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Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist is the Grey's Anatomy Musical Episode All Over Again

Dr. Callie Torres woke from her coma and walked so that the new NBC musical comedy could run.
  • Jane Levy channels her best Sara Ramirez in NBC's new musical dramedy Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist. (Photos: ABC, NBC)
    Jane Levy channels her best Sara Ramirez in NBC's new musical dramedy Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist. (Photos: ABC, NBC)

    Last night's "sneak peek" of NBC's Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist presented something unusual in the current TV landscape. The magical-realist premise is that Zoey (the charming Jane Levy), who works among the various flavors of today's bro at some Modern Tech Company, attains the ability to hear the inner thoughts of everyone around her, expressed in the form of fully choreographed productions of familiar pop songs. It's a little bit Glee, a little bit Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and if we're being completely honest: a little bit excruciating.

    Despite the best efforts of Levy, as well as Mary Steenburgen and Peter Gallagher, who play Levy's parents in the show's most emotionally potent storyline (Gallagher's character is suffering from a medical condition that's left him catatonic), Zoey's musical productions all feel too manicured and plucked from the Big Book of Overused 20th Century Pop. You've got "Help!" and "I Think I Love You" and when it comes time for a current-decade hit, it's trusty ol' DJ Kahled ("All I Do Is Win"). More often than not, it's like a Carpool Karaoke segment with backup dancers.

    You want to be able to say that at the very least, Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist is unique. That no other show currently on television has delivered a premise quite this singular. Except that would be wrong. Because this exact premise was the setup for one of TV's great beautiful disasters: the Grey's Anatomy musical episode.

    Devised as the flex of all flexes for Shonda Rhimes' blockbuster medical drama, as well as a showcase for the show's Tony Award-winning actress Sara Ramirez, "Song Beneath the Song" was the 18th episode of Grey's Anatomy's 7th season, and it featured every major cast member singing songs from the show's celebrated soundtrack over the years. The premise saw Ramirez's character, Dr. Callie Torres, badly injured in a car accident just seconds after her girlfriend, Arizona (Jessica Capshaw), proposed to her. Wheeled into the hospital by her friends and co-workers, barely hanging onto consciousness, Callie starts to hear everyone around her singing. The songs are vaguely thematically-connected to what's happening on screen, and Callie begins to panic at what's happening to her.

    On Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, there's no traumatic car accident to kick things off; instead, Zoey ends up getting an MRI — during which the attendant tries to calm her overt anxiety by playing a Pandora playlist — which is interrupted by a earthquake. So, yes, all your jokes about how Zoey gained her ability to hear the world's most milquetoast pop hits by getting bit by a radioactive Pandora station are essentially correct. But from there on out, the premise is the same as the Grey's episode: everybody starts singing, and she has no idea why.

    The Grey's Anatomy musical episode was almost universally regarded as a disaster, due to many factors, among them cast members who couldn't really sing (god bless you, Chyler Leigh, you tried), the melodramatics of the medical plot (both Callie and her unborn baby's lives hung in the balance throughout the episode), and the general silliness of the premise. Of course, in the right mindset, none of the above are true deal-breakers, and while you never fully shake the sense that you're watching something misbegotten and disastrous, it's also, in a weird way, completely compelling, if only for its sheer audacity.

    Somewhat fascinatingly, the premise of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist happens to match the real-life story of cast-member Mary Steenburgen, who in real life awoke from surgery hearing music all around her. It's part of how she wrote the Oscar-contending song for the indie film Wild Rose.

    One of the small disappointments of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist is that its shortcomings make it grating but not a full-on campy disaster. That's what the Grey's Anatomy musical episode became: a full-throated, dramatically audacious ten-car pile-up that you had to see to believe (largely due to the powerhouse pipes of Sara Ramirez). Judging from last night's premiere, Zoey can't touch it.

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Grey's Anatomy, ABC, NBC, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Jane Levy, Sara Ramirez, TV Musicals