An SLPs View on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist

Happy Friday, everyone! Halfway through May – it’s hard to believe isn’t it? In a lot of ways, I feel as though this time has really flown by! The end of the school year is nearing for me, which brings its own varying degrees of both excitement and relief and nerves and anxiety.

Many people relax at the end of the day or cope with anxiety by turning on the TV at night. Now, I have to admit, I’m really not one of those people. I could go weeks without turning ours on and, when I do, it will probably be to rewatch Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or a favorite British period drama. TV just isn’t my thing! My hubs, however, LOVES movies and TV. So, we balance. One of the biggest ways we do that is by watching something together over dinner. Usually, we choose something pretty inconsequential for this TV togetherness time, and lately it’s been Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. At the recommendation of a few good friends, we decided to give it a try, and, while it’s far from one of our favorites, it’s been just engaging enough to keep going, dividing episodes up amongst multiple weeknight dinners. From the perspective of an SLP, however, I’ve found it to be thought-provoking on a different level.

*note: minor spoilers ahead

The premise of the show is quirkily simple. Zoey, who isn’t really a music person, through a weird, supernatural accident, suddenly receives the ability to hear people’s innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires through musical performances. So, when her boss is struggling with her marriage, she (her boss) suddenly bursts into “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones (for Zoey’s eyes and ears only). Zoey then uses what she learns about the people around her to help them.

As a side story, Zoey’s dad has recently been diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare neurological disease. They mention early on that one of the early effects of the disease was loss of speech. His inability to speak is obviously detrimental to his family, but Zoey is able to take some solace in her dad’s musical numbers and uses that to help him meet his wants and needs. She and her family also find creative ways to enable him to communicate without verbal speech.

And that’s where my SLP brain kicks in with 2 primary thoughts:

1 | The ability to communicate, both basic wants and needs as well as deeper desires and feelings in on full display. Zoey’s dad’s loss of speech is heartwrenching to watch at first, followed by pure joy when alternative forms of communication are introduced, then frustration again at their limitations. Beyond just wants and needs, the musical numbers that Zoey gets to hear remind us that communication is so much more than being able to say “I want lemonade.” Indeed, Zoey’s mom’s initial reactions to his alternative communication methods reveal the deep, heartbreaking desire that she has to be able to hear him say “I love you” again.

After one of her dad’s numbers (“Moondance” by Van Morrison), Zoey has to find a way to let her mom know what her dad is really thinking, even if his communication attempts at that point are limited to yes/no questions and expressions of basic needs. She fabricates a story about her dad’s eyes tearing up when “Moondance” began playing on the TV. Zoey didn’t know it, but “Moondance” was the song that her parents were listening to when her dad first told her mom that he loved her. Although not quite the truth, Zoey’s mom is able to interpret her dad’s non-verbal communication (tearing up) to infer his feelings. This leads to a rekindling of their relationship beyond her role as caregiver.

When we’re working with students and clients, we often focus very heavily on wants and needs. This is often done in conjunction with or in addition to intervention targeting expression of feelings/emotions/states of being. “I’m mad,” “I’m happy,” “I’m sad.” Watching Zoey’s, I couldn’t help but think about how much more there is to communication. Beyond just wants/needs, communication is our primary gateway to human connection. Are we focusing on that human connection when we plan our therapy? Or are we just trying to achieve something resembling functionality? I absolutely want my students to be able to communicate effectively in school, college, workplaces, etc… But I also want them to forge friendships and experience the joy of camaraderie and love. For myself, I know I don’t think about that enough.

2 | Where is SLP representation in the show? My one disgruntled feeling about the show is the lack of speech therapy discussed or provided to Zoey’s dad. Now, it obviously could have happened off-screen, prior to the time of the show itself. However, when he begins to show signs of comprehension and movement that could be compatible with the use of augmented communication, I found myself feeling very frustrated at how the family was fending for themself. It’s Zoey’s brother that comes up with a system of one tap versus two taps on a Taboo buzzer as a system for answering yes/no questions. Then, Zoey (a programmer) develops her own software to allow him to type what he wants to say on a computer. All I could think was, “There is so much technology available to him! He deserves a voice output device!” The fact that a show which centers around both (a) the vital importance of communication and understanding and (b) a high-tech, highly successful tech firm for smart devices has chosen not to delve into the world of augmentative and alternative communication as it currently exists is quite frustrating. This is such a fantastic opportunity for people to learn about what we and our collaborators can do for individuals with disabilities and a truly amazing way to showcase how technological advancement is being used for good. Yes, Zoey’s program is an example of this. But so far (we haven’t finished the season yet), I feel like they’ve missed the mark a bit.

Have you watched Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist? If so, what do you think? I’d love to hear!

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