Alex Newell is no stranger to musical television series. As the first runner-up on The Glee Project, he landed a role as Wade “Unique” Adams on the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning Glee in 2012. Eight years later, he’s back singing on the small screen as Mo in Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. The new NBC series follows coder Zoey Clarke as she begins hearing people’s inner thoughts and feelings expressed in song. Her building manager, Mo serves as a confidante as Zoey navigates her newfound “power.”
Both Glee’s Unique and Zoey’s Mo mark important moments of queer, black representation in media. It’s a responsibility Newell takes seriously, working with Zoey’s writers to ensure Mo is a fully developed, multidimensional character—from wardrobe to wig designs to character arcs.
“You never really see a [gender non conforming] person’s dating life ever on television, or you don’t see an effeminate or plus-size person have a love interest on television," Newell says. "And I said, ‘Let’s do that. Let’s do something that people don’t see often.'”
Newell was also intent on veering away from the “Magical Negro” trope that Mo could potentially dip into, serving as advice-providing comic relief to Zoey. “[I want Mo to be] really grounded and real." Newell says. "Because once you find a way to show all the colors of a human being, it’s nice to have those moments where you get sunken into actuality.”
Episode 4, airing March 1, gives audiences a closer look at Mo’s life outside of the context of Zoey. Despite Mo’s effervescent and confident energy, the audience learns he is wrestling with an identity struggle after vowing “to present as male any time that [he] was in a house of worship” because of the homophobia and discrimination he experienced as a child. The episode follows Mo as he contemplates what it would mean to express—and dress as—his true self while singing in his church choir.
Newell is aware that this situation will be a learning moment for some audiences. “I don’t think for myself—who I am—I’ve ever been represented on any platform, other than me, because I’ve kind of made this lane for myself in a way,” Newell says. Inclusive storytelling in media has a history filled with obstacles and roadblocks. The entertainment industry is still taking steps to ensure realistic representation of queer people, people of color, and those who exist in that intersection.
Still, despite the lack of representation of gay black men in media, Newell found sources of inspiration. “RuPaul was like this avant garde thing when I was growing up—very far away and not tangible…then I got into the Broadway musical theatre world and I heard someone that sounded like me, and that was Billy Porter.”
It’s not lost on Newell that he now is stepping into that same role of inspiring others. “It’s nice, though, knowing that someone could see themselves in me.” In Episode 4, Mo triumphantly sings “This Little Light of Mine” and there's no question that Newell will always let it shine.