Sickness, suffering, and death are uncomfortable realities — even though it’s inevitable that they’ll touch our lives, we avoid talking about them beyond the usual platitudes. Which is why the last place I expected to find an interesting conversation on these topics was a musical TV comedy.
On its surface, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is a fun show with a quirky premise. The main character, Zoey Clarke, experiences an earthquake during an MRI and wakes up with the power to hear people’s innermost feelings through what she terms “heart songs.” This power, she deduces, is bestowed upon her so she can help the song’s performers with whatever personal problems they’re facing. The songs are covers from all genres of music and come with elaborate dance numbers that only Zoey can see and hear.
The musical numbers provide great entertainment, but the heart of the show is really about accompanying a beloved family member through terminal sickness, suffering, and death. The show wrestles with how we face the most difficult aspects of the human condition while respecting the dignity of the person suffering — and how all of that happens as regular life moves on around us.
We learn in the first episode that Zoey’s dad, Mitch, is suffering from a rare neurological disorder, progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), which has affected his movements and ability to communicate. He went from the life of the party and a vibrant personality to being restricted to a wheelchair without the ability to speak and with limited movement in his neck and right hand. The first season follows the Clarke family’s journey with Mitch as his condition worsens and as they prepare for his death.
Sharing in life’s big moments
As the Clarke family comes to terms with Mitch’s prognosis, they want to make the most of the time they have left with him. At first, that impulse leads them to avoid difficult conversations, but they soon learn that by staying on the surface, they are not really sharing life together.
Zoey’s brother, David, is preparing to welcome a new baby into his family throughout the season. What most grieves David during this time is that his dad will most likely never get to meet his baby, and that Mitch won’t be around to offer him advice as David grows into his new role as a father. And when Mitch’s wife, Maggie, is faced with a big business opportunity, she holds back thinking that it would be too hard on Mitch if he saw her moving ahead with a shared passion without him.
When a loved one is seriously ill, it can be easy to feel like we shouldn’t burden them with our own problems or feelings. David avoids bringing up his concerns and Maggie avoids sharing her discernment with Mitch because neither wants to burden him with their own issues. Through the “heart songs” he sings to Zoey, Mitch reveals that he wants to continue to be there for his family — even if it’s in his current limited way. He wants to be a part of these major moments, even if they all know he won’t be there to see them to the end. While it’s true that he will miss big moments in the future, the Clarkes’ love for Mitch reminds them to continue to include him in the big moments that he is still alive for.
Cherishing the everyday
Zoey, David, and Maggie are constantly reminded that life is going on as usual around them. There is still work to be done, bills to pay, and relationships to maintain outside of their family. On top of that, Zoey has to help those who sing their “heart songs” to her. We get the sense that while the days seem long, they are aware the time they have together is limited and fleeting.
When we face a serious illness with a loved one, it becomes all consuming to think of the big things that will be missed or important conversations that we need to share before they pass. Remembering the dignity of one who is dying means letting them live their lives, however — including those little everyday moments that seem so mundane to us. A person who is sick is more than their disease — all of their time should not be wrapped up in conversations about their illness.
When it comes time for Maggie to hire a caretaker for Mitch, she and David interview several candidates. They first hire a nurse with 28 years of experience. Within the first few weeks, however, Maggie realizes that all this nurse can see is a patient. She orders Maggie to buy new medical equipment, will not allow any deviations from the schedule she prescribes, and refers to Mitch as “the patient” rather than by name.
Maggie recognizes that Mitch does not need to spend the remainder of his days being reminded that he’s sick and dying, but rather needs to be cared for as the beloved individual he is in the comfort of their home. So she hires Howie, the candidate that joked with Mitch during his interview. Howie sees Mitch and finds ways to care for his health — like sneaking spinach into his milkshake — while also caring for him as a person by playing card games with him, sharing his favorite movies, and talking with him about Howie’s relationship with his daughter.
Throughout the season, Mitch is always around during family time. The Clarkes continue to share their lives with him as they always had. Zoey, a computer programmer, creates a computer system for him to easily type out words and phrases so he can communicate. David sets up an old board game buzzer with one buzz meaning “yes” and two meaning “no.” They use these mechanisms to continue their conversations and to share life.
Zoey talks with him about her problems at work as a newly promoted manager, her new friend Mo, and the love triangle she’s ended up in. David shares about his work as a public defender and the small preparations that he and his wife are making for the baby. They take him sailing, a favorite pastime, and they recreate his and Maggie’s traditional anniversary dinner at home. For the Clarkes, Mitch’s sickness doesn’t get to rob him of actively being a husband and father.
As the Clarkes accompany Mitch during this time, they’re confronted with how the everydayness of life stands in contrast to the overwhelmingly emotional and exhausting drama of terminal illness and its accompanying grief and suffering. They all struggle with remembering things about Mitch that were in the past while also recognizing that he is still present with them. Zoey often finds herself unsure whether to use past or present when speaking about her dad.
Our inability to face sickness and death is usually depicted on screen with the sick person on a hospital bed as a background character whom everyone else lives life around. The incredible accomplishment of this show is placing this family story as an important part of each Clarke member’s life — without making it the only part of each member’s life — all while keeping Mitch a central and active participant in the storyline.
While Zoey and Howie eat ice cream in the season finale, she asks him, “Is this when we have the talk about what death is like?” To which Howie responds, ”Death is hideous and ugly and grotesque and wildly, wildly unfair. Or maybe death is beautiful and spiritual and transcendent and sometimes a very necessary and very freeing escape from our physical bodies when they are no longer habitable.”
When we view the end of life as ugly and grotesque, we want suffering to end on our own terms — we want to assert our own initiative and control in the face of death. This show challenges us to see death as beautiful and spiritual — which means making room for the person dying to remain an important part of our lives, even in their suffering. As long as they’re alive, they’re living life alongside us. They’re not meant to be an accessory or a burden or ignored or obsessed over. They are a person and they
While NBC cancelled this show earlier this year, Roku has picked it up — you can catch all the episodes on that platform as well as a brand new holiday movie with Zoey and her family that’s streaming now. are loved, and we continue to invite them to be a part of both the mundane and the dramatic because in the end, life and death are beautiful.