There’s nothing on TV quite like Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.
Where else can you find exuberant musical numbers, razor sharp satire of the tech world, snappy, pop-culture infused dialogue (“You look like a sad Emma Stone Halloween costume”), groundbreaking choreography, and an eloquently honest portrayal of grief? Nowhere else, that’s where. Zoey represents all the potential network TV has to take big, creative swings and hit the mark.
The NBC dramedy has just kicked off its second season. Zoey (deftly portrayed by Jane Levy), who hears other characters inner most thoughts through song, is still reeling from the death of her father (Peter Gallagher) and faced with a daunting promotion at work while trying to decide between her two suitors Max (Skyar Astin) and Simon (John Clarence Stewart).
Paste got the chance to talk to series creator and showrunner Austin Winsberg about what’s in store this season:
Paste: There are some rather big changes on the series this season starting with the departure of Lauren Graham’s Joan.
Austin Winsberg: That was unfortunately a victim of [COVID-19] and COVID timing because Lauren had signed on in the off season to be on The Mighty Ducks on Disney+. They were supposed to be done shooting by the time we started, so I had actually written Lauren into several episodes but then as the dates got pushed the more we realized that scheduling would be a major issue and we just weren’t going to be able to have her the way we thought we were. It was a bummer for all of us. So then we kind of had to recalibrate. We had always talked about from the beginning that Joan would give Zoey the promotion to be head of the fourth floor and I liked the opportunities that arose with that. I always think the more challenges we can pile on Zoey and the more people Zoey has to interact with the better it is for story. I liked the idea of being able to take her out of the bullpen and deal with bigger type of work stresses. I also liked the idea of giving Leif (Michael Thomas Grant) the promotion he thought he wanted only to see it wasn’t as easy as he wanted it to be.
Paste: Harvey Guillén has joined the cast as George this season.
Winsberg: I’m a huge Harvey Guillén fan from What We Do in the Shadows and after we had written the character and I was talking to casting, I said, “ If we could get a Harvey Guillén type.” I never knew that we would actually get Harvey Guillén. I liked the idea of somebody who was a Zoey fan and just wanted to please Zoey. It brought a sweetness to the bullpen.
Paste: I have to admit I was a little worried you wouldn’t be able to pull off such big musical numbers this season because of all the COVID protocols. I was so happy to see the episode kick off with a Broadway number like “Hello Dolly.”
Winsberg: That was the number that kept our choreographer Mandy Moore and I up for weeks leading up to it. I just wanted it to be a big joyous dance number. We breathed a sigh of relief that we were able to make it happen.
Some of [the COVID protocols] were probably made a little bit easier by the fact that we shoot in Canada and the numbers were lower there. We still had to do a tremendous amount of precautions. COVID testing multiple times a week. Different zones for different people who are in the cast and crew. When the dancers are all rehearsing, they all have to be wearing their masks the entire time, they can only take off their masks for takes. We did every precaution necessary. The biggest thing that it affected had to do more with location shooting and interior location work. Scenes that would be in clubs or in restaurants with a lot of extras those were harder ones to control. We had to do more work this season on our existing sets or creating new existing sets that we could have more control of and be a little bit more in our bubble. And trying to do more scenes with less people in them, but I still wanted to strive for as much scope and vision as possible within the constraints of what we can do and what would be safe.
Paste: We see in the premiere everyone in the family struggling with their grief in their own way. Can you talk about how we will see Zoey dealing with the loss of her father this season?
Winsberg: Everybody’s grief journey is different. But in my experience it’s not one and done like, we talked about it one time and then it goes away. It lives with you and it also comes up at unexpected moments and just when you think you are doing fine something surprises you or reminds you of the person that’s gone and it’s such a gut punch. I feel like there’s no clear path of grief. Grief is complicated, and all of this season is about Zoey’s grief journey and the entire arc of the season is about different steps that Zoey goes through on her path to recovery. The year after my dad passed away was so formative for my sister and my mother and I, and I really wanted to do an entire season about moving on and what moving on looks like and how that differs for a brother, a mother, and a sister.
Paste: We saw Peter Gallagher in tonight’s premiere. Will we see him again this season?
Winsberg: Yes we will.
Paste: Last season you had the extraordinary one-shot take of “American Pie” in the season finale and the ASL performance of “Fight Song.” What are some of the performances you have planned for this season?
Winsberg: As of now we are almost done shooting Episode 7 and we’re almost at 100 musical numbers. We will be at 100 by Episode 8. Every single one of the musical numbers has a conceit or an idea behind it. We are always trying to challenge ourselves to be more inventive, more surprising, more theatrical, to look at the numbers from a different perspective that we didn’t before. In Episode 6 we do a deep dive into systemic racism in the workplace and Mandy brought in a co-choreographer Luther Brown for the episode, and there’s two or three numbers in that episode that I think are some of the best stuff we’ve ever done. We do another big glitch episode like we did last season but it’s a different kind of glitch. That’s Episode 9, and there’s a lot of big surprising musical stuff in that episode.
Paste: At the end of the premiere, Zoey appears to have made her choice between Max and Simon.
Winsberg: Season 1 is Zoey flip flopping back and forth. I started to get concerned if we did another season of “I don’t know which guy I like” there’s something that feels very young and juvenile and high school about that and they are not. These are adults. Zoey is turning 30 this year on the show and I felt like at a certain point the guys might get fed up with it or the audience would get fed up with it. It was important to make Zoey make a choice, to have Zoey have an action and make a choice, and I felt like whatever the ramifications of that choice are at least we’re playing that out in a real way versus that ambivalent indecision. I feel like indecision is weakness, but making choices can provide story strength or character clarity. And so Zoey does make an active choice in the first part of the season and we see how that plays out. I didn’t want it to remain “will they or won’t they.”
Paste: And Max and Mo appear to be going into business together? As a restaurant that serves foods from different restaurants.
Winsberg: When Max got fired at the end of Season 1 it felt like it would be a little bit weak for him to go back to the company after that. I wanted to take him in a new direction but also show his growth and independence outside of SPRQPoint, but I also didn’t want him to be siloed in his own stories. Mo had a lot of different kinds of jobs in Season 1 and I just felt like I wanted to give Mo something more concrete as well. In the scenes between Mo and Max last year I thought they were a really interesting and funny odd couple. One is very right brained, one is very left brained. One is very creative and emotional and passionate and the other one is more of a logical thinker. To see them go into business together felt like not only opportunity to comedy but to put two characters I really love in scenes together.
Paste: So the premiere had “Hello Dolly,” “Carry On”, “Don’t Cry Outloud”and “Are You Gonna Be My Girl.” Quite the eclectic mix. How do you make sure each episode covers so many different genres?
Winsberg: It’s a challenge! I lose sleep over it. I spend hours and hours thinking about these songs. The concept lends itself to any genre, any artist, any time period, and so I want to be true to that at the same time music is so subjective. Everybody has a different idea of what’s a song that they love or what’s a song that they know. It was very important to me in Season 1 and is still important to me that almost every song on the show are songs that people know. But people’s musical knowledge is different. I feel like if I’ve heard the song there’s a pretty good chance that people will know it. Every song has to reveal character, advance plot or be funny or entertaining. These songs have to check a lot of boxes.
Paste: What songs are on your bucket list?
Winsberg: There are certain artists that are very very hard to get no matter what. We have an amazing musical supervisor Jen Ross—she has kind of steered me away from certain people because in her past experience it’s just been very very difficult to clear them. We had amazing luck in Season 1, and this season so far too everyone we’ve asked has said yes. There are people on my wish list I just don’t know how or if or when we can get them. Taylor Swift, Madonna, U2, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars. There are certain artist we just haven’t touched yet. Rap is also a big challenge because a lot of rap songs usually sample other songs so you usually end up having to pay for two or three songs just to do a rap song. Rap is also one of those holy grails that has been challenging for us.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. on NBC.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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