Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is back with 2×01 “Zoey’s Extraordinary Return”! And not a moment too soon. Even better, the show comes back with an episode that isn’t just good, it’s everything we hoped it would be. It’s the series at its best. And as fans know, its best is very good indeed.
Season premieres can sometimes be a little bit of a trudge. They have to resolve cliffhangers and unresolved plots from the season before. At the same time, they must establish major arcs for the season ahead. But (as it so often does), this series is the exception that may prove the rule. It manages the unexpected, with an episode of television that absolutely speeds by in a blink. Which isn’t to say that it’s always an easy hour to watch. But this dramedy has always had a deft touch when it comes to balancing the dramatic and comedic sides of its nature.
Ghosts of the Past
As one might expect, grief has a major role to play in “Zoey’s Extraordinary Return.” To be fair, while many series premieres wrap up unresolved plots from their prior finales, it is highly unlikely that we are fully past this particular thread. Nor should we be. Zoey’s has always attempted an honest, unflinching examination of grief. And grief isn’t resolved in a week, or a month, or even a year. It ebbs and flows. So one might expect that it will have greater prominence in some episodes and be more of a subplot in others.
But make no mistake about it, Zoey and the rest of her family are grieving. It’s hard to lose someone who means the world to you. You feel like the world should stop turning in respect for your grief. The unfortunate fact is, however, that it never does. Life goes on – for others, and for you. There’s still work and friendship and love and a host of other problems (both large and small). There’s even happiness, which can feel like a betrayal in the midst of overwhelming grief.
Zoey, Maggie, David, and Emily are going to have to work through all of those conflicting emotions over the course of the season. It will get easier for them, as hard as that is to believe. But for now, that emotion is still raw. So it’s understandable that they’re not quite ready to deal fully with the real world. Or to face memories of the husband and father they loved. Even if those memories are from a better, happier time.
Workin’ for a Living
Zoey may not be ready to face the world in “Zoey’s Extraordinary Return,” but it’s certainly ready for her. More specifically, everyone at work is ready – even eager – for her return. It’s a lot for her to face, since she’s not just returning to her former job. She is hardly back at the office for twenty minutes, it seems, before Joan offers her a promotion to take over the entire floor. Now, this is likely due as much to the pandemic’s impact on the show’s production calendar (creating a conflict in Lauren Graham’s schedule) as storyline intent. However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. It’s a great step up for her in terms of career, but it’s also understandably overwhelming when she’s already dealing with so much.
Zoey’s move up the corporate ladder does leave a void to be filled, which is where Leif comes in. It’s an interesting setup for his plot this year. In the show’s first season, Joan promoted Zoey over him, leading to some resentment. He wasn’t exactly a “team player” at first. Which only shows how much he’s grown. He’s still ambitious (not wanting to lose his temporarily elevated position). But he’s willing to work with Zoey to maintain his current role. He’s not trying to undermine it.
New Family, New Friendships
Did anyone expect Baby Clarke to be named Miles and not Mitch? We did not.
One of the most promising new plots established in “Zoey’s Extraordinary Return” was the newfound friendship between Max, Simon, and Mo (a.k.a. MaxSiMo). This is great on so many levels. First, from a shipping perspective, it’s a breath of fresh air to get that “two men vying for the love of one woman” nonsense out of the way early. Zoey is many things, but she isn’t anyone’s prize. She can make her own romantic decisions without infighting and bickering between her romantic interests.
Also, the show has been pretty darn clear from the start that Zoey and Max will be the romantic endgame for the series. Which leaves the question of where that will leave Simon, when all is said and done. It isn’t uncommon for shows to punt the “losing” side of the love triangle aside, when that particular plot is played out. They either have their role dramatically reduced or, quite often, are written out entirely. It would be a shame for this to happen to Simon, who is genuinely an excellent character with so much opportunity for growth and exploration. He is also more than deserving of his own happiness someday.
By expanding his circle of relationships beyond Zoey, it opens up his story outside of role as “rival love interest.” Furthermore, his story through the first season was very heavily centered on grief. His interactions with Zoey in the second season will likely focus very much on the same, since that’s their primary connection. It’s also what she needs from him right now. She needs someone to talk to about her loss. But his scenes with Max and Mo can be more lighthearted, allowing him to discuss and explore other things. Hopefully happier things.
On a similar note, this friendship allows the show to explore Max and Mo outside of their respective relationships with Zoey. Zoey is the center of the series, of course. So her relationships will naturally take center stage. However, Max, Mo, and Simon exist outside of their relationships with her, and exploring those dynamics only makes them more fully-fledged characters in their own right. It allows the audience to see sides of their characters that they don’t (or can’t, at this moment) necessarily show to Zoey. Overall, this friendship is so exciting and has so much potential.
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention new SPRQ Point member, George. There’s not a lot to go on with him just yet, but what we have is intriguing. It’s easy to be suspicious of someone who seems so sweet and innocent, but we somehow find it unlikely he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Since Zoey spent the first season learning how to connect to people through their heart songs, it seems more probable that he will provide her an opportunity to put her newfound ability to actually connect to people, even without the cheat provided by her superpower. At the very least, he’s someone she can take under her wing (and even protect) in a similar way to what Joan did for her. We may not know yet where George’s story will go, but we can’t wait to find out!
S.S. Clarkeman Sets Sail
You didn’t think we’d get through this entire review without talking about the amazing Clarkeman moments we got in “Zoey’s Extraordinary Return,” did you? We will go down with this ship, and we’re not even sorry!
Max and Zoey’s friendship in this episode was everything we could have hoped for and more. If we hadn’t already given Max Richman our whole hearts, we would have done so the moment he gave her her very own superhero ring. That entire scene on the bench was funny and sweet and supportive. It was a rare moment of unrestrained joy in an episode that was otherwise very emotionally heavy. (Is it lost on us that this isn’t the first time Max and Zoey have had a lighthearted moment of calm and happiness before throwing the audience into deep emotional turmoil and sorrow? No. No it is not.)
The scene on the bench was so good, in fact, that it may have been even better than the shipping moment at the end. It seems, at least, that Zoey has decided which side of the love triangle should set sail. As Clarkeman fans, we couldn’t be happier about it. As people who have watched television shows before, however, we’re a bit more concerned. We have no doubt that Zoey and Max will still be endgame, but putting the two of them together so early in the season only leaves open the potential for drama, misunderstandings, and the almost inevitable breakup.
On the other hand, the series has subverted expected tropes before. If show runner Austin Winsberg wanted to do the same here, we certainly wouldn’t complain!
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on NBC.