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NBC’s Extraordinary Gambit

With the streaming wars at a fever pitch, one of the oldest networks is trying to get creative with their new comedy ‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’ and hoping it can lure internet viewers back to broadcast television

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

By any standard, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is a gamble. Creatively, the new NBC drama is a lavish musical, demanding a higher level of investment than the average legal or medical procedural. It is not the kind of show that can simply inherit its premise from a failed fall series and recycle it for midseason with a few cosmetic tweaks; one sequence from the pilot, shot on location in San Francisco and directed by Girls alumnus Richard Shepard, took 70 performers, a day and a half of street closures, and La La Land choreographer Mandy Moore to pull off a collective rendition of The Beatles’ “Help!” Nor can Zoey’s count on the comforting familiarity of another courtroom monologue or urgent diagnosis to get an audience on board. The low-stakes, original story of a Bay Area coder who starts seeing the world in song and dance takes a more aggressive sell.

To do the selling, NBC has made a gamble of a different kind. The actual first-season run of the show kicked off this past Sunday, when the network broadcast its second episode. But the pilot itself aired in early January, after which the Peacock (not to be confused with upcoming streaming service Peacock!) made it available for free on a slew of platforms. For the last six weeks, you could find it on YouTube, which currently hosts the second episode in full. You could find it on Facebook. You could even find it on Spotify, a platform in keeping with Zoey’s themes, but hardly a typical entry point for television premieres. In recent years, it’s become common for series to build buzz online during, or even after, their initial debut on linear TV. With Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, NBC is trying to reverse that process.

“It’s trying to figure out, what’s the best way to get this show exposed to the audience that will talk about it?” NBC research head Jeff Bader told AdWeek. For Zoey’s, that target audience is primarily younger women—precisely the demographic that came to love co-star Lauren Graham through Gilmore Girls’ second life on Netflix and who’ve grown accustomed to finding new favorites via Zoey’s various digital distribution channels, not its original home.

Zoey’s is a shrewd choice of subject for this kind of experiment. Produced by Bridesmaids’ Paul Feig and boasting a sky-high concept, the show is both the sort of launch NBC wants to put muscle behind and the sort that needs the extra boost. Its closest recent analog is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a show that earned critical hosannas and major awards but never translated that buzz into eyeballs. There are important distinctions between the two stories when one starts digging into the nitty-gritty: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, for example, illustrated the inner life of its heroine through original songs, while Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist deploys cast-led covers of everyone from the Jonas Brothers to Jimmy Buffett. The worry, though, is that casual observers will never get that far in their side-by-side comparisons.

With The Good Place all wrapped up in an ethical bow, NBC now has an opening for an ambitious comedy. On the sitcom front, the network is currently covered by the resurrected Brooklyn Nine-Nine and razor-sharp Superstore, recently renewed for a sixth season, but Zoey’s is a more genre-bending, surrealist affair. The title character, a programmer at a startup played by Jane Levy, develops the ability to perceive others’ inner feelings through musical hallucinations when an earthquake strikes while she’s getting an MRI. The MRI was meant to test for the same degenerative neurological condition that afflicts Zoey’s father, Mitch (Peter Gallagher), who’s now cared for full-time by her mother Maggie (Mary Steenburgen). (Steenburgen, in a bizarre twist of fate, has her own music-related neural anomaly straight out of Oliver Sacks, though her character on the show is a mere participant in one.) Zoey’s new ability is a neat device for communicating with her largely incapacitated parent, though it’s also used for visual gags, such as a pack of brogrammers crooning “Jesus Christ Superstar” to their gaming mogul man-boy-god.

Over the four episodes sent to critics, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist shows promise, though its earnest charms are not without their kinks. Zoey’s newfound savior complex—she takes overhearing others’ internal conflicts as license to intervene in them—can be hard to take, while her gender-fluid building manager, Mo (Alex Newell), hews awfully close to the stereotype of a femme-of-center black character who’s little more than a sounding board for the white protagonist’s problems.

The open question is whether NBC’s unorthodox release strategy will afford Zoey’s the time to navigate these road bumps on its own terms. In hard Nielsen ratings, at least, NBC has yet to convert digital dilettantes into devoted appointment viewers. The premiere, or “preview,” back in January earned 2.7 million viewers and a 0.6 rating in the 18 to 49 demographic; rather than snowballing in the intervening month and change, Sunday’s episode dipped slightly to 2 million and a 0.4. The announcement came packaged with the caveats and spin that accompany lots of ratings releases these days: Zoey’s is NBC’s “top digital launch” to date; a 0.4 is actually the highest rating for its time slot on the network since May, excluding sports and the Golden Globes. Still, it seems clear that while the publicity push behind Zoey’s might have raised awareness, it hasn’t translated into the specific kind of awareness NBC can easily monetize, at least for now.

Where Zoey’s gambit can possibly be called a success is in finding viewers where they already are, not in enticing them back to old habits they’re unlikely to relearn. NBC told Vulture that about as many people watched the full pilot on YouTube as on the network itself—between 3.5 and 4 million, a small but meaningful portion of the 42 million users who sampled the episode for an average of eight minutes each. (As of this rating, the second episode is up to almost 3 million views and counting.) And at a time when ratings carry less objective currency than ever, an online footprint can make a real difference to a show’s long-term value and longevity.

In my anecdotal experience, I find it hard to overstate young viewers’ willingness to wait out a show until it’s easily accessible on streaming, no matter how serialized. NBC has pointed to past successes like The Good Place and Good Girls, both available on Netflix, as precedents for what it hopes Zoey’s could grow into. But not even the moral fate of the universe or various Walter White–adjacent snafus can generate enough suspense to override the Pavlovian instinct that if you simply sit tight, the plot twists will eventually come to you. Convenience beats curiosity, and while Zoey’s appears to have succeeded in drumming up some interest, those interested will likely just check out the full season after it’s already aired. Uncutting the cord is still far too big an ask.