SPOILERS for Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist Episode 12 “Zoey’s Extraordinary Dad.”
Since its debut, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist has been a weekly source of joy. The NBC series tells the story of Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy), a computer coder who discovers after a routine medical procedure she has the ability to hear the innermost thoughts and desires of those around her – whether family, co-workers or complete strangers – in the form of popular songs often accompanied by full-on performance numbers. It’s a show which brings a sense of magic to each episode, along with a combination of laughs, romance and tears. But the biggest heartbreak of all would be not allowing such a truly special show about the love of family to continue. So, this is my plea to NBC to please not let Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist slip away. We need more time to see how Zoey’s love life pans out, what’s next for her family, how things will turn out at her work, and whose heart song she might hear next.
And while we all keep our fingers crossed for a Season 2 renewal, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist series creator and showrunner Austin Winsberg sat down with Collider for a 1-on-1, spoiler-filled chat about the show inspired by his own family ahead of the season finale, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Dad,” which aired on Sunday, May 3. Throughout this conversation (best enjoyed after you’ve watched the finale), Winsberg opens up about the moment he knew what the ending for this season would be, picking the right song to end the episode, how emotional it was to see the finale episode, if there will be a Season 2, and much, much more.
COLLIDER: When did you know what the ending for the season would be? Did you always know you’d be saying goodbye to Mitch in the finale and not some time before, or wait until Season 2 to do that?
AUSTIN WINSBERG: I always knew I was gonna do it in Season 1. Initially, I thought it was gonna happen at the end of Episode 11, and then we would be able to go back to what comes next for the family and the romantic love triangle and work stuff, after that. When my father passed away, on the last day of his life, a hospice worker came to our house and said, “Your dad is gonna die today,” and then left. We were all stunned and left to our own devices, and several friends and family members came over the course of the next eight hours, and we had this living vigil at our house.
I always imagined doing an entire episode, set during that time and with people going in and saying goodbye, and what that last day looks like for Mitch. When we started breaking that story, it felt incredibly sad and there wasn’t much action or a lot happening. I felt like maybe it could work as a play, but I just didn’t feel it working as an episode of TV. I also started feeling, by that point, the show is the best when it’s being comedic and dramatic and emotional (all these things), and it was hard to make that episode feel like it checked all of those boxes. The more we started talking about his death, the more it felt like it was difficult to go past it, so we ended up pushing his death to Episode 12.
Originally, [Don McLean’s] “American Pie” was gonna be Act 4, then it was gonna be Act 5, and then we moved it to Act 6. The reason was, once we had him pass away and we did that big finale song number, it just felt like, to go back to a love triangle thing or a work thing after that didn’t feel important anymore. It all got pushed to the latter part of the last episode and I think that was the right choice. It’s where we were leading with the whole family story, and it’s where we’re getting the emotional heart of the show. Anything beyond that would have felt insignificant, for me.
It’s one thing to pick a song for the episode. It’s another thing to do it as one take. What went into making the decision to do that and actually pulling it off?
WINSBERG: It actually started while we were shooting “I’ve Got the Music in Me” in Episode 2. I was talking to our producing director, Adam Davidson, and we were always just trying to think of fun ways to explore the music in the show and do what we call “Zoality,” where we go into Zoey’s brain for the musical numbers, and ways we could surprise the audience. It’s like when we did the flash mob in Episode 7, where Zoe thought it was in her head but it wasn’t, or when she glitched and she was the one singing all the songs, or the deaf performance [in Episode 9] where they were just signing the song. We’re always trying to think of inventive ways to use the music in the show, like Episode 11, where it’s a combination of karaoke and Zoality, at the same time. Adam said, “What if we do an entire act that’s a song? It’s just one song, for the entire act.” I was like, “That’s ambitious, but we’d have to think of a song that is long enough for that to work, and also movies the plot forward and has character reveals, and stuff like that.” So, we started thinking about songs, and there was “Hotel California” and some Pink Floyd, but then we said “American Pie.”
“American Pie” was my father’s favorite song. When I started thinking about the lyrics of the song, [like] “the day the music died,” it just felt very appropriate to me as the number to honor the father with and as the number that would happen at the wake afterwards. Somewhere in that process, that idea got in my head. We decided to make it the final act of the season and, like a musical where you bring everybody on stage for the big final number, we got to have all of the cast in one space and we got to pass the baton with everybody singing, person to person. The way it all went down was the way we always do it on the show, which is to come up with the conceit of the idea, then I go into a room with Mandy Moore, our amazing choreographer, and Mandy and I talk about what we want it to feel like and the basic gist of it. I had the conceit at that point, and we even broke [it] down a little bit together, with how much of the song we should do and who should sing what.
It was always this idea where we were gonna pass the baton, from character to character, and Zoey was gonna go through the house, room by room, to different people, and we would see these different tableaus of people throughout the season, and people there for her and for the family. Mandy went off with her associates and brilliantly figured out what that would actually would look like. Then, Jon Turteltaub, our director, and I came in and looked at it, and tweaked it with [Moore] a little bit. We brought in Bradley Crosbie, our amazing steadicam operator, who truly is the unsung hero of the season. So many of the dances this season have been done in versions of these steadicam oners and he is absolutely a part of the dance in getting the movement and the framing of that right. He’s brilliant at that.
So it was all of us together, figuring out how it would move. Then, it was about incorporating the actors into it. We had to incorporate 75 extras into it because, over the course of the wake, it goes from the house being completely full to just the four [Clarke family members] at the end. So, we had to work with all the ADs, in terms of the ins and outs of the extras because it takes place over time. Our cinematographer, Shasta Spahn, and her whole team, had to deal with all of the lighting changes. We had to deal with the set dressers, who would bring food in and out. It was really a choreographed dance amongst the whole crew for that number, and watching them filming it was like watching a theater piece live. Thankfully, we had an entire day we were able to take a hiatus to work on it altogether. We started working on it about two weeks before. We gave ourselves the time for that number (which we didn’t always have the luxury of) all season. We gave ourselves the time to really figure it out and get it right. There were so many elements that had to come together to make it work.
How many times did it have to be shot?
WINSBERG: Believe it or not, because we had rehearsed it so much, every department knew what they were doing. Mandy literally had written down, to a person, what prop the prop person would take away. The levels of detail involved was so thought out that we actually only ended up shooting it seven times. We nailed it on the sixth take, and then we got one more take, just for safety.
What was it like to actually watch this episode all together? It’s the culmination of a season, but it’s also something so personal to you. What was it like to watch all of it?
WINSBERG: It’s been an emotional process for me every step of the way. It was emotional while I was writing it. It got very emotional at the table read, when we said it out loud. The first time Mandy showed me “American Pie,” with just her skeleton crew of dancers and nobody else in the house, I was crying. Certainly, on the day when we were shooting it and the day where Mitch was dying in the bed, there were emotional moments on set. When I watched the cut of it the first time, I ugly cried five times. It’s been interesting because there have been different moments throughout the season where I’ve been able to compartmentalize it and treat it as a show — and not verbatim what happened in my family — even though every one of those stories is taken from my own life. But with this one, and certain moments in this one, it just really got me and still does. I’m sure I’ll cry again when I watch it on Sunday night.
I’m sure you’ve thought about where things go from here for all of these characters. What can you say about how the loss of her father will affect Zoey going forward? If we get to have a Season 2, once you rip away a bond that has been the heart and soul of the show, where do you go from there?
WINSBERG: That’s the big question, story-wise. How do you move on after tragedy and what does moving on look like? For me, a lot of Season 2 is about the idea of rebounding, and about the idea of when a tragedy happens, what does that do to you? How does that inform you?
For me, when my dad passed away, a lot of it for me was, “Who am I? What do I wanna do with my life? What kind of human being do I wanna be, and how do I wanna be towards others?” It gave me a lot more empathy and compassion, and empathy for my fellow man. For Zoey and all of the characters, in Season 2 I want everybody to be going through this question of, “What is my meaning? What is my place here, and what do I wanna do with the time that I have, knowing that time is precious and knowing the things can change on a dime?” A lot of that is resonant with what we’re all going through, which is, after we get out of this quarantine and go back into the world, what does the world look like now? How do we wanna be in that world? Those themes are resonant. Zoey is gonna be figuring it out, and it’s not always gonna be a pretty or easy or eloquent, but it’s gonna be her going on her search.
The other thing is, for me, it forced me to grow up and become more of an adult. That’s gonna be the next step for Zoey, a little bit more growing up and possibly some bad behaviors and struggling on the road to get there. That’s the goal. And then, with other family members: How does Maggie [Mary Steenburgen] move on, after she’s been with the same husband for over 40 years? How do David [Andrew Leeds] and Emily [Alice Lee] move on? Taking from my own life: How do you become a father while losing your father? What does that mean for your own sense of being a parent?
There are a lot of different dynamics that we set up in the last episode, with different changes at work and some love triangle things. It will be all of those things moving forward, and looking through that prism for every character of who they want be and how they want be.
Are you also hoping to get more into the “Why”s of Zoey’s power?
WINSBERG: Yeah, somewhat. I like exploring the mythology of that in the show, and the why, the how, and what does it all mean? We’ve spent plenty of time in the writers’ room, talking about ways that can go and the fun we can have with the mythology. If you use it as a superpower, you can play with certain superhero tropes. My only concern about that is I feel like the show feels the best when we’re dealing with characters and emotions and humanity, and some of that stuff can start to become heightened and very plotty. I just don’t wanna lose the soul of the show, in order to turn it into a superhero mythology thing. It’s just about finding the balance and the right ways in which to put it out there.