NBC’s “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” on paper sounds like some sort of absurd fever dream concocted by stoners obsessed with romcoms, like “Glee” and “Gilmore Girls.”
But creator Austin Winsberg took this high concept and made it feel warm and whimsical and not silly and senseless.
Here’s how it works: computer programmer Zoey, played with naive sweetness by Jane Levy, can suddenly read the innermost thoughts of her friends, family and work colleagues - via singing and sometimes choreographed dancing, too.
They channel their feelings by crooning hits by the likes of
the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, LMFAO, Cyndi Lauper, Kesha, the Clash and the Jonas Brothers. (Someone created a Spotify list of all music heard on the show to date.)
The cast includes three big-name actors: “Gilmore Girls” star Lauren Graham as Zoey’s boss, veteran actor Peter Gallagher (“The O.C.”) as her ailing dad and Oscar-winning actress Mary Steenburgen as her loving mom.
Stone Mountain native John Clarence Stewart is a friend of Levy’s and she helped him get the role of Simon, a potential love interest for Zoey. On the surface, Simon is an earnest, sharply dressed executive at the absurdly named tech company SPRQPoint. But he keeps under wraps his internal challenges he’s facing handling the death of his father, who had taken his own life.
Stewart, a graduate of Shiloh High School who has performed in multiple Alliance Theatre productions in Atlanta, said he connected with the character’s duality immediately.
“I lost my dad when I was 19,” said Stewart in a recent phone interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from his home in Los Angeles. “He died of an allergic reaction to an over-the-counter cough medicine. It was out of nowhere. His throat closed up and he suffocated.”
A few days before, his father surprised Stewart by showing up at Columbus State University. “We spent a whole day together, father son time,” he said. “A week later, he was gone.”
Early on the show, Zoey, whose father is dying of a terminal illness, connects with Simon after seeing his inner strife as he sings the Gary Jules version of “Mad World.”
“He is completely unseen by everyone around him until Zoey sees him,” Stewart said.
They seem like a natural match except for one thing: Simon is engaged to another woman Jessica (India de Beaufort.)
“How does a man transition into being a husband when he has that incomplete feeling?” Stewart said, channeling his character. “I can imagine before Simon goes to work and irons his clothes, he’s in a fetal position weeping with a picture of his dad. He doesn’t allow his fiancé to see that.”
So throughout the season he has to grapple with his feelings for Zoey, feelings that lead to him to break up with his fiancé.
In fact, his duet performing Marshmello’s break-up song “Happier” with Jessica hits all the right heartbreak notes.
“Listening to the lyrics of the song, it landed so deeply in my gut,” Stewart said. “It can be difficult to get that vulnerability out, to display a relationship ending that honors the relationship they had. This shows the pain they’re transitioning out of.”
Stewart, who has no formal training in dance, has revealed plenty of fluidity and nuance during his “Zoey” song sequences. He said he used to watch his mom do liturgical dance in church with ribbons and emulated her in the privacy of his bedroom. Years later, he’s thrilled he can finally show off his innate dance skills on the small screen, crediting the show’s choreographers, led by the incomparable Mandy Moore ( “La La Land,” “So You Think You Can Dance”).
“They created a space in the dance studio that was sacred,” he said. “They built on anything raw in me. Parts of the choreography took a whole lot of rehearsal and drilling on my part to make sure things looked effortless.”
As the season nears its conclusion Sunday at 9 p.m., Simon is in a better mental place, post break up.
But the show also has to deal with its core love triangle: Zoey’s best friend and all-around nice guy Max (Skylar Astin) is in love with her in a way she is unable to reciprocate. And she can’t quite figure out whether her feelings for Simon are something deeper.
So as she enters the final episode, Zoey is trying to maintain friendships with both men, unsure if she wants to or can proceed romantically with either.
NBC has yet to renew the show for a second season. Its overnight Nielsen ratings are modest (2 million viewers) and among the lowest of NBC’s scripted dramas, but viewership grows substantially with DVR and streaming thrown in. In a TVLine poll of readers gauging which of 27 “on the bubble” shows should come back, “Zoey” came in fourth behind only CBS’s “S.W.A.T.,” ABC’s “The Rookie” and Fox’s “The Resident,” shot in metro Atlanta.
“We’re hopeful,” Stewart said. “Everyone has been really affirming. Peter Gallagher hit it on the head when he said this was a swing for the fences, a big swing. I am so gratified to be part of Austin’s vision. It’s very special.”
Stewart said while in high school, he fashioned himself to be a football player and even to George Walton Academy for a year on scholarship. “I had a whole lot of heart but not enough talent,” he said. He imagined a “Rudy”-type existence but his football career didn’t quite play out that way.
So senior year, he returned to Shiloh and joined the play “Once on this Island” as Papa Ge. “For the first time, I was affirmed for something outside of sports,” he said.
After college, he returned to Atlanta and did educational theater for Kaiser Permanente. It was as glamorous as it sounded, he said: “I went around wearing khakis, a Hawaiian shirt and a fedora talking about eating from the food groups,” he said.
“It was humbling,” he said, especially when he had to do these horrible raps about eating fruits and vegetables.
Stewart, now in his early 30s, said his time in Atlanta as an actor helped lead to his bigger and better roles over time. (He moved to New York when he was 24, then to Los Angeles.)
Jody Feldman, long-time casting director for the Alliance Theatre, said Stewart was well loved there.
“From John's first Alliance audition as a college student,” Feldman said, “it was easy to see that John travels in pure truth - his own and the drive to discover it in the characters he plays. And not as an acting technique but as a life pursuit. It is what makes him so special and compelling to watch. I loved being a fly on the wall of any John Stewart play.”
“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” season one finale at 9 p.m. Sunday on NBC
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