At a surface level, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playbook appears to be a deeply progressive television show. It certainly ticks many of the liberal/progressive boxes. Zoey (Jane Levy) is a young woman who writes code for computer software programs for innovative new electronic devices. She struggles to relate to others. (She is probably somewhere on the autism spectrum even though the show never uses this label.) She lives and works in San Francisco, one of America’s most progressive cities. The show features numerous strong, female characters including Zoey’s boss Joan (Lauren Graham), and Ava (Renée Elise Goldsberry), who is the boss of another division of the company. Zoey’s next-door neighbor is named Mo (Alex Newell). In one episode, it is revealed that Mo was a boy and was ostracized from a church he attended previously because he lived as a woman. (The show uses the pronoun “he” and so will I.) It is not clear to what extent Mo has transitioned to become a woman, but he is described as gender fluid by the pastor of his current church. Finally, each episode features multiple musical numbers.
For all the pretense at being groundbreaking, there is a sense in which the show reflects the status quo. It is not wrong to describe Zoey as a show about a pretty young white woman and her relationships with her family, friends, co-workers, and love interests. It is revealing that Zoey needs to tell the story in a way that does not make this obvious. That a story has been told before does not preclude it from being of interest. Many viewers will be able to relate to it.
It is tempting to write Zoey off as simply another expression of political correctness or, worse yet, so much misandrist clap trap. However, the show has an important conservative message that should not be overlooked. On a deeper level, it is about women struggling in their relationships with immature, narcissistic, and weak men. Fortunately, it also provides a positive message about how to step-up and be a real man.
The premise of the show is as follows: Zoey is a computer programmer who struggles to connect emotionally with other people. She has been experiencing headaches and is concerned that she might have the same disease as her father. She goes to the doctor and an MRI is performed. While in the machine, there is an earthquake. There is some sort of malfunction and, when she comes out, she experiences hallucinations that have both a visual and an auditory component. She gains the ability to empathize with other people’s emotional states by seeing and hearing them performing musical numbers which reveal what they are feeling. (She refers to these as heart songs.) With the help of Mo, she comes to understand the deeper meaning of these heart songs.
The show features several important male characters. First, Zoey’s father Mitch (Peter Gallagher), is struggling with a terminal, degenerative disease that has left him nearly paralyzed. He is, literally, a weak man—though through no fault of his own. He needs help with the most basic daily needs and struggles to communicate with his family. He is the show’s patriarch and his death is imminent. Zoey’s mother Maggie (Mary Steenburgen), struggles to take care of him. It is not only his deteriorating physical condition but also his increasing difficulty in communicating that pains Maggie. Although the show doesn’t fill in much about the details of who Mitch was, it is clear he raised a family and had a successful business with his wife. Given the admiration Zoey has for him, it seems likely that he has been a good role model. Are there any men who will be able to fill his shoes?
There are five important male characters who are roughly Zoey’s age. The first is her brother David (Andrew Leeds). David’s appearance is disheveled. From the beginning to the end of the season, he is consistently shown as unshaven. He doesn’t sport the sexy, stubble beard so common these days. Instead, he has the look of a man who struggles to bring himself to engage in basic, day-to-day grooming. David’s wife Emily (Alice Lee), is pregnant. In one episode, Emily expresses concern that David is cheating on her. Although he claims to be working late hours on a challenging case (he is a defense attorney—one wonders how he managed the rigors of law school), Emily has her doubts. Zoey discovers that he has been going to a bar and shooting pool with his friends. He is worried that he will not be able to be a good father.
If David’s trepidation stemmed from having been forced into this role, it would be easier to sympathize with him. However, he is angry with Zoey for revealing to Emily what he has been doing because he had to talk her into having children. Upon learning he is going to have a son, he fears that he will not be able to set a manly-enough example. It isn’t necessary to have been pregnant or be a woman to understand Emily’s trepidation. She is an expectant mother whose partner does not seem to be up to the task of assuming his responsibilities. Although there appears to be a happy resolution, doubts linger about his stability. One wonders how he will react after the baby has been born.
The other four male characters work at the same place as Zoey. Tobin (Kapil Talwalkar) and Leif (Michael Thomas Grant) are basically man-children. They are best friends who initially appear joined at the hip. We learn in one episode that Tobin, who is a mediocre coder and often overwhelmed by the job, is experiencing emotional turmoil because Leif doesn’t want to hang out with him on a special occasion. Both were spelling bee champions as children and now annually celebrate their spell-iversary.
Leif is more interested in spending time with his new girlfriend Joan, who is also his boss. If his interest in Joan marked a transition to more adult relationships, we might admire him for it. However, he initially dates her in an effort to move up the corporate ladder. Leif is deceptive and manipulative. Unfortunately, he winds up falling in love with her and becomes a burden. After the breakup, Leif is tongue-tied when he tries to talk to her at a bar and sings her a Karaoke love song instead. Joan and Zoey leave out of embarrassment. Not surprisingly, neither Tobin nor Leif is one of Zoey’s love interests.
Zoey has two male suitors. The first is the handsome Simon (John Clarence Stewart), on whom, Zoey has had a crush from the very beginning of the series. In the first episode, Zoey connects with Simon by hearing his heart song, which reveals that his upbeat exterior is a façade. Simon is deeply saddened by the death of his father, who recently committed suicide. Given Zoey’s own father’s condition, it is not surprising that they would form an emotional bond. Unfortunately, Simon is engaged. He feels that he cannot talk to his fiancée Jessica (India de Beaufort), about how he is feeling. The attraction between Simon and Zoey becomes mutual and almost leads to them having sex at the end of the fifth episode. (Simon sings the Clash’s heart song, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”) Zoey sends him on his way. However, if she had not rejected him the two of them would have had sex. In the following episode, Jessica laments Simon’s inability to talk to her about his feelings. When she discovers what has been going on between them, she is livid.
In the seventh episode, Simon tells Zoey that they need to go back to just being friends, but in the next episode he kisses her. In the ninth episode, Simon tells her that this was a mistake but does so indecisively. He says, “We shouldn’t connect like this again, right?” This puts the burden on Zoey to decide if they will become sexually involved. At the end of the episode, Simon and Jessica break up.
Simon is a more admirable character than the previous three. Yet, his inability to deal with his grief results in the destruction of his relationship with Jessica and much consternation for Zoey. Jessica clearly wants to be able to form a deeper connection with him. Mo refers to Simon as “a wishy-washy man” and “a man-child.” Perhaps, once he deals with his personal issues, he could be a suitable partner for Zoey. However, it is far from clear that he will be able to do this, nor that his issues are due solely to the death of his father.
Her other suitor is Max (Skylar Astin). He has more potential than the other men in Zoey’s life. He does not display the lack of maturity so common among her other male co-workers. (In the third episode, Joan’s narcissistic husband shows up. Tobin and Leif have fan-boy crushes on him because he developed a popular video game. He is clearly a bad role model. Max does not share their hero worship.) Max becomes the most promising man in Zoey’s life, but this is not clear from the beginning. He is her best friend but is also deeply in love with her. Yet, he has never revealed this fact. It becomes apparent through a heart song she hears him singing at the end of the first episode. Zoey initially does not see Max as a potential love interest and arranges a date between Max and the barista Autumn (Stephanie Styles), at the coffee shop they frequent. They initially hit it off but after a few episodes, it becomes clear that the relationship won’t work out. Interestingly, it is Autumn’s immaturity that leads Max to end the relationship.
In the sixth episode, Max emerges as a potential love interest for Zoey. Mo has picked out clothes for him that project an air of confidence and success. Max is at Simon and Jessica’s engagement party and we see him take initiative. First, he introduces Mo to Eddie (Patrick Ortiz), who becomes Mo’s love interest for the rest of the season. Next, an emergency arises. Zoey’s father has fallen down the stairs, but she does not have transportation. She is also drunk from having been out on the town with Joan. Max makes sure she can get to her father, commandeering a public scooter (apparently these exist in San Francisco). In the next episode, Max arranges a flash-mob in which he publicly declares his love by actually singing to Zoey. She is confused and confesses that she hears heart songs. Max is initially skeptical.
Yet Max continues to step up for Zoey in a way that none of the other male characters do. In the eighth episode, Zoey receives some disturbing information about her father’s condition. Rather than dealing with it directly, she ignores it. The result is that she starts involuntarily singing (out loud) her own heart songs. She embarrassingly sings the Billy Joel song “Pressure” to the head of the company. Max steps in and starts singing alongside her, putting his own career at risk and making it look like it was part of an unorthodox presentation.
In a telling scene in the fifth episode, Tobin, Leif and Max all hear their peer reviews, which were really written by Joan. Tobin’s work is described as adequate and he revels in his mediocrity—doing just enough to get by. Leif is devastated to hear that he is seen as self-righteous and overly ambitious—both accurate descriptions. Max is described as lacking drive and ambition, as well as being complacent. Unlike the others, he apparently takes the criticism to heart. A few episodes later, a leadership opportunity arises in another division of the company and Max seizes on it. He throws himself into his work and flourishes. He does a good job of leading his new team. In the second to last episode of the season, it is revealed that Leif, who Max has hired to work on his team, has been developing code and sending it down to his friend Tobin. (He is still trying to win-back Joan.) When this is discovered by Max’s boss Ava, she fires him for hiring Leif.
Any of the other young male characters presented with the same situation would probably be distraught. One can only imagine what would happen to Zoey’s brother if he lost his job. One suspects that the Max we meet in the earlier episodes would have been equally overwhelmed. But Max is different now. He has undergone a transformation from a man who can’t express his secret love for his best friend and a passive team member, to a man who expresses his love, takes on a leadership position, and is not afraid to tackle new challenges.
In the final episode, Zoey tells Max that she has talked to the head of the company and received permission to rehire him. Hearing this, he thanks her but says that he doesn’t want the job. He enjoyed his leadership position and is not interested in moving backwards. He is interested in getting out there and taking risks. He wants to explore new possibilities. Max’s reward for his transformation? Zoey says, “I like seeing this side of you” and kisses him. It is obvious that the two of them are going to have sex. The only thing that prevents it is a phone call that her father is near death.
When one looks past the offensive representations of men, the conservative message becomes apparent. Women want competent and confident men, and struggle with those who are lacking it. As of the writing of this review, it is not clear whether the show will be renewed. The second season could explore the sources of the weaknesses of the various male characters, but it is doubtful that this could be done in an honest way. More likely, it would devolve into a “Team Max” versus “Team Simon” scenario. Ironically, this would have the misogynistic effect of portraying Zoey as a confused woman who is incapable of choosing the man who has clearly won her affections. Not every story needs a sequel. It is probably best that Zoey remains what it is: an engaging and enjoyable testament to the importance of male strength and character in women’s lives.