Are you a Zoey or a Rob? On ‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’ and ‘High Fidelity,’ music is the lingua franca
In an upcoming episode of “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” — NBC’s splashy new musical-comedy series in which the title character is exposed to the innermost thoughts of people around her in the form of well-known pop songs — Zoey’s neighbor Mo sings the Platters’ mid-1950s doo-wop classic “The Great Pretender.”
For Zoey, played by Jane Levy, Mo’s performance (which, per the show’s premise, only she can hear) affords her some insight into the quiet struggle of an outwardly confident pal. But for Mo, whose obsession with music is the first thing we’re made to understand about him, it’s also an embodiment of the deeply personal claim we fellow obsessives stake to our favorite songs.
As sung more than half a century ago by the Platters, “The Great Pretender” invites us to imagine a man putting on a brave face after a breakup leaves him “adrift in a world of my own.” When Mo sings it, though — as a gender-nonconforming man trying to square his identity with the strictures of his religion — the tune sounds like it was written for no purpose other than the one he’s brought to it. It’s a beautiful performance by actor Alex Newell — and a savvy act of curation by the show’s creative team — that gets precisely at what it is to be a fan.
“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” whose “Great Pretender” episode is set to air Sunday night, isn’t the only new TV series thinking through the ways that music lovers bend songs to the particulars of their lives. There’s also “High Fidelity,” Hulu’s 10-episode remake of the 2000 movie starring John Cusack (itself an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel), in which Zoë Kravitz plays a lovelorn record-shop owner with a carefully assembled mixtape to commemorate each of her many heartbreaks.
Sitting in her vinyl-lined apartment, wearing silky green pajama pants and a faded Beastie Boys T-shirt, Kravitz’s character Rob — short for Robin in a welcome gender-flip of Cusack’s and Hornby’s scruffy man-children — drops the needle on Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain” in the show’s pilot as she smokes a cigarette and ponders her latest relationship gone bust. We’ve only just met her, but already we understand Peebles’ “sweet memories” as Rob’s own — a kind of emotional ventriloquism that grows richer in later scenes involving songs by Stevie Wonder, Nick Drake and David Bowie.
Like the secret singers around Zoey, Rob uses music to express the complicated feelings she can’t quite articulate herself. (Insert “Zoë’s Extraordinary Playlist” joke here.) Yet for all they share in representing that connection, the two series take different views of what we might call the politics of fandom. “High Fidelity” proudly represents the self-appointed expert, whereas “Zoey’s” strikes a more “populist” tone, as the show’s creator, Austin Winsberg, described it to me the other day.
A lifelong Angeleno who grew up listening to Top 40 radio but “was never the guy who could name every band playing the Roxy or the Troubadour,” Winsberg said he wanted the songs on his show to be familiar to virtually any viewer; in addition to “The Great Pretender,” tunes featured so far have included Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” and the Beatles’ “Help!”
The way Winsberg sees it, his best bet for having a musical number succeed — in terms of developing plot or character — is to ensure that the audience already knows the song; that way viewers can focus on the interpretation or the dramatic context of the scene in which the song is being performed. But he’s also a believer in pop as a mass experience available to be shared by all — a conviction you feel vividly in the “Help!” sequence, which has dozens of people singing the song on the streets of San Francisco (where Zoey works as a computer programmer).
“High Fidelity,” in contrast, features countless shots of Rob walking her Brooklyn neighborhood with giant headphones clamped on her ears, lost inside her private universe. Her relatively obscure selections — assembled in real life with help from the Roots’ Questlove, who served as the show’s executive music producer — are meant to demonstrate her connoisseur’s taste — and of course to flatter those in the audience who don’t need Shazam to identify Minor Threat’s “I Don’t Wanna Hear It” or “Electric Relaxation” by A Tribe Called Quest.
Even so, there’s a subtle shift in the rock snobbery depicted in this “High Fidelity” — mostly in scenes where some hapless customer walks into the record store and requests the wrong thing — as compared to the book and movie. Sarah Kucserka, who created the Hulu series with Veronica West (and who briefly worked alongside Winsberg on the forgotten early-2000s WB series “Glory Days”), told me she thinks of Rob’s attitude toward those less knowledgeable about music as closer to pity than to scorn.
“She’s like, ‘Oh man, you could love this — what went wrong?’” Kucserka said, adding that Kravitz’s character reflects the happy embrace of mainstream pop by even the most discriminating members of her millennial generation. “Which is the opposite of that ’90s world I grew up in, which was: ‘This is only good because three people have heard it,’” she said with a laugh.
Why the change? As with basically everything else connected to music, the rise of digital streaming — with its blurring of once-distinct (and once-hierarchical) genres and eras — feels like a driver of how fandom is represented in these shows. Ease of access to the history of recorded music has demystified the expert’s special powers even as it’s encouraged casual listeners to listen with an expert’s curiosity; what’s more, now the only thing separating an obscure single from a global smash might be a few months’ time.
Hollywood has no doubt taken notice of music’s new gold rush: Along with “High Fidelity” and “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” networks and streaming services are filling the airwaves and the internet with other music-based titles, including the CW’s “Katy Keene” and “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” on Disney+. Pointing to successful movie musicals like “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman” — and to TV’s “Glee,” which he acknowledged as a clear predecessor — Winsberg attributed the glut in part to the natural desire to duplicate a winning formula. (Indeed, “Zoey’s” has a deal with Republic Records to release performances from the show à la “Glee”'s arrangement with Columbia Records.)
But both he and Kucserka also think there’s something about our “unsettling times,” as Kucserka put it, that draws viewers toward music “not just to escape but to know that other people feel the way you do.”
Winsberg, who was inspired to create his show after his father was diagnosed with a neurological disease that prevented him from talking, said that what musicals offer is “wish fulfillment,” and it’s easy to see why he thinks so: In the show, Zoey’s dad (played by Peter Gallagher) suffers from the same condition and is finally able to communicate through the music in Zoey’s head. Any fan, though, knows what he says is true.
We may pick the songs we want to listen to. But they tell us what we need to hear.
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