Since the first season aired of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, there have been countless articles and online comments regarding the perfection of its timing – that its story about grief and loss was oddly prescient for a year where we all struggled with loss and grief as we lived through a global pandemic. The show’s determination to carry on as normal throughout its second season, in which Zoey struggled with the aftermath of loss and figured out how to carry on, was also quite fitting for 2021, as we all deal with the aftermath of the pandemic and the way it changed our lives. Which is why, when news recently dropped that NBC had chosen not to renew the series for a third season, we couldn’t help but think of all the reasons why Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is still the show we need on television.
There are, of course, a multitude of reasons for that – not the least of which is that we at Fangirlish are fans of the show. And loving something is reason enough to want to keep it around. However, our fandom isn’t the only reason we think the world needs more of this series. In two short seasons, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist has proved to be about many things. Most obviously, it’s been a show about grief. How we experience it, how we heal from it, and how it changes us. But more even than a story about grief, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is about embracing joy and love. Even in the depths of our sorrow and pain and fear. Grief may shape us, but it doesn’t have to define us.
In different ways, over the past two seasons, the show’s characters have embraced love – in its various forms – in ways that remind us of who we can and should be. It’s been hard, in the last couple of years, to find reasons to have faith in each other. It’s been harder still sometimes to find reasons to embrace joy, compassion, and empathy with those around us. Which is why the lessons we learn from the characters in Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist are so important right now. To remind us of things it’s sometimes all too easy to forget.
Zoey: Believe in Others
As the titular character, Zoey’s had the most to learn over the last two seasons. And, as such, she has the most to teach us as we watch. Most importantly, that life is scary and completely outside of our control sometimes. It can be incredibly unfair and even downright awful at times. And all of that can make us want to retreat into our shells. Because if the one thing in the world we can control is ourselves, then surely building a wall to keep others out will keep us safe.
It’s been a difficult lesson for Zoey to learn, but in the second season finale, she realized that closing yourself off from others can keep you safe, but it also keeps you from fully living. You have to have faith in other people sometimes, even when that means giving up a little control. You have to connect with those around you – whether it’s the neighbor from across the hall who sings power ballads first thing in the morning or the coworker who can drive you up a wall sometimes. At times, you have to let yourself be vulnerable , and you have to be willing to let others be vulnerable with you in return. And, most of all, you have to be willing to take chances emotionally and be brave every once in a while.
It was a lesson I didn’t even think I needed to hear until I heard it. If there’s one thing that’s been increasingly hard to find over the last couple of years (and even today), it’s faith in other people. Turning on the news can make it all too easy to believe people are generally terrible, and it’s best to keep your distance. Zoey is a reminder that, as hard as it can be sometimes to believe, we are better when we don’t try to go it entirely alone.
Max: Put Others Before Yourself (Sometimes)
This one is a little bittersweet, and it can definitely go too far. It is possible to give too much of yourself and fail to draw necessary boundaries. But just as love can be selfish, it can also be selfless. It can drive you to put others before yourself. To recognize that sometimes you do have to sacrifice your comfort, convenience, or desires for the good of other people.
Putting others first is something that Max, flawed though he is, has done repeatedly over the course of the series. He demonstrated this tendency when he brought Mitch pudding when still on the outs with Zoey. When he was willing to do whatever it took to get Zoey to the hospital to see her dad after his accident. He also put Zoey first when he agreed to put their relationship “on pause” both after she lost her dad and then later, when he realized she still wasn’t ready. And, perhaps most obviously, he demonstrated his willingness to put others first when he turned down a job he hoped would make his father proud because he realized Zoey – a near-stranger at that point – was better qualified and deserved it more.
If the last couple of years have shown us anything, it’s that, yes, we have to do things that are necessary to take care of ourselves. But we also need to care about others, and sometimes we have to put their needs before our own. But a sacrifice doesn’t have to be a deprivation or an imposition if it stems from genuine caring about the people around us. Sometimes it’s the ultimate act of (romantic and/or non-romantic) love.
Mo: Love Yourself
Sometimes, the hardest person to love is yourself. At least, it seems that way to me. It can be a struggle even find out who we are. And once we do, we are often our own harshest critics. Which is why Mo has been such a compelling character to watch.
Mo’s story hasn’t always taken the forefront of the show, but we’ve gotten a few glimpses into his history. His episode in the first season in which he tackled the intersection of faith and identity was unflinchingly, searingly honest – undoubtedly because it reportedly stemmed from actor Alex Newell’s own experiences. But over the course of the last two years, we’ve seem a character who can stumble and fall (as do we all), but who ultimately knows who he is and who loves himself.
There’s something about that phrase, “love yourself,” that society can tell us is selfish. But it isn’t. It’s important, and – more – it’s not easy to do. Nor does Mo pretend it is. Rather, his character is refreshingly open about his prior struggle to come to terms with his own identity. His self-awareness is hard won. But it’s also something he will never let anyone else ever take away from him.
Mo is unquestionably a fan favorite character. And for good reason. Not only does he have one of the best voices in the show (not to mention many of the best outfits), but he’s someone that many viewers can relate to. They see themselves in his character and in his story. Many of those viewers may still be on their own paths of self-discovery and self-love. Mo’s a much-needed reminder of the strength and happiness that can be found at the end of the journey.
Simon: Embrace Joy Without Regret
While Zoey has struggled with how to navigate grief and loss over the last two seasons of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Simon has stood as an example of the happiness that can be found on the other side. His arc has, in many ways, been consistently one step ahead of Zoey’s own. In the first season, when Zoey was coming to terms with the fact she was about to lose her father, he had recently lost his own. When she was dreading the inevitable grief she would face, he was already trapped in the midst of it. And, this year, when Zoey was overwhelmed by pain and grief, Simon had finally come to terms with his loss. While she was still coping by pushing people away, he was being more open. He had found the happiness and peace he so richly deserved.
Simon’s lightness of spirit in the second season, after he had allowed himself to heal, was a pleasure to watch. Even in the finale, when one of this last scenes – and his last musical number in the show to date – was perhaps also his most joyful. And his message in the episode was profound. After realizing he wasn’t getting what he needed in his relationship with Zoey, he demonstrated both maturity and self-awareness in breaking things off. He didn’t try to hold on for too long as he had previously with Jessica. But in doing so, he acknowledged that their relationship may not have lasted, but it did make him happy. It was what he (and she) needed at the time. And so it was not something to be looked back upon with regret.
It’s a lesson we could all stand to remember. Too often, it’s easy to think of relationships that don’t last as being failures – or of not mattering at all. And that simply isn’t true. Something doesn’t have to be permanent to have value. Just because it didn’t last forever doesn’t mean it didn’t matter, or that it can’t be a source of joy.
Tobin: Be a Good Ally
Embracing joy without regret isn’t the only lesson Simon taught us this season. He also demonstrated the importance of standing up for what’s right, even at the risk of great cost to ourselves. Which allowed Tobin to highlight the importance of being a good ally (and friend).
Of course, in the show, Tobin wasn’t entirely a disinterested bystander. He was as much impacted by racial bias in the tech industry as Simon. Even if that bias presented itself in somewhat different ways. But he still stood to lose something in standing by Simon and speaking out about his own experiences. And, in the end, he did what was right and, in so doing, helped make a difference.
At the same time, he was in the position to help Leif to be a better ally. Granted, it wasn’t Tobin’s responsibility to take on the emotional labor of helping his friend learn to do so. But Leif’s heart was in the right place, so he chose to give him a nudge in the right direction. In moments like this, the audience was able to see the man beneath the facade.
There is so much more to explore with Tobin’s character. But in this relatively small moment in the season, he helped remind us that we have to stand by those who fight for what’s right. Even when it’s scary and when we have something to lose by doing so. It’s a lesson we could all stand to remember more often.
Leif: Be Willing to Change
Leif’s character was a bit divisive through the first season, not just in the fandom but amongst the Fangirlish team. Over the past year, however, we at Fangirlish all came to be on the same page with his character. And a lot of that was due to his demonstrated self-awareness and willingness to change.
Like all the other characters on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Leif is flawed. He hasn’t always been the best version of himself. But that’s okay, but can anyone say that they are, at all times and in all situations? He did, however, find himself in a “be careful what you wish for” situation this year. Last season, he resented that Zoey had been promoted over him. He clearly thought he would do a better job as a leader than she did. This year, he was given the opportunity to step into the managerial role. He quickly learned that managing your friends and former peers isn’t as easy as one would think.
It wasn’t the only time we saw that Leif learned from his lessons of the prior season and was striving to be a better person. While perhaps inadvertent, his actions on the sixth floor led to Max’s termination from SPRQ Point. It wasn’t intentional, but it also wasn’t entirely unforeseeable that his actions might have repercussions for others. Particularly his (at the time) manager. And, given that he and Max had never been terribly close prior to their stint on the sixth floor, it would have been in character – and even to a degree understandable – if Max’s termination was a sacrifice Leif’s ambition (and heartache) was willing to make without a qualm. But he did regret it, and while he couldn’t undo it, he tried to apologize for it. With a fruit basket, no less.
He also showed personal growth in the finale, when he informed Simon about the demographic makeup and nature of the company Danny Michael Davis was willing to crush to make the Drone Phone a reality. Considering his ambition and determination to eventually run SPRQ Point in season one, it would have been easy enough for him to keep that information to himself. In so doing, he could have consoled himself with the thought he was simply doing what was best for his team while he cozied up to Danny Michael Davis in a bid for more power down the line. All he had to do was to remain silent.
But he is no longer the person who will distance himself from his best friend if necessary to serve his grand plan. He put what was right above his own objectives, even likely knowing that it might make things more difficult for SPRQ Point to move forward with their project. He put others – even people he didn’t know – first. And in so doing, possibly making things more difficult for him and his team. It was quite a change from the first season, when he put his own desire to get back together with Joan above his professionalism, leading to Max’s departure from SPRQ Point.
Leif isn’t perfect, but he is self-aware and willing to change. To try to be better than the person he was, and to try to learn from his past mistakes. And, really, that’s a lot. It’s the most that can be expected of anyone. If everyone were so willing to learn from their mistakes, to be better people tomorrow than we were yesterday, the world would be a better place.
Zoey, Max, Mo, Simon, Tobin, and Leif all demonstrated different types of love over the past two seasons, highlighting just a few reasons why the world still needs Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. Of course, they weren’t alone in doing so. Watch out for the second part of this article, where I discuss the characters of Mitch, Maggie, David, Emily, and Joan. And in the meantime, don’t forget to join in the #SaveZoeysPlaylist campaign on Twitter!