Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is a new show that premiered this spring on NBC. The musical dramedy follows the story of Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy) who, after an accident, can hear people singing their inner feelings to her.
While Zoey is the star, I’m here to discuss her best friend and love interest: the charismatic Maxwell “Max” Richman (Skylar Astin). Max is the nice Jewish boy every mother wishes her daughter would bring home. He is supportive, kind, an engineer, and handsome as heck. And, since he’s played by Astin of Pitch Perfect fame, so he can sing and dance, too. Astin himself is Jewish, which adds to the authenticity of Max’s Jewishness.
The show’s creator, Austin Winsberg, grew up in a Reform Jewish family. In the show, Zoey’s father is dying from the rare disease PSP. Winsberg’s own father passed away from the disease, and it is clear he drew on his own experiences of coping with loss and grief. It’s also clear to see how his Judaism is infused into the show, especially when it comes to Max’s character. With a new season already in the works, it seems we’ll only get more of this deep dive into Max’s character: In an interview with Deadline, Winsberg said, “I think we haven’t done a deep enough dive yet into Max’s backstory, so there’s a whole story thread I want to do with Max and his father, in particular.”
Light spoilers ahead for season one of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.
The first mention of Max’s Jewish identity comes in Episode 4, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Neighbor.” The episode focuses on the relationship between Zoey’s neighbor Mo and his Christianity. Mo is gay and was raised as a male, but is genderfluid and has had a mixed relationship with going to church and singing in choir. Zoey begins to research more about religion to understand Mo’s conflicted feelings and how Christianity has impacted his life.
The next morning at work, Zoey asks Max, “Do you go to temple?” He replies, “I have been, yeah.” Zoey wonders if it was because he wanted to, or because his family wanted him to go. Max’s reply? “Because I got to second base at several bar mitzvahs.” When I first heard this, I snickered, as anyone would who got down at a bar or bat mitzvah in their day. However, Max’s relationship with his Jewishness is more complex than just getting to second base at age 13; in these few lines, he references his Judaism in a way that is once understandable to everyone, and adds humor to a heavy topic like religion. Also, you can’t blame Max for not wanting to get into a heavy philosophical discussion first thing in the morning.
The way Max responds with “I have been, yeah,” could imply that he still actively attends synagogue services — although this is not explicitly shown. I have a feeling that there is much more below the surface when it comes to Max’s relationship to his Judaism. Or maybe I just am craving good NJB representation on my television screen.
In Episode 8, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Glitch,” Zoey is unable to stop singing her own emotions out loud. During a meeting with the CEO of her company, she breaks out into Billy Joel’s “Pressure.” To try and save her from embarrassment, or worse, from getting fired, Max joins in the song.
In the aftermath, as she thanks him, he replies, “You’re just lucky I grew up with Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits Volumes One and Two. It’s kind of a rite of passage for every East Coast Jewish boy, like going to summer camp and not playing for the Knicks.” Max’s quip was spot on: For one thing, it hits home. Us East Coast Jews can really relate to this as many of our parents have seen Billy Joel perform at Madison Square Garden. For another, Max being Jewish wasn’t the punch line of a joke, but allowed him to both help his friend and added greater dimension to his character.
Max’s Judaism is never the butt of the joke, as we often see nowadays, like Ben Gross’s Jewishness in Never Have I Ever. Rather, Max’s Judaism adds nuance to his personality and creates a relatable nice Jewish boy.
And when I say nice Jewish boy, I am definitely stressing the nice. I know there are issues with the concept of “NJBs,” as Nylah Burton has written about in Alma. While not all Jewish men are nice, at least the fictional character of Max is. He’s cognizant of where Zoey is emotionally and never oversteps these boundaries. He gives her space when she asks for it and never tries to force her to be with him. Even when he is fighting with Zoey, he’s still there for her when it comes to issues with her father and does not expect anything in return. Max does not conform to the traits of toxic masculinity by “claiming his territory” over Zoey. He’s bookish and sensitive, and not a fuckboy.
While we look ahead to season two of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, I can only hope the show includes even more of Max’s quips about his Jewish experience. It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t matter to many, but if you know, you know. And if you know, it’s extremely meaningful.
Investigating religion will be an important aspect of the show if Max and Zoey end up together — which, in my opinion, they obviously should. Expressing the difficulties and joys of an interfaith relationship through song would be an engaging direction to go for the show. And if it just so happens that Max gets to sing some love songs written by Jewish songwriters like Troye Sivan, Carole King, and Irving Berlin, all the better.
Max is not only a good Jewish character, but a good character, period. Not defined by his Judaism but made more real because of it, Skylar Astin has done a great job of bringing Max to life. Fingers crossed for many more seasons — and more Max.
Header image: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC.