Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist: All the awards for Mandy Moore & Jane Levy

Why Mandy Moore deserves more awards for Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist Season 2, Episode 3 is the type of creative work that, with any justice in this world whatsoever, should go down in history as an all-time great. That’s a lot of praise to heap on a series that has already received plenty of love here, but the devastating work of art that was Zoey Clarke’s reckoning with her own resurgent grief deserves it. And more.

Anyone who’s lost a loved one knows what it’s like to try to return to the world—to move on with life—and feel like it’s one step forward and 10 steps back. We can be perfectly fine one moment, or at least convince ourselves we are, only to sob over what might seem like the stupidest thing the next.

There’s also the idea that sometimes, our dreams are the only insight we have into our own struggles. They’re the waking thoughts we can’t quite face yet—can’t begin to process in a literal sense—and therefore need to see play out in metaphors, behind closed eyes.

The way “Zoey’s Extraordinary Dreams” mixed all of that together, complete with the series’s usual unique blend of musical and more traditional TV storytelling, defies description. But it’s worth exploring, regardless.

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist choreographer Mandy Moore

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 11: Choreographer and producer Mandy Moore of “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” speaks during the NBCUniversal segment of the 2020 Winter TCA Press Tour at The Langham Huntington, Pasadena on January 11, 2020 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist choreographer Mandy Moore has done it again

Most striking in an overall excellent episode of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is the otherworldly genius of choreographer Mandy Moore. There’s a reason she’s already won an Emmy for her work on this show, and this episode is clear evidence she already deserves a second trophy.

Even with some standard language of dance at my fingertips, it’s difficult to be able to break this down. What exactly makes each of Zoey’s nightmares, played out in a series of solo heart songs, so engaging? What is it about Moore’s choreography and Jane Levy’s performance that makes it stand out in an already award-winning body of work?

Is it the constant push and pull against the music, the physical tension conveying Zoey’s desperation to escape from her pain and just get out of that dark, empty house of grief? Maybe it’s the way choreographer Mandy Moore treats a bed frame like a cage, or the back of a couch as the perfect place for Jane Levy to simultaneously anchor herself, spiral away, and hold her leg in attitude. Or is it the chest releases, the very image of a pounding heart, when Zoey sees a photo on the wall and tries to pull away from it…but just can’t seem to?

Maybe what makes the nightmare sequences in “Zoey’s Extraordinary Dreams” so special is how they tell a story when you put them all together. Zoey can only get so far in her fight against grief before she needs a break.

First, she’s out of bed and down the stairs. Then, she makes it all the way to the couch. Finally, she opens that door she’s previously failed to even reach…only to find herself staring back at her.

It’s probably every single one of those things and more—every breath, every moment of suspension, and the constant use of everyday objects to help convey how lost Zoey feels. Regardless of what makes Mandy Moore’s choreography for “Zoey’s Extraordinary Dreams” so beyond, the meaning behind the dance is clear: Zoey is not, in the least bit, okay.

She is trapped, and she has no idea how to get away from this feeling and find her put-together self again. As the song says, she has “Nowhere to Run.”

Of course, the choreography would be meaningless if the person performing it didn’t own every second of it. Jane Levy has said in interviews that she’s “not a trained dancer.” If she’s this good at giving every movement intention without the years of training most professionals have, it’s somewhat terrifying to consider what she might have delivered with it.

Some dancers never quite manage to learn that it’s the in-between places, the ones that seem like they might be a throwaway, that can create the biggest connection with an audience. But Levy’s use of just her hands in every single one of Zoey’s nightmares is something that can’t totally be taught.

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist has always used dance to further its story—that’s nothing new. But whatever masterpiece the collection of Zoey’s nightmares, when viewed back-to-back, created, it’s certainly the series’s most noteworthy choreography and performance yet. In a post-COVID world, a live showing of just those pieces would probably even sell out.

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on NBC.