2021 | unrated (PG equivalent) | starring Jane Levy, Skylar Astin, Alex Newell, Mary Steenburgen | directed by Richard Shepard | 1 hr 40 mins |
I’m always curious when a TV show’s original creators make the leap to movies. They usually fall under 3 categories. The rare movies that transcend the show, using the opportunity to do something big, they can still be appreciated by those that didn’t watch the show. That’s your South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, Borat and Serenity. These are unicorns. Then you’ve got the movies for fans of the show, that basically play out like another episode, but are juiced up for the big screen with higher stakes and a wider, more cinematic look they couldn’t otherwise have pulled off. That’s your Downton Abbey and we’re lucky to get them. Then you have your movies that are simply 2 episodes of the show, stakes are as low and reversible as an episode of the show and only fans would get anything out of them. That’s your Veronica Mars and Dead Like Me: Life After Death.
After the criminal cancellation of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist by NBC a few months ago, creator Austin Winsburg gets a chance to re-assemble the cast for a one-shot Christmas movie on the Roku platform to wrap up the series and possibly make the pitch for a 3rd season. Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas falls between the 2nd and 3rd types of our TV show movie adaptations. It feels like a long episode of the series, will almost entirely be appreciated by fans of the show and remains as low stakes as an average episode. At the same time, in a Christmas season dominated by cookie-cutter Hallmark Christmas movies, Zoey’s at it’s base level is a work with better writing and a warmer heart than most of these movies.
Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy) is coming up on her first Christmas without her late father, Mitch, and plans to do it up big to honor him. Soon she learns that her entire family including mom Maggie (Mary Steenburgen), brother David (Andrew Leeds), his wife Emily (Alice Lee) and Aunt Deb (Bernadette Peters) all have other plans. Zoey, need we forget, has a psychic ability to read people’s heart songs (those around her sing and dance their inner-most thoughts) and with the help of her best friend Mo (Alex Newell) and her boyfriend Max (Skylar Astin), now gifted the mind-reading powers himself, sets about to keep the family together for another year and deliver the perfect Christmas.
Let’s start off with the good – it is Christmas after all. As said, Zoey at it’s worst is still more heart-felt, character-focused and unique than your average holiday TV movie. It requires a difficulty and emotional engagement that few of these movies do. One of the outstanding qualities of Playlist as a show is how personally it deals with the death of a parent, it’s run-up and aftermath as if Winsburg, or someone heavily involved in the writing, has gone through this themselves. From a technical standpoint, the film doesn’t feel like 2 episodes stitched together, it flows cleanly through the feature length running time. True to form, the cast is all-around terrific. Where this movie works it is because of how all-in Levy is for this project. It’s always fun when Levy herself finally gets in on the dance numbers, which thanks to Max’s powers, she can.
The movie’s most interesting aspect for fans will be how it explores the season 2 reveal that Max has spontaneously acquired the ability to hear heart-songs too. Max loves it. Racking up, good deeds based on heart songs all day. Christmas’ most inspired moment finds Zoey and Max read each other’s minds in a dueling duet of “Just the Two of Us” and “We Need a Little Christmas”. How all of this plays out is both a little heart-breaking and fundamentally redefines how we thought of the powers.
When you’re show is cancelled and you get another shot to get the band back together, I am always baffled and frustrated by how these opportunities never, ever, result in a movie that swings for the fences. That’s what Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas should have done. It should have been a grand finale, it should have had multiple plots where everyone got their moment (Zoey’s former flame and series favorite John Clarence Stewart is sidelined for most of the movie). It should have had huge ideas and grand musical numbers. A part from an opening in a mall, much of the film is set in the Clarke house.
Viewers who have never seen the show before will be bored by the all-consuming nature of the Zoey’s Perfect Christmas plot that finds the movie spinning its wheels over and over with Zoey both wanting to move on and childishly rejecting any attempt by her mother to do so. Fans of the show on the other hand will have seen this plot before. The theme of Zoey holding onto memories of her father was a dominant one in season two and this particular story was done much better in “Zoey’s Extraordinary Memory”, where our heroine races to recreate a stargazing tradition of her dad’s. After several episodes of this it says more about something in Zoey’s character that needs to be addressed than it does about her relationship with her father.
Our only window out of this story is a B-plot involving Mo showing what a good parent he would be in front of his boyfriend (David St. Louis) that results in Mo commandeering a child’s Christmas pageant in a spectacularly self-indulgent fashion that has no repercussions. It’s over the top, even for a character that regularly gets away with being the most obnoxious person in the room.
The idea that Mitch used to deliver a perfect Christmas and the Clarke family rallies around to keep up his tradition is also fundamentally a story you’d see delivered with morose, illogical, sugar on top on another NBC series, This is Us. The late patriarchy of This is Us, Jack, is practically perfect in every way and even decades later the family still struggles in his long shadow. Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas is better than that, but for a show that was regularly better than that being better than This is Us or a Hallmark Holiday Movie isn’t exactly the firework of a finale it should have been to bring this series to a close and ring in a Christmas-movie-lite 2021. Zoey doesn’t save Christmas but it could have and that’s what’s so frustrating about it.