“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” centers on an emotionally contained coder who’s shaken up after an earthquake occurs during her MRI. Upon turning a street corner, she sees a middle-aged man in a disheveled suit, immovable among the bustling sidewalk traffic.
“Help, I need somebody,” he seems to sing. “Help, not just anybody. Help, you know I need someone…"
A few people join in, then a few more. And, wow, even more. Zoey soon finds herself standing in a San Francisco intersection, surrounded by 70 strangers belting out the Beatles hit: “Won’t you please, please help me?”
This anthemic rendition of “Help!” is the first major musical moment of the NBC series, which airs its first two episodes Sunday. It illustrates that Zoey (played by Jane Levy) possesses a newfound power: She can hear other people’s innermost thoughts and feelings — as well-known pop songs.
“Sometimes the message behind the song is very clear, other times it needs deciphering or it’s a metaphor,” showrunner Austin Winsberg told The Times. “Zoey tries to understand why that person is singing that song, and whether she can become a bit more empathetic and help them.”
The performance is a far cry from the song-and-dances of previous musical TV shows, which often heighten the visual aesthetics once the beat begins. Grins get wider, colors grow saturated; actors lip-sync while looking at the camera from a stage that has suddenly materialized. They mostly feel like music videos that interrupt the dialogue.
Instead, “Help!” is staged as if life actually were a musical and people randomly broke out into song to express themselves. There’s no extra prop to grab, no other outfit on hand. You just sing what you feel, wherever you are, with whatever you have.
“It’s totally unusual because it’s a big musical number, but not in the way people would normally expect,” said the episode’s director, Richard Shepard. “The pilot has to grab people in some capacity, so we had to figure how to do something to tell people that this show is going to be different than other things they’ve seen.”
For starters, the 70 performers vary wildly in age, ethnicity and body shape; they look like actual San Franciscans, rather than Hollywood versions of San Franciscans. Choreographer Mandy Moore called for performers in Los Angeles and San Francisco who ranged from 18 to 65 years old and from an assortment of dance backgrounds.
“I think we’re just done with casting that doesn’t reflect our world, which is full of different shapes and colors and kinds of people,” said Moore. “And to me, a dance is always more interesting when it involves many different bodies.”
Though the song lasts only two minutes, it required extensive preparation, since a couple dozen voices are strategically assigned to specific lines. “And now my life has changed in oh so many ways,” sings one woman with a baby in her arms. “My independence seems to vanish in the haze,” a man adds, as his fiancée admires her ring.
“We watched hundreds of auditions just to get the right person for one line of singing,” said Winsberg. “Trying to coordinate this was basically like doing an entire pilot on its own!”
Winsberg, Shepard and Moore flew to San Francisco three times to scout locations and secure city permissions. “The location itself informs the entire thing,” Shepard explained. “Certain shots became clear: appearing over a hill, running down a hill, singing on trolley cars, with the Transamerica [Pyramid] building in the background. We had huge expectations for what we wanted to do: Shoot in the middle of a major intersection — without getting run over.”
Filming of the sequence took place in April, after the rest of the episode — featuring Skylar Astin, Alex Newell, Peter Gallagher, Mary Steenburgen and Lauren Graham — had wrapped in Vancouver, Canada. Moore rehearsed with performers and camera operators the night before in a parking lot, applying tape to the ground to reflect the perimeter of their route. The city blocked off streets in North Beach, and production designer Rusty Smith outfitted one corner as an urban commons.
The day-and-a-half shoot went off without snafus. “We lucked out — it was sunny when we wanted it to be and not when we didn’t want it to be,” Shepard said. “That’s when you know the TV gods were smiling down on you, because we did not have a plan B. Had it been pouring rain, you would’ve found the crew at the bar down the street, and I wouldn’t be talking to you right now!”
Throughout the number — captured with long takes and minimal cuts — the performers sing together but they don’t look at each other. First they stare off into space, then they’re directly facing Zoey. And they never smile.
For Zoey, who doesn’t understand her psychic ability and has never heard the song before, it’s overwhelming. But viewers who’ve sung along to the 1965 hit might be surprised by how the upbeat track is staged: spectacularly, yes, but with a shade of sadness and just a touch of hope.
“The song sounds peppy and joyful, but the lyrics aren’t saying that at all,” said Moore, who choreographed the second episode’s take on Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” with a similar emotional juxtaposition.
That’s exactly why it’s the perfect song choice. “Who in the world doesn’t need help at any given time? Who isn’t hurting in some way?” said Winsberg. “This is a collective cry from the people around her, all at the same time. And it also felt like a good representation for where we are right now as a country, emotionally.
“Even though that’s a sad thing to think about, I wanted this to feel kind of comforting,” he added. “When you think about it, this need is a way in which we’re all connected.”
‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’
When: 8 and 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)