Falling in Love and Looking for Work Come With a Playlist in Netflix’s ‘Soundtrack’

Netflix’s bouncy new drama “Soundtrack” wants to deliver a typical romantic fix with the added spirit of a music video. This is a show that uses musical numbers set to contemporary hits to convey all those favorite themes millennials in particular gravitate towards, how hard it is to date these days, career versus love, hook ups and class divisions. Here the characters experience all this and more while lip-syncing.

Weaving in and out of different timelines the show’s main characters are Sam (Paul James) and Nellie (Callie Hernandez). In one timeline Sam is a young widowed father fighting for custody of his against his former mother-in-law Margot (Madeleine Stowe). In the past, Sam and Nellie are two struggling artists who meet by chance and decide to go on a date. While they engage in what seems to be a typical hookup arrangement, they slowly get to know each other. Sam was once a promising music student but decided the constraints of school didn’t work for him. Nellie is an aspiring artist who can’t seem to land the right gig and is stuck in a school office. We also meet Joanna (Jenna Dewan), a social worker who was once a dancer and now crosses paths with Sam, who gets goosebumps the moment she walks through the door.

“Soundtrack” is the creation of Joshua Safran, who also crafted “Gossip Girl” and “Smash.” The inspiration here seems to be “Glee,” where the show’s narrative is broken or enhanced by sudden flows into musical numbers. Some of the story structure is also similar to NBC’s smash “This Is Us,” where romance and family stories move through past and present. The effect is a bit odd because “Soundtrack” is not exactly designed as a musical. There’s little pattern to how the characters suddenly lip sync to Sia, Amy Winehouse and Imagine Dragons. For example Sam will walk into a nightclub to chastise his ex-convict cousin Dante (Jahmil French) and starts intensely crooning “Believer,” or Nellie will climb up an imaginary tower of ex’s to the sounds of Sia’s “Elastic Heart.” When Sam gets fired he breaks into Nat King Cole’s “Smile.” These moments are entertaining and fun, even if the unintended effect is that you tune out as if a music video has started playing. 

Yet the musical numbers are oddly few and far between. Large swathes of the episodes just follow story angles that are replays of countless network TV dramas. Sam and Nellie have dinners where they fret over being in their late twenties without achieving their dreams, or Nellie seems quick to judge Sam for his working class academic record. Of course it’s a mask for Nellie’s own insecurities concerning her famous actress mother Margot, who pressures and pressures for her to attend an Ivy League college. Where the story works best is when it refreshingly shows the characters trying to be independent and not cater to the cultural pressures around them. There are also attempts at diversity with Nellie’s mom being half-Mexican and Sam having Cuban family, which means they speak some Spanish. 

There are some truly compelling moments, as when Sam has to attend custody hearings concerning his son, or when Nellie has to endure her mother’s psychological pressures over her life choices. The character relationship between Sam and Joanna is also well-developed and isn’t naïve about the complications of falling in love with your social worker. But this only makes the musical breaks even odder. If there was a better balance between the songs and the drama this would be an original and absorbing show, or if the actors actually sang. 

“Soundtrack” is half drama and half playlist. We live in a world now where digital access to music lets us be surrounded by our favorite artists in clouds of audio bliss all day anywhere. Maybe this is what the show attempts to convey, it just needs more of it. This is the kind of show that should be even more loyal to its title. 

Soundtrack” season one premieres Dec. 18 on Netflix.