. Fleetwood loves to hate Mac. Nicki loves and hates everyone! … Whoever, whatever, it’s just love. It's what we’re here for.”
The monologue goes on much longer than that, and we could argue its millennial-friendly premise — trust me, not every song in the Eighties was a love song. Still, the message is true. At its heart Soundtrack is a musical in which socially and verbally awkward humans can only express their deepest emotions for each other by bursting into spot-on songs, set to choreography.
Over the course of ten episodes, the eight lives featured in Soundtrack will intertwine, starting with Sam and Nellie. Sam — he’s the Paul James character — is widowed with a young son named Barry (Isaiah Givens). And Nellie, played by Callie Hernandez, is Barry’s mom. For those of you who don’t watch This Is Us, this is not only not a spoiler, it’s actually essential to enjoying the rest of the show. Because now we’re going to go back 10 years to learn how Daddy met Nellie.
Creator Joshua Safran has assembled a good crew of writers to weave all the threads together. The dialogue of Sam and Nellie’s first date crackles, and an exchange between aspiring dancer Joanna (Jenna Dewan) and a blubbering stranger in the second episode was so nice I played it twice.
They’re both about to audition for the same production. They’re in the ladies’ room, where the other woman is having a meltdown because she has sister who’s a mess and won’t stop calling her.
“Deep breath, OK?” Joanna begins. “These auditions are good metaphors for shit life throws at us. Out there, they tell us what to do — it’s fast, it’s loud — they don’t wait for us to get it, we just have to get it. I close my eyes, I take a moment, I make sure I know where I am, and I just do it.” That monologue goes on, too, but it all rings true and tells us a little about Joanna, who we’re just getting to know at the end of hour two.
So about the music: As best as I can tell, each of the eight leads is lip-syncing to cover songs that they recorded beforehand. In some episodes two songs are mashed up into a kind of duet between two of the leads. For instance the second episode, set in 2009, ends with Joanna and Nellie trading lines from two songs of that period — Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally” and Duffy’s hit “Mercy.”
The whole arrangement was meta enough to set my head spinning, on top of which I stopped following pop music in about 1992. (I’m grateful to Justin Curto’s excellent explainer on the process of acquiring the soundtrack of Soundtrack.) In the end all I cared about, and all you’ll probably care about, is that if you turn the captions on while people are singing, you’ll understand these characters better.
In episode we learn more about Sam’s aunt Annette (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who runs a restaurant. It’s hard work, financially precarious, and is taking a toll on her, which she lets onto by breaking into “Take It to the Limit.” Yes, by the Eagles, although as a caption helpfully noted, it’s actually Etta James covering “Take It to the Limit,” which she did on a 1977 album. But it’s not Etta James we hear — it’s Marianne Jean-Baptiste doing her best Etta James doing her best Randy Meisner.
Anyway, it’s a great choice of tune for that moment, as are all the tunes, and sometimes it’s best not to overthink things, like why a promising show like Soundtrack is dropping in December.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.