[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Season 2, Episode 2, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Distraction.”]
From creator Austin Winsberg, the second season of the NBC series Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist sees Zoey (Jane Levy) navigating her grief over the loss of the Clarke family patriarch (Peter Gallagher) and figuring out what the new normal will be. With a promotion at work and a budding relationship with Max (Skylar Astin), Zoey’s musical powers are as awkward and complicated as ever.
After screening the first three episodes of the new season, Collider got the opportunity to chat 1-on-1 with showrunner Austin Winsberg and dig into where things are headed, the added pressure of surpassing the bar they set for themselves with the first season, why they decided not to directly address the pandemic, figuring out where to kick off Season 2, what it’s like to be on set without Peter Gallagher, bringing Harvey Guillén (FX’s What We Do in the Shadows) onto the show, addressing the complication of Zoey’s powers in intimate moments, whether they’ll get into the mythology of those powers, and his favorite moments so far this season.
COLLIDER: You were able to do the first season of this show in a bubble and put it out in the world with no one knowing what to expect from it. Did you feel any added pressure with Season 2, now that people know the show and the characters, and they have certain expectations? Was it hard to not want to surpass that expectation now?
AUSTIN WINSBERG: Of course! That’s why I have so many stomach aches and why I’m losing my hair at a rapid pace. I felt pressure with Season 1 because I always put a lot of pressure on myself and I have a very high bar for myself. I’m a perfectionist and the tone of the show is very challenging, so I always put pressure on myself. Same with Mandy Moore, our choreographer. She’s very much my partner on the show, and her and I have very high expectations and a very high bar that we’ve set for both of ourselves. We had that bar in Season 1, and I think that bar continues to remain or only got heightened in Season 2. Some people have asked me, “How are you gonna top “American Pie”? How are you gonna top that seven-minute oner?”
And I don’t know if we quite look at it that way because I don’t know if there’s a way to top certain things that have happened in the past. But I think that we’re constantly trying to think of ways to be innovative and creative and surprising, and do things we haven’t done on the show before. When you’re doing five musical numbers an episode and every number has a different conceit or idea behind it, that’s the area where we feel like we’re constantly trying to surprise and defy expectations.
I would imagine the first season was pretty exhausting, and obviously you want a second season for the show, but what was it like to have to sit down and look at a blank page and figure out what to do next?
WINSBERG: Yeah, it was certainly daunting. This show has so many challenges, regardless of COVID, which adds a whole other dimension to the show. We’re doing a musical, every eight days, and musicals that go to Broadway take eight years. Especially with our bar being so high, and trying to be comedic, dramatic, emotional and musical, with every episode, it’s definitely challenging. The other big challenge, coming into Season 2, was losing Mitch. So much of the storyline or the emotional arc of Season 1 dealt with his decline and dealt with the families’ response to his decline, and every single one of those stories was taken directly from my life and what had happened with my father. So, opening up in Season 2, to the idea that Mitch is gone, it also opened us up to tell stories that are perhaps less autobiographical. That also became a new question [and] challenge. We had to ask, “What are the emotional arcs of Season 2? What is the throughline, if you don’t have Mitch there, and how much can I still be true to my own experiences while also trying to expand the world of the show?”
As TV shows are returning, we’re getting to see how everyone is choosing to handle whether or not they incorporate the real-world pandemic. Some shows have characters that are wearing masks and face shields, but your show clearly is not. What was your thought process on that? Did you consider every possibility of how to handle it?
WINSBERG: I was definitive, from minute one, that I didn’t want the show to take place in a COVID world. I felt like our show is hopeful and uplifting and has a degree of wish fulfillment to it, and I just did not see Zoey’s existing in a world where people were wearing masks and shields all the time. I felt like there was enough going on in the world and day to day news, and the stories we’re all hearing or dealing with in our own lives, that I just didn’t want to have that be present. I felt like there was enough seriousness and a weight behind their own tragedy and their own loss that I just didn’t want to imbue the show with that. I wanted the show to be a form of escape for the audience. I also felt like I didn’t wanna see musical numbers with people with masks on. I felt like it robbed the show of some of its joy. I also felt like there were ways, especially in the first episode, to nod at what we’ve all been going through. Zoey has been living at home with her mom for the last six weeks. She hasn’t left the house. There’s are deliberate nods there to the idea of quarantining and being in our own bubbles, and then how do we exist and function when we actually do go back out into the world again. I thought that I could make nods to it without addressing it head on or seeing it so present.
Knowing that you ripped everyone’s hearts out with last season’s finale, how did you want to handle that coming back into Season 2? What was your process for figuring out where to pick back up and how much to still live in this family’s grief?
WINSBERG: It felt like we couldn’t pick up right after because the emotion of that was too raw and the show would just be too depressing, if we came back right on the heels of the wake. So, I felt like we needed some time and some distance from it. And I felt like if we moved forward too much in time, then we also weren’t dealing with what the aftermath of tragedy looks like. For me, the year after my dad passed away is as vivid to me as the year that he was dying. I’d always wanted to do a show about a family moving on. I actually sold the show to CBS, a couple of years before Zoey’s, called Moving On, which was about a family dealing with the death of a dad in unexpected ways. I also felt like if I could make the season about recovery and how we all move on after tragedy, I could still have some of the emotionality that I like in the show, but also be able to have moments of joy and uplift and hope while still tying in connectively with what we’re all going through in the world we’re in right now. I did feel like there were ways to have parallels in there, and I felt like there were these tough but important questions to ask, like how do we move on after something tragic has happened? What does our path of recovery look like? And when I was thinking about Zoey’s emotional path for the season, I felt like it gave me a compelling arc for her. Her road to recovery isn’t gonna be so smooth. It’s the same thing with grief. Grief can go away for moments of time, and then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, knock you out. I felt Zoey could go through a multi-step recovery process, and from that we could get our structure for the season.
What was it like to be on set without Peter Gallagher?
WINSBERG: It was definitely like a death. Peter is such an amazing, warm, charismatic, big presence, and going back without him, there’s a big awareness that he’s not there. When we were shooting some of those first scenes in the living room where he used to always be on the couch, or in the kitchen, the actors all felt really strong bonds with Peter, so to not have him there, they had to figure out how to recalibrate and adjust. In the same way that the family is adjusting to Mitch not being there, there was a process with the cast of adjusting to Peter not being there too.
You have some new characters this season. What made you want to bring Harvey Guillén onto the show and how did you figure out exactly what you wanted that character to be?
WINSBERG: I knew that with Max no longer in the bullpen and with Zoey getting a promotion, we were gonna have more space in the bullpen and I knew that it was gonna be important to bring other characters in there, just to help change up the dynamic and to go to her story in that space. When we talked about who could be there and who would be a good character to bring in, with a funny dynamic that’s different than Leif and Tobin. One thing that appealed to us in the writers’ room was just somebody where, because Leif and Tobin conflict with Zoey sometimes, somebody who was maybe a fan of Zoey’s or an awe of her was a fun contrast. We just liked the idea of someone who maybe didn’t have that complete macho bro-grammar energy was another thing that we thought was interesting.
So, when we started to conceive of the character, I went to our casting director, Robert Ulrich, and said, “We’d love to get a Harvey Guillén type for this part,” not thinking that Harvey would ever do it. And then, Harvey sent in an audition. We didn’t even know he was available. He didn’t have to audition. We would’ve just given it to him. I was watching What We Do in the Shadows and loving him on that, and I just started thinking of a Josh Gad or Harvey Guillén-type of character. It just brought joy and what we needed for Episode 1. He’s got a big storyline in Episode 4. I just felt like we were really lucky that the type that I wanted ended up being the guy that I got.
How did you figure out the way you wanted to approach a sex scene with Zoey and Max, knowing the complications that her powers could cause in that kind of moment? How did you decide on the songs and what was it like to shoot that with Skyler astin having to schizophrenically sing two songs at once?
WINSBERG: It’s one of those things where I’m trying to be bold and defy expectations on the show. The first big idea we had there was, “What if we do an entire act that’s just one scene between Max and Zoey?” Normally on TV shows, and especially on network TV, there’s multiple scenes in an act. We thought, “What if we just take our time and make the whole act one scene?” And then, when we wrote it, the next thing was, how do we shoot it? We rehearsed it for two weeks, like a one-act play. We rehearsed all of the physicality in that scene. Every movement is designed to go along with a different action or a different thing that’s being said. We had to figure out the contrast between when he’s wanting to be sexual and singing, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” and when he’s trying not to be sexual while singing, “I’ll Make Love to You,” and figuring out the differences and the physicality of that, proved to be an interesting challenge in the blocking and the choreography. It was a big undertaking and we really took it seriously because we knew that tonally that was one of those things that we wanted to get. I loved that moment in Episode 12, where he flipped back and forth. We thought, “Is there a way to magnify that and put that scene on steroids, and then do it for an entire act?” It came from wanting to live in that first time with them and not rush through that, but to also make it comedic and emotional.
And then, on top of all of that, you add a duet between the two of them, which is a duet for her, but not for him. How was that to do?
WINSBERG: That was another one of those ideas. I don’t know who thought of it, but someone said, “What if she decides to join in to help make him feel better?” And then, I just had that idea. It’s just defying expectations. I had that idea of, “What if, when the number is on his side, you hear it with music, but then when it’s on her side, it’s just real and a capella, and you can cut back and forth and create something that’s a duet, even though you’re only hearing music on one side until the very end where, in a magical way, you feel like you’re with both of them?” That was just something that was there, from the second we came up with it.
Will you also be digging any deeper this season into where her musical power is coming from? Is that something that you’re still interested in exploring?
WINSBERG: A little bit, yeah. It seems to be one of those things that comes up in the writers’ room or comes up with the network, and then it goes away at times. I think we had a scene in the first episode, where she went back to the doctor and the network was like, “We don’t need these doctors scenes.” We tried to do it Episode 2 last season, and they told us we didn’t need it. I feel like some people just want to go along with it and not address the why of it. I don’t mind dipping our toes into the mythology a little bit, from time to time, but I also don’t wanna get so bogged down in the mythology that it takes away from the emotionality and the other stories we’re trying to tell. Once you get into the rules and the mythology, it stops being about the characters and the relationships, so we’re just trying to find that balance.
We do another episode later in the season, à la the glitch episode from last season, where we explore a peculiar quirk in her powers. I think that we address what her powers mean to her, in a more head-on way, in the second half of the season and the challenges that go along with the powers. In terms of the why of the powers, we’re still talking about the last few episodes of the season, so it’s something that could come back again, but it’s not something that we do a deep dive into in the first half.
I love how in Zoey’s absence, Mo has befriended Max and Simon and the three of them are hanging out together because it just seems like there are endless awkward moments there for Zoey. What do you enjoy about that trio and how much fun they are together?
WINSBERG: It’s funny, I wish we had done more of it. The big thing that first episode creates is a new business opportunity for Max and Mo. One of the big ideas that I had, going into Season 2, was wanting to see the two of them together more. I really liked this odd couple pairing of Max and Mo. And when we came up with this idea of a business concept that they could get into together, I realized that we could create many storylines over what it’s like with one of them being very left brain, and the other being very right brain, and one of them being very creative and emotional and expressive, and the other one being a little bit more logic-minded and business-minded, and how those two would compliment each other and clash. We got a lot of stories and fun out of what it looked like looks like for Max and Mo to be in scenes together and go into business together. That was the big thrust of that and that’s where we put a lot of our focus.
We have a fun episode coming up, Episode 10, where they do a boys’ night out together that’s not the way that you would expect. Also, in defying the expectations of the love triangle, I never wanted to make Max and Simon real rivals. I wanted to make them friendly with each other. Especially since Zoey is going through her own grief, it was important to Skylar and John [Clarence Stewart] that it wasn’t just viewed as me versus him, or that Zoey’s viewed as some prize. It really is two guys who are trying to do the right thing. By making them friends rather than enemies, there were more opportunities there for deeper storytelling.
I also really love how the relationship between Maggie and Emily’s older sister, Jenna, is evolving because they’re another very unlikely pair. Was that the fun of putting them together?
WINSBERG: For sure. One of the goals of Season 2 was to be able to tell stories and go in different directions with characters outside of Zoey, to not have her be the epicenter of every single scene, to be able to go off with Max and Mo on their business venture, and to be able to go off with Maggie into the world again and to see what it looks like without Mitch there. When we came up with the idea of Jenna, it was another interesting odd couple. I know that Mary didn’t wanna just get stuck playing sad widow. Also, I wanted her to get her out of the house. She spent so much of last season doing scenes in the house, being caretaker to Mitch, and I wanted to see what Maggie was like on her own, out in the world. So, by bringing Maggie and Jenna together, it just felt like an opportunity for an interesting odd couple and was also something that could make Emily very uncomfortable. We continue to explore Maggie and Jenna’s relationship in the next few episodes too.
Do you have a favorite episode or a favorite musical number so far this season?
WINSBERG: Yes. “Carry On” is one of my favorites that we’ve done so far this season. I’m very proud of that Act 5 in Episode 2, that we’re talking about and that we rehearsed for so long. And in Episode 6 of the show, we do a deep dive into systemic racism in Silicon Valley and at SPRQPOINT. The first number in that episode, for me, is one of the top three that we’ve ever done. I hope we pull it off. I just felt like after last season, where we did some episodes outside of the grief, that dealt with real issues, like Mo’s relationship to the church in Episode 4 and the deaf storyline in Episode 9, when we can do it and not in a heavy-handed way, but in a real world way and in our Zoey’s way, we can deal with things that are happening in the world. When we started talking about this season, it just felt to us in the room that it was an important thing to talk about and maybe an irresponsible thing to not talk about it. It just became a challenge for us to figure out, how can we deal with this in a Zoey’s way that’s still true and authentic to the characters in the world. I hope that we’ve achieved that.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist airs on Tuesday nights on NBC at 8/7c.
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