From show creator Austin Winsberg, the NBC series Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist follows Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy), a computer coder who suddenly finds herself with 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 that are often accompanied by full-on performance numbers. While the jury is still out on her ability being an unwanted curse or an incredible gift, Zoey finds herself connecting with the world in a way that can’t help but deeply affect her.
In Episode 12, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Dad,” which also happens to be the final episode of the season (and hopefully not the last of the series, as it inexplicably has yet to receive a Season 2 pick-up), Zoey hears an ominous song she takes as a sign she has to stop something bad from happening. However, she learns that sometimes life just happens, whether you like it or not. Ahead of the Season 1 finale episode airing on the evening of Sunday, May 3, Winsberg got on the phone with Collider for a 1-on-1 chat about being his cautiously optimistic hopes for Season 2, how the finale is an episode which creates shifts in all of the big storylines, what has most surprised him about this season, what makes Jane Levy such an incredible colleague, and more.
COLLIDER: So, what’s it going to take to get a Season 2? There’s no way that we can leave this family like this, and not see where things go next.
AUSTIN WINSBERG: I feel cautiously optimistic. I think that everybody [at NBC] loves the show, so it’s just a question of their needs, it’s a question of when production would start up again, and our live numbers. Those Sunday night numbers are hard, but all of our streaming and live numbers, media attention, and fan love goes a long way, so I’m very hopeful.
Aside from the fact that it’s just such a special show, there’s also just nothing like it and it would be so tragic to lose that.
WINSBERG: I feel the same way that you do, so please tell NBC that. I can only say it so many times to them. I’m like, “Guys, do you understand this is only growing and growing, and the amount of feedback and love we get is not something that happens, especially on network TV anymore? We have to acknowledge the special thing that we have, and like any special thing, you have to care for it and love it.”
What would you say to preview the finale of the show? What would you tell people to expect?
WINSBERG: I would say there are developments and shifts in all of the big storylines and dynamics in the show. There are changes afoot in Zoey’s romantic life, there are changes afoot in the workspace, and there’s definitely changes afoot with the family and the home life. Maybe there’s even a little bit of stuff going on with her powers, as well. So, there are a lot of story turns and developments in the final episode.
Reflecting back on the season, in what ways is it exactly what you thought and hoped it would be, how is it different, and how did it most surprise you?
WINSBERG: First of all, I’ve never, ever in my life gotten the support or creative freedom that I got from NBC. They never told me no. They never nixed a story. They were completely behind the vision and everything that I was trying to do. So, for the first time in my entire career, after having written on a bunch of shows and sold a lot of projects, to be able to say that I did something that was exactly the thing I hoped to create and the vision that I had in my head is really amazing. I’m really, really proud of that.
What I learned is the episodes I enjoy the most are the ones that have the right balance of comedy, drama, emotion, and musical. So I’m always aiming for and am going to aim, going forward, with some mix of that, in every episode. I like it when it doesn’t lean too far in any one direction, but all of the different emotions in one. It’s not the easiest thing to pull off every week, but it’s the stuff I respond to the most about the show.
The thing that surprised me the most is how, when I set up the “Team Max” and “Team Simon” thing in Episode 3, just to make it clear that we were doing a little bit of a love triangle on the show, I did not expect that to take off as much as it did and to really have the people in the Team Max and Team Simon camps be so vocal. So, that definitely caught me by surprise. The other thing that’s caught me by surprise is how many people have reached out to me who either have family members who have passed away from PSP — progressive supranuclear palsy, which Mitch has on the show and what my father had — or just people who have family members that are dying or have passed away from some debilitating progressive disease. Even if you haven’t experienced it yourself, there’s something about the idea of loss in the show and the idea of caring for a loved one that is maybe more surprisingly universal than I expected.
Even just not being able to connect with a loved one, for whatever reason, like the separation from people that we’re currently experiencing, this show certainly makes you feel that.
WINSBERG: Right, and that’s a great point, too. I don’t know if I intentionally set out to do it exactly this way, but the ideas of connectivity in the show, and the ideas of empathy, and learning to see what’s going on beneath the surface, and recognizing that you can’t judge a book by its cover, and that everybody is suffering and struggling in their own ways, are all ideas that are resonating with people now, more than ever. I couldn’t have anticipated any of that, while creating it. But I think that the underlying message of the show is one of positivity, connectivity, joy and hope. I don’t know if I set out for that, or if that was just maybe my worldview that’s crept into the show, as it’s going along.
You threw so much at Jane Levy this season and she really handled it all beautifully. What has most impressed you about her, as an actress and just as a human being?
WINSBERG: I think that, as an actress, Jane can do anything. I don’t know if I quite understood at the very beginning the absolute breadth of her talent. From the amount of musical numbers, she just had to be the voice and watch. Yet somehow, every single time, she managed to have a different expression or reaction to it, to the fact she would give me ten line readings on a given take, and every reading was equally justifiable and smart and good, and then the ability to do any kind of tone that I throw at her.
Episode 8, where she glitches and sings all of the songs, I truly believe she deserves all the awards for. She goes through every kind of emotion possible in that episode. She does physical comedy, she does deep emotion, she does romantic comedy, and she sang six songs and danced. I really feel like there’s nothing she can’t do. I also feel like she’s been an incredible partner because she constantly pushes me to be clear about what it is that Zoey’s going through. I feel like I have to right up to what Jane delivers, all the time. So, I think that she’s an amazing partner, she’s incredibly strong and smart and resilient, and there’s no universe where the show would be the same without her.
Were there any characters in this ensemble that, at the beginning, you really had no idea who they would turn out to be, but the actor that you cast really brought the character to life, in a way that shaped their story?
WINSBERG: Yeah. Mo was originally written as a woman, so casting Alex Newell in that part, and then trying to be as true and authentic to who Alex is absolutely informed every single thing with the character of Mo. Episode 4, which is all about Mo’s relationship with the church, came completely from Alex’s own life. That entire storyline, some of the insecurities that Alex deals with, and a lot of his personality traits, are all taken directly from Alex. It took what started off as what could have been a stock character, Alex brought all of his own personality and his own story into that, in such a beautiful way.
Similarly, with John Clarence Stewart, who plays Simon, John suffered his own loss with his father when he was young and that informed so much of his own grief and his own father storyline. John is such a soulful person and such a deeply, emotionally connected person, that bringing some of those attributes to Simon, and Simon’s ability to nurture and listen and be there has taken a lot from what I see in John. Then, Kapil Talwalkar, who plays Tobin, has so much heart and he’s such a good guy that the continuous peeling away of the layers of the onion of Tobin, where he might’ve started off as a comedic douchebag in the office, but continues to grow and grow on people, I think he’s brilliant. I love that we’ve been able to see the humanity in Tobin, and so much of that has come from Kap.
What led to each episode kicking off with a moment of censored swearing. Was that something you always wanted to do, or did that develop out of something?
WINSBERG: It was a joke for the pilot. Originally, in the pilot, she says, “What the F?,” and as she’s saying it, we were going to cut to black. I don’t know if it was our editor, David Dean, or our pilot director, Richard Shepard, who came up with the idea to have the banner go over her mouth, and then create the title, but we thought that was clever and funny and unique for the pilot. I think it might’ve been Richard Shepard who said, “You should do that every week,” or “That would be a funny runner,” or somehow it just came up. I don’t remember the exact genesis of it, but I feel like it came from Richard, just as this idea of it being funny to do it, every week. You’re always looking for [an] out to your cold open, or your out to Act 1. I thought if we could do it differently every week, that was just a fun way to get us out of the act.
What exactly is a CheeseQuake?
WINSBERG: A CheeseQuake is actually a real thing they sell in that market in San Francisco, right near the Embarcadero in the Ferry Building. On the pilot, I was looking for where Simon and Zoey could go and eat, or do something, and I discovered that there was an actual stand in this market that sells CheeseQuakes, which are just mini-cheesecakes, but that’s what they call them. I like CheeseQuakes because there was an earthquake that had just happened, so I thought it was cute that, after the earthquake, they were eating CheeseQuakes, and I liked that it was a real thing. Then when we went and shot on the Embarcadero, we went to the market and got the CheeseQuakes, and they were delicious. What’s nice about them is that you can buy them in different small sizes, so you don’t feel like they’re that heavy, or like can’t finish it, because they’re the right amount of cheesecake. They’re delicious, and you can eat them and feel good about yourself.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist Season 1 finale airs Sunday, May 3 at 9/8c on NBC.