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Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist takes on the power of being your truest self

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist Season 1, Episode 4 “Zoey’s Extraordinary Neighbor” was more than just another episode of television.

From our very first introduction to Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, we’ve been singing Alex Newell’s praises. We dubbed Newell’s Mo “the type of character that will (hopefully) single-handedly make viewers fall in love with Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” in our advance review and haven’t backed down.

Even so, we weren’t prepared for just how…gut-wrenching “Zoey’s Extraordinary Neighbor” would be. When Mo sings “The Great Pretender” by The Platters, the character is instantly transformed from the Mo we know and love—confident, charming, with a sprinkle of sass—to someone much smaller.

Even the choreography during Mo’s heart song speaks to the mundane: going through the motions, muddling through daily life with little-to-no indication of the battle raging inside. This is no epic song and dance number like the second episode’s opener. It’s a shrinking of someone who, when allowed to be himself, is larger than life.

Like so many others who are struggling with things like gender identity and sexual orientation, Newell’s character pretends to be fine on the outside, even brushing off the song as something Zoey (Jane Levy) didn’t actually hear. Obviously, there’s a glitch in her powers. She should just leave it alone.

But as Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist has made clear, leaving it alone is not an option. So, Zoey follows Mo when he sneaks off to church. What she finds there is the worst kind of violence against her new friend: Mo is stuck presenting a persona that is not Mo’s.

Instead, there’s a nearly-unrecognizable person singing in the church choir. It’s the first time Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist‘s viewers are introduced to a male-presenting version of Mo; and it is just not right.

There’s a sickening sense of wrongness. Once the initial shock wears off, we’re met with the vaguest idea of how painful it must be for the gender-fluid character to have to “play pretend” in conforming to the church’s idea of what a man is.

When Mo confronts Zoey outside of the church, the character is more self-contained than the person Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist‘s viewers know and love. Newell’s voice shakes; he’s tense and barely holding back tears. He is not “a Leo, baby! Brave! Bold! Beeeautiful,” as he’d labeled himself earlier—not in the slightest.

Even with Zoey, who knows what a delightful unicorn Mo normally is, everything about the character’s personality is turned down several notches, as if a part of him has died. Newell makes very clear acting choices in these scenes; and to the actor’s credit, there are no words for the outcome.

Newell’s incredible performance continues back in the church. That bold, beautiful voice that’s already been highlighted on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist many times is simply…gone. Mo quite literally loses his voice as he fights the battle between who he is and who he thinks his church wants him to be.

When Mo finally opens up to Zoey, he tells her he was thrown out of more than one church, simply for being himself. Singing has always made him feel special; but every time he’s been comfortable enough with his fellow choir members to really use his authentic voice, they’ve shunned him.

Now, even though his pastor is accepting, Mo says:

“…that’s no guarantee that anybody else in those pews are gonna be. So my only two options are to dress like a man and feel like a fraud or dress like a female and risk being run out of the sanctuary.”

It’s difficult to watch, made even more so knowing that this is a very real story for Newell (and countless others). In an interview with The Advocate:

“It’s hard to have faith and practice faith and live a lifestyle that most people of your faith don’t agree with,” Newell said. “It’s something that I’ve always struggled with. … I’ve seen it time and time again: People want to have something from you but, especially in church, don’t want to accept you and want to downplay you and say that you aren’t as important as you really are.”

It isn’t until Mo witnesses a miracle—an agoraphobic neighbor coming to his door—that he returns to church. Dressed in a sparkly dress and flowing wig, Mo is finally able to let his light shine.

Despite having trouble even rehearsing the hymn when male-presenting, Mo can now belt out “This Little Light of Mine” like never before. He now realizes, at least in this church, he is loved for who he is and not who everyone else expects him to be.

Alex Newell of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist

NEW YORK, NY – FEBRUARY 25: Alex Newell at Build Studio on February 25, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Jason Mendez/Getty Images)

In presenting Mo’s journey through song, Zoeys’ Extraordinary Playlist gives voice to the voiceless. It’s not going to magically fix everything; but hopefully, seeing Mo’s happy ending will help at least one person feel less alone.

What Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist wraps into just an hour of television, even in the middle of other arcs (Joan’s marriage troubles, the Clarke family’s continuing struggles with Mitch’s illness), is a vivid portrait of how society harms people like Mo. Their light gets brutally snuffed out, when we should be helping to make them shine brighter.

The contrast between the Mo in “men’s” clothes and the Mo in Mo‘s clothes reveals more than words ever could. But as always, that’s the beauty of this series and the power of art.

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Sometimes, a man who loves to wear dresses and makeup is just that. Let’s get away from forced labels. It does no one any good to push people into this narrow idea of what we think gender is; in fact, it does nothing but harm.

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist airs on Sundays at 9/8c on NBC.