Review: TV captures the power of pop music in ‘High Fidelity,’ ‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’
Two new television comedies use pop music — the way it colors our thoughts, guides our steps, expresses our longings, underscores our fears — as an organizing principle. Hulu’s “High Fidelity” updates the Nick Hornby novel/John Cusack movie about a record shop owner’s romantic misadventures, while NBC’s “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” makes that principle literal: Its protagonist becomes a sort of helpless human radio receiving the song-expressed thoughts of friends, relations, colleagues and passersby. (“She hears the soundtrack of your life” is its log line.)
“High Fidelity” premieres on Valentine’s Day, appropriately. Developed by Veronica West and Sarah Kucserka, it’s set in Brooklyn (after the book’s London and the movie’s Chicago), which has not yet exhausted its use as a setting of hipster dramedy, and recasts the white male lead as black woman Zoë Kravitz.
For the record:
11:46 AM, Feb. 12, 2020A previous version of this story incorrectly identified a song performed by Lauren Graham in “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” as “The Eye of the Tiger.” The song is “Roar.” Additionally, “Zoey’s” premieres Feb. 16, not Feb. 15, as stated previously.
Kravitz plays Rob, record store owner and current sad case. (The return of vinyl is fortuitous: Record stores are a thing again.) As in the film, Rob narrates to the camera — and, as in both earlier versions, will revisit old flames in the wake of a breakup to come to terms with the serial failures of her romantic life. (Kingsley Ben-Adir plays Mac, the super-catch she drives away; as we begin, she has been mourning their broken relationship for a year.)
The scenes that serve this theme are fine, and often funny. Kravitz does the neat trick of seeming appealing even while, despite being the genetically advantaged daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet, she gives a surprisingly good impression of a depressed schlub. Her Rob is an analog person in a digital age, stuck in her own past, not ready to grow up or move on. The cracked screen of her cellphone is all the visual metaphor you need.
Supporting her at work and in life are two temperamentally distinct employees — woolly-headed Simon (David H. Holmes) and permanently fierce Cherise (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) — who regard Rob with a kind of maternal concern. Some may find it a troubling mystery that their store, once again named Championship Vinyl, stays in business in a city of high rents, especially given the staff’s apathetic-to-hostile approach to customer service. (When a customer wanders in, that is, which is rarely.) Mostly, they play records, make lists and argue — say, over whether the moral failings of pop stars should prevent one from listening to their music.
It goes almost without saying that this “High Fidelity” is not primarily pitched to fans of the 20-year-old Cusack film, any more than the film was pitched to fans of the 25-year-old Hornby novel. (They are welcome, of course.) It seems clear, too, that in 2020, the story of a sad and obsessive white man-boy and his music-filtered problems would be a less-than-compelling pitch. Bring on the woman-girl!
But even here, the romantic narrative is less interesting than Rob’s scenes with Simon and Cherise, or their scenes without her. Randolph is the show’s stealth star, as Jack Black, in the analogous part, was in the film. Cherise’s own minor story line — weaponizing her taste and making anger aspirational, she decides to form a band — feels potentially major, in a way the major narrative does not. But it’s all well-played, good-looking, enjoyable modern light entertainment, with a side of social satire. I’m inclined to recommend it.
Debuting two days after “High Fidelity” (though its pilot is already streaming online), “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” may remind we few who watched it of “Eli Stone,” the 2008 ABC series in which Jonny Lee Miller played a hallucinating lawyer whose visions sometimes took the form of musical numbers. (Musical numbers intruding into ordinary life is, of course, the definition of … a musical.) But “Playlist” really runs with the concept.
Zoey (Jane Levy) is a San Francisco tech worker, who, out of the random intersection of an MRI, a streaming music service and an earthquake, finds her brain science-magically altered: Other people’s thoughts come unbidden into her head in the form of familiar pop songs, sung by the thinkers, often as part of large, nicely choreographed, adroitly staged production numbers.
Levy is an actor whose gifts are perfectly shaped for series television, someone you can watch week after week without tiring, a manic pixie dream girl minus the mania. Her Zoey is a bit of a klutz, a bit of a goof, a little tight, a little timid and, like Rob in “High Fidelity,” a veteran of failed relationships.
Created by Austin Winsberg (“Jake in Progress”), “Playlist” is constructed from familiar romantic comedy characters and plot lines. There are Zoey’s rivalrous coworkers, not counting the pal (Skylar Astin) with the secret crush on her, and the new guy (John Clarence Stewart) she finds interesting. There is the eccentric boss (Lauren Graham) who makes her a reluctant confidant. There is the noisy neighbor (Alex Newell), as big and flamboyant a person as Zoey is a small and inward one, in whom she confides her troubling superpower, making a friend in the bargain. (Neighbor: “This is the first thing I find remotely interesting about you.”)
And there is an ailing parent. From the moment Zoey acquires her unwanted superpower, you understand that it is a key that will open the locked door of her father, who suffers from a neurological disease that keeps him mute and rigid, and who is played by Peter Gallagher, surely not hired merely to sit, grimace and stare. Mary Steenburgen plays her mother, who thinks she has a handle on things. It’s a great cast.
The show has a streak of corniness, not surprising for a show built around mostly mainstream pop songs — “True Colors,” “Satisfaction,” “Mad World,” “Moondance,” “I’ve Got the Music in Me,” “How Can I Mend a Broken Heart?” But the performances balance whatever’s obvious in the script, and the musical numbers are energetic enough to distract you from any cognitive dissonances they create. Do all of the people singing the Beatles’ “Help!” at Zoey on the streets of San Francisco really feel down? Appreciate her being around?
Does it matter? Like pop music itself, “Zoeys Extraordinary Playlist” can be simplistic and undemanding even as it suggests something deep and meaningful. It’s also the only show on television where you can see Lauren Graham perform Katy Perry’s “Roar,” and there is much to be said for that.
‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)
When: Any time, starting 9 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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