The Portrayal of Love in Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist & Why I’m Team Max

Give me a friends to lovers trope any day.

Finding a TV show you can stick to is no easy feat. Once you establish that relationship, you need to be aware you’re in it for the long haul, or find yourself in the inverse position when something you have invested your heart and soul into gets cancelled way too soon (I will never get over Netflix not giving Anne With An E a fourth season). So I am happy that NBC’s Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is getting a second season – all the characters get proper development, and the musical elements of the show is simply stellar. After musical TV shows Smash, Glee and My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend have closed shop, it’s nice to have a show that more than ably fills the gap.

Zoey (Jane Levy), as those familiar with the show would know, develops the ability to hear the heart songs of those around her after a botched MRI. These individuals sing their hearts out to her (hence the name), and based on the song (which is usually quite surface-level and doesn’t need much interpreting), she can discern what they are struggling with and try her best to help them.

This gift comes in handy when it comes to her father (played so poignantly by Peter Gallagher) due to his progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), a condition that causes him to lose muscular faculties, making it difficult for him to speak and communicate with his family. This is a situation rooted in reality, for creator Austin Winsburg’s own father suffered from this condition, and Winsburg saw his father go “from being this super dynamic, vibrant, outgoing guy to pretty close to a vegetable”.

Thus, when Zoey hears her father’s first heart song to her, it is an uplifting moment. For the first time in a long time, she is able to communicate with him, and this makes her feel a little less helpless. However, her father’s fate is set in stone, and we the audience know the inevitable outcome of this condition, that her time with her father is limited, and we have arrived in the midst of a terminal countdown.

It is such an unflinching look at how sickness impacts a family; a wife dealing with having to lose the love of her life, a son on the verge of fatherhood has to lose his own first, and a daughter who has walled herself emotionally finds herself tearing these walls down, only to be speared with the sorrows of loss. Be warned, there is many a moment where you will find yourself just sitting there, silent tears sparkling against your cheek and a bleeding heart, forced to contemplate your own relationships and family dynamic. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is emphatic on the fact that loss is necessary, though that doesn’t make dealing with it any less easy.

Loss is the main reason Zoey is drawn to John Clarence Stewart’s Simon. She hears his painful heart song (“Mad World” by Tears for Fears), and discovers that he is bound up in grief over his father’s passing. They find themselves connecting, and her workplace crush develops into something more, which all comes to a screeching halt when she finds out that Simon is engaged. Thus, while they present it as friendship, it is a clear case of emotional cheating on Simon’s part. The show does great work in not villainising Simon, who has created a mess he isn’t sure how to get out of. Zoey is quick to draw the line, but this is only after things have been set ablaze (quite literally). Simon is left to examine the tatters of his relationship with his fiance Jessica, and to ascertain if there is anything left worth saving.

On the other hand, we have Skylar Austin’s Max, Zoey’s best friend and all-round good guy. The pair are fine until Zoey gets her powers and realises Max has feelings for her, and instead of talking to him, she sets him up with another girl. We assume this settles the whole dilemma, until we discover that Zoey does have feelings for Max, feelings that she doesn’t want to own because she is afraid it will ruin their friendship. Her friendship with Max is also one of the stable elements in her life, so it is understandable that she doesn’t want that dynamic to change given the situation with her father.

The show sets up such a compelling love triangle. Simon leans on Zoey for advice, while Zoey leans on Max, but towards the end of the season, we see this dynamic changing slightly. Simon finds the motivation to move forward from his grief, which lets him be there for Zoey in her time of need. Max comes to the conclusion that he needs to move away from Zoey, so that he can achieve a greater sense of self. He has been so attached to SPRQ Point (their working place) because of Zoey, and is now ready to see what else awaits.

If the playing field is so even, why then am I wholeheartedly in Max’s corner? After all, isn’t the best friends to lovers trope overdone by now? Let me just say this, it will never ever come close to being overdone, and you just need to have a look at the romantic relationships in TV to know this (once again, Anne With An E is relevant here). I think the main reason I am Team Max is that messiness in love is often glorified in relationships, and stability is scorned for not being exciting enough.

The chemistry and volatility with Simon is certainly heart-racing stuff, but watching Max stride with purpose through the streets singing “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by the Proclaimers is the stuff romance is built on. Astin also unfairly tips the scales in Max’s favour by singing with such sincerity; every single song he sings to Zoey is a love song. He has been all in with Zoey from the start, heart on his sleeve, while Simon is still trying to find his footing.

Lastly, we must of course examine Zoey’s heart songs to both men, to see where she herself stands with each of them. Zoey sings Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” to Simon, reserving Jason Mraz’ “I’m Yours” for Max. Zoey tells Simon that she wants him to want her, to need her and to love her. This indicates that she views Simon in an unattainable sense, which makes sense since he started out as a workplace crush, and is wishing for some parity in their relationship, tired of being the one who wants so badly. Jason Mraz’ “I’m Yours” is a song about giving in to the moment, embracing the now, saying yes without hesitation, which is contrary to how Zoey has been dealing with her and Max’s relationship.

She wants to give in and embrace the possibility of what they could be, but also on some level knows that this relationship’s failure will wreck her, while Simon is the easier choice because of his inaccessibility. She is often more willing to walk away from that romantic space with Simon (he keeps drawing her back), but can’t stay away from Max, whose distance hurts her and is massively intolerable.

Believe me, I have watched enough of romance in TV and film to know how this love triangle will play out, and there is no way a man gets to sing that Proclaimers song and not get the girl at the end. All roads lead to Zoey ending up with Max. Maybe it won’t be a reality in season 2, or even season 3 (if we get lucky with the renewal gods), but we will get there, even if it takes 500 miles.

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