Tinsley Ellis: Still Screamin'
The veteran blues-rocker dishes out some more hot licks

By Lee Valentine Smith

It's not often a network TV show can claim to be a truly unique viewing experience. Blending comedy, drama and a soundtrack that jumps from The Beatles and Rolling Stones to Wham! and Van Morrison, NBC's new mid-season offering Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist is a welcome - and surprisingly original - antidote to the tired one-dimensional fluff that tends to overload commercial airwaves.

The new series features Jane Levy as Zoey Clarke, a computer coder who deftly balances work, family and a fledgling love life. She finds she has the power to sense other people's inner thoughts and feelings, but not by traditional mindreading. She's suddenly able to match a person's innermost "heart-song" to any given moment.
The high concept dramady is set in San Francisco with an incredibly gifted ensemble of actors. John Clarence Stewart, Skylar Astin, Alex Newell, Peter Gallagher, Mary Steenburgen and Lauren Graham star in the first two episodes released to the press. With Paul Feig ("Bridesmaids," The Office, Freaks and Geeks) on board as part of the production team, the show stands a good chance for mainstream acceptance and success. It's a decidedly off-beat creation for commercial TV, playing more like a cool VoD offering than a slick commercial broadcast venture.

Though set on the West Coast, Georgia is well-represented by talented actor-writer-singer-poet-activist John Clarence Stewart. Originally from the Stone Mountain area, the versatile actor is best known for roles on Luke Cage and most recently as co-star (alongside Levy) of the Netflix drama What/If.

Stewart's journey to commercial television began its organic ride at Shiloh High School, powered on to the Alliance Theater for a featured role in Rosemary Newcott's popular A Christmas Carol production then rolled up Harlem and New York City. His television career began in full force with Luke Cage and he continues to write, act in independent films and mentor new talent.

INsite spoke at length with the intense performer during a break in the shooting the season finale of Zoey. Here are a few highlights of the lively conversation.

On viewer reaction:

It's been really encouraging and affirming to see the response we've had so far. I think NBC believes in it enough to tease the pilot in January and then build up the anticipation for our regular run in February.

On those impressive production numbers:

I'm telling you, there's a lot of work involved. Our music team and our dance team including Mandy Jo Moore (Glee, So You Think You Can Dance), our choreographer extraordinaire, the amount of work they put into this show is insane. To do the amount of production and full-on dance numbers we do in the show, it blows my mind. They come up with the most ingenious ways to tell the story. Ways I've never seen before.

On the cast, including Peter Gallagher and Lauren Graham's vocal performances:

I feel that the entire cast has been pushed out of our comfort zones. I think that's the mark of an incredible project. We are all getting stretched but we're all rising to it. Speaking for myself, everything I'm doing is out of my comfort zone, everything! From when we shot the pilot [last May] all the way through to the season finale we're working on now, it's been all about taking that next step up, while gathering information from everyone.

On producing episodic tv that stands alone as individual statements:

The team does so much work before we come in to do our jobs. They do that so we can be in the space to be able to learn all the music, learn all the dances and then be ready to shoot it on the day. We only have a certain amount of time to get it all done. Fortunately we're in capable hands which makes it incredible. But none of us can drop the ball, we bring it. The show is so well cast, there's no way it can fail if we show up and do what we're made to do. We're putting it out there and that's all we can do. We can't control anything else. We'll leave it up to the universe to do with it what it will. There are certain shows that just hit the zeitgeist that way. They land in the culture and into society. Soon enough we'll see if we might become one of those shows. I do know we're making a show that we believe in. We're making a show that speaks to ourselves. It reflects us all.

On the universality of the storyline:

We have a show with characters that reflect what people see in their own lives, so their personalities aren't one-dimensional at all. They're the fully realized individuals people see in their own lives - and some that people might even see in themselves. Those characters are paired with music that penetrates through the masks we all use to hide behind. I think through the dialogue it spurs it'll resonate with a lot of people. Eventually I hope it not only sparks a conversation, I really hope it'll lead to healing and joy. And yeah, I know that's an awful lot to ask from a television show, it really is. But we're all excited to see the many ways it can be used as a balm to help people.

Beginning February 16, Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist will air Sundays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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