- Margaret A. Robbins, Ph.D
Zoe’s Extraordinary Playlist and Grief
Right now, between a worldwide pandemic and a civil rights revolution, our country is in a state of grief. Grief has phases: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, and the grieving process is not always a linear one. Sometimes, I feel like America is in a state of denial about the pandemic, to the point where it’s unhealthy for us. Some are in a state of anger at people who don’t appear to be doing their part, and I think it will be a while before we fully understand the impact it has had on us as individuals and as a nation. People’s state of grief regarding the protests and civil rights movement for #blacklivesmatter runs the gamut, but we’ve all probably been in the anger phase at some point, now more than likely somewhere in between depression and accepting the fact that we need to move forward toward actual change.
In the midst of social upheaval and a health crisis, a show with musical numbers can bring us joy, and Zoe’s Extraordinary Playlist does just that. Amidst challenging times both personally with her terminally ill father and a complicated relationship with her male best friend and also professionally with her work promotion, Zoe suddenly develops a superpower: to see and understand people’s deepest thoughts. When this happens, the people involved sing her their thoughts through song and are not even aware that they are doing so. While these situations sometimes become problematic, the power often helps Zoe in the long run, as she’s better to empathize with others and give them advice. In this time of physical illness and social upheaval to overcome the societal illness of racism, empathy is an important concept to notice and discuss in popular culture.
The show does include the somewhat hackneyed love triangle trope. Zoe is unsure if she more so loves Max, her male best friend at work, or Simon, a colleague of hers who is engaged at the start of the season. The aspect of the love triangle that is a little bit more nuanced is that it’s not entirely clear which man is the better choice for her. Yet the romance element of the plot is secondary to Zoe’s family’s struggle around her father Mitch’s impending death from PSP, or Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. Zoe helping her boss and her other friends, such as her neighbor Mo, with their professional and romantic struggles is a welcome escape from the major issue in her own life. However, Mitch’s condition is unfortunately irreversible, and Zoe’s family has to face the music, literally and metaphorically, of his upcoming early death.
Therefore, while the show is a workplace romance drama at first glance, it is actually about grief, as the characters come to terms with Mitch’s impending death. The season finale is a moving tribute to Zoe’s father and has a long musical performance sequence of the well-known song “American Pie.” At a time during which our country faces great turmoil, the literal death of Zoe’s father and the more metaphorical death of her naivety are timely during current world’s events. The song “American Pie” has bittersweet and nostalgic elements, and the closing number was perfect for the season’s finale and also our country’s finale of our former “normal” state. The show’s writers likely did not foresee current events when writing this episode of the show, but the timing ended up being in sync.
However, on the show and hopefully for our country as well, amid death and ending, there is hope for a better future. As the first season comes to a close, we as viewers are unsure whether Max of Simon will be Zoe’s romantic partner. Yet we know that her future as a supervising computer programmer is bright and that she’ll have a strong support system from her colleagues, family, and friends as she grieves her father’s loss. In uncertain times, as the United States grieves and also moves forward with new understandings and goals, community becomes important. Zoe’s superpower allows her to become more attuned to other people’s wants and needs. When, in the process, will she become more aware of her own wants and needs? I believe that will be a theme of Season 2. This show is a great one to watch when you need a reminder of the power of relationships and community amid uncertainty, grief, and self-discovery.
Zoe's Extraordinary Playlist airs on NBC and is now available to stream on Hulu.