“Zoey’s Extraordinary Reckoning” (with her white privilege)

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist was a show that appeared when I needed it the most in 2020. The first season was full of heart, and soul, and the full range of human emotions. If you haven’t watched the first season yet, here’s the briefest summary I can manage: after a freak accident involving an MRI machine, Zoey is able to hear people’s thoughts…in the form of musical numbers.

Now, get yourself to Hulu and binge the first season (and the first six episodes of this season!) because spoilers are ahead, darlings!

The Reckoning

Simon (John Clarence Stewart) dropped a helluva lot of truth at the end of episode five, and the sixth episode of this season is dealing with the fallout; namely, that white people don’t like to be reminded that racism still very much exists and is all around us.

Zoey’s (Jane Levy) initial response? Not so good…she wants to know why Simon didn’t tell her. He tried to, but Zoey was too busy getting high to notice. As we quickly see, however, Zoey hasn’t been listening for a while. “I just wasn’t hearing him,” she says, and it’s not a shock to any POC characters on the show.

In an effort to listen to her employees, she hosts a 4th floor town hall to discuss the subject of race, and it goes about as horribly as you’d expect. The white employees use the floor to assuage their white guilt by virtue signalling—*cough* Leif *cough*—or assure their colleagues that they have a Black friend/stepfather/neighbor, or, in a particularly cringey moment, announce their engagement to a Filipino man. Zoey isn’t sure how to navigate the issue of race as the boss, and it becomes extremely clear when Simon sings “Black Man in a White World” in the middle of the town hall.

This episode, written by Zora Bikangaga and directed by Anya Adams, really doesn’t hold back in showing just how pervasive casual racism is, especially in the tech world. Danny Michael Davis (Noah Weisberg), the CEO, tells Zoey that Simon needs to retract everything he said in the press conference—and she has to be the one to tell him. Zoey, who has talked to Simon about really hard subjects like grief and suicide, suddenly doesn’t know how to talk to him anymore because it’s now about the issue of race.

So, she goes to Mo (Alex Newell) for help, whose response is to sing Mary J. Blige’s “No More Drama.” He refuses to do the heavy emotional lifting for Zoey, especially since he and Max are preoccupied in getting Danny Michael Davis to invest in Maximo’s.

Still at a loss for how to communicate with Simon, Zoey decides to just “be real” with him…and that also doesn’t go very well, since she does ask him to do what the board says. “It’s impossible for you to be on my side in this situation,” Simon tells her, and refuses to retract his statement.

Zoey’s real eye-opening moment is when she witnesses the programmers of her department referring to Tobin (Kapil Talwalkar) as “Slumdog.” He seems to shrug it off with a joke, but his heartsong of “The Tracks of My Tears” tells Zoey a different story. The casualness of the racism appears on the surface as a “joke” but it really does weigh on Tobin, just as it weighs on Simon. It is not an isolated problem within SPRQ Point, and Simon retracting his statement will not solve the problem or root out the racism that exists in the tech industry; instead it will just continue an established trend of companywide “colorblindness.”

Zoey calls Tobin into her office and tries to talk to him about his experience at SPRQ Point as an Indian man. At first, he is hesitant to open up to her, but eventually he confesses that he continually has to deflect the assumptions of colleagues that he should “have an accent” or that he’s just there to deliver shawarma. Zoey asks Tobin to speak out, and to show Simon his support, but Tobin chooses not to, initially, because he worries about his spot at SPRQ Point.

Meanwhile Max and Mo pitch the idea for Maximo’s to Danny Michael Davis, and since he’s in a charitable mood, they finally have an investor for the restaurant…but they have to work out a few glitches in the app first. But, let’s just take a minute and appreciate how BOSS Mo looks in his presentation outfit? That coat? Those shoes? Be still, my heart!

Speaking of Mo, Simon goes to him to discuss what the SPRQ Point board is asking him to do. He ruminates about possibly retracting his statement and keeping his head down, you know, the way systemic racism wants him and all others like him to do. Mo, being the fantabulous person he is, tells Simon absolutely not. “You’re a beautiful Black man,” he tells Simon, and he tells Simon to never, ever, hide who he is. So, Simon decides to quit SPRQ Point, and when he tells Zoey this, she supports him. After nearly an entire episode of Zoey struggling with her white privilege and white guilt while feeling compelled to help Simon, she finally realizes that the way to support Black people is to well, support. And not the virtue-signally type of support, but true support, the kind that says, “You know what you need, and I want you to get what you need. You tell me if or when there is anything I can do to help you get that.”

In the end, Simon doesn’t have to quit because Tobin does speak out. He starts a trending hashtag in which SPRQ Point employees from around the globe speak out about their experiences with systemic and casual racism in the workplace. That gets Danny Michael Davis to listen, and in the end, both Simon and Tobin speak to the board about what BIPOC employees are experiencing at SPRQ Point, and at that point, they call for inclusion. Include them in all places, in all conversations, and maybe then the culture at SPRQ Point will change. Lasting, meaningful change, not just a viral social media trend or hashtag that’s forgotten within a month.

A Turning Point?

Up until the past two episodes, Zoey, and thereby the audience, existed in a kind of colorblind vacuum. There were BIPOC characters everywhere on the show, with varying sexualities, genders, and religion, and Zoey’s seemingly effortless acceptance portrayed a more utopian existence than the world we really live in. The blinders have been removed, however, and perhaps the Zoey we see moving forward will be more cognizant of those differences.

Zoey has been given the power to see, really see, people. Max called it a superpower, and you know what? Maybe she should start using it like one. She has the opportunity and the capability to make real differences on a bigger scope than she’s previously used it for, and maybe it’s time for Zoey to put on the proverbial cape and start making a difference.

But, you know what? This episode wasn’t about Zoey. It was about Simon, and Tobin, and all the other BIPOC characters that make up the show. So, let’s celebrate them and their victory. (And if it’s to the soundtrack of Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope”, so much the better!)

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist will return for its new night on Sunday, March 28.