Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist: When silence speaks volumes

ZOEY'S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST -- "Zoey's Extraordinary Silence" Episode 109 -- Pictured: Sandra Mae Frank as Abigail -- (Photo by: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC)
ZOEY'S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST -- "Zoey's Extraordinary Silence" Episode 109 -- Pictured: Sandra Mae Frank as Abigail -- (Photo by: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC) /

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist Season 1, Episode 9, Zoey’s Extraordinary Silence was yet another meaningful, unique episode of television. And this one really hit home.

The creative team at Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist has already shown, time and again, that they understand how important representation is. Prior to the show’s ninth episode, the standout in that department was Episode 4, which highlighted the personal story of gender-nonconforming character, Mo (Alex Newell).

With “Zoey’s Extraordinary Silence,” the series gave a voice to deaf characters in a way previously not seen on television. Sure, there have been deaf people on TV before, but there’s always this story about trying to fix something that’s broken or some sort of “ooh, ahhh” moment when one token character manages to “live a normal life” (whatever that even means) in spite of deafness.

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Thankfully, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist didn’t go that route. While Howie’s over-protective nature with his daughter, Abigail, certainly risked falling into the former description of trying to protect something fragile and fix a broken person, Zoey’s gift showed her some actual reality: Abigail and her fellow deaf students were just like everyone else on the inside.

And this is where I have to break a couple of rules for writing about television and insert myself into the narrative. In Pre-Kindergarten, I had a very close friend who was deaf. I can’t remember her name now, but I remember her white-blonde hair and her infectious smile. I remember it never occurred to me to see her as less-than because society hadn’t yet taught me to do that.

I also remember what it was like when, one day, her parents sent her to a “special” school, and I thought I’d never see her again. Two years later, while performing with my fellow baby ballerinas, I did. Whatever American Sign Language I’d learned as a four-year-old was gone, except for one sign: “friend.” That was enough. (For the record, I still remember that particular sign to this day—friendship has a way of sticking with you like that.)

I didn’t realize that, about 30 years later, I’d be watching Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and see my experience on television, yet mirrored. Instead of the “able” person performing, it was Abigail (Sandra Mae Frank) and her fellow deaf students, played by members of Deaf West Theatre.

Luckily, instead of cheesy pre-ballet, the number was one of the incomparable Mandy Moore’s dance numbers, set to an instrumental-only version of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.” The connection, however small or reversed, made what was already a beautiful performance affect me even more than it might have.

But that’s what Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist has done so well since the beginning—really, truly connect with our inner feelings in a way that other series’ methods of storytelling just can’t. The series tells us to embrace our differences, those things that make us who we are, without ever seeing people as “the other.” Different is not less-than; it just is.

Just like anybody else, Abigail and her fellow deaf students thought incapable by many members of society had heart songs to share. They had musicality and expression, just like any other performers on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist; and the choreography, with American Sign Language used for the lyrics, was some of the most moving I’ve seen on this series yet. Considering I spend every week singing Mandy Moore’s praises, that’s saying a lot.

None of this should be remarkable, and yet all of it is because there’s just so little in the way of representation for deafness, especially as anything other than something to overcome. We really need to do better, and Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist has proven just how easy and downright perfect that can be.

“Fight Song” aside, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Silence” did one better: It allowed Abigail, through Tobin of all people, to explicitly express what television and society have both denied the deaf community.

Well-meaning attempts to “help” aren’t always actually helpful. In fact, they can be downright hurtful.

"Ever since I was little, he’s always tried to shelter me from the world and make me better. Whether it was cochlear implants or hearing aids, or speech therapy. But when nothing fixed me, he was devastated…He always made me feel like something was wrong with me. And then, I went to college and met people who didn’t view their deafness as a weakness. I now know I can do anything I want to do…I could choose to wallow or feel bad for myself, or I can embrace life, take control, and embrace my own destiny."

I can’t say this is my story, but what I can wish is that long-ago friend had people around her that showed her she belonged. I hope she had a support system like Abigail’s and a group like Deaf West Theatre to let her create as herself instead of in spite of who she was. Though I don’t personally recall seeing anything like it on television growing up, I hope she had a Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist of her own to show her she was seen.

If nothing else, the next little girl at least has this series. I hope she gets to see it, just like I hope plenty of others embrace the representation and pure human connection Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist has been serving since day one—but especially in “Zoey’s Extraordinary Silence.”.

Representation matters. That’s it. That’s the post.

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