Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist creator reveals the emotional true story behind NBC's musical drama
"It was just an incredibly difficult, painful time in my family," showrunner Austin Winsberg says.
On the surface, the premise of NBC’s new musical drama Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist doesn’t seem based in reality. Zoey (Jane Levy), a smart and driven computer coder working her way through the male-dominated tech industry in San Francisco, all of a sudden starts to hear the innermost thoughts, secrets, and desires of the people around her… through giant, colorful, musical numbers.
After she questions her own sanity she realizes this unwanted curse may just be an incredibly wonderful gift since her father Mitch (Peter Gallagher) suffers from a rare neurological disease called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), which has rendered him unable to move or communicate with his daughter, his wife Maggie (Mary Steenburgen), and everyone else around him. The emotional, moving series follows Zoey as she struggles with her new “superpower,” fearing it may be a symptom of her own potential impending neurological disease diagnosis, while also using it to finally communicate with her father again and see the world in a whole new light.
The story of the new series is full of heart, the musical numbers are breathtaking and epic, but the most powerful part of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is how it was created — because it actually is rooted in reality. Showrunner Austin Winsberg took the most “difficult, painful time in [his] family” and turned it into something beautiful, optimistic, and full of hope.
“It started from the fact that my father passed away several years ago from PSP, this degenerative neurological disease,” Winsberg tells EW. “In a year, my dad went from being this super dynamic, vibrant, outgoing guy to pretty close to a vegetable. He couldn’t move; he could only kind of move his right hand. He was losing weight rapidly. He couldn’t speak anymore. For the last six months that my dad was alive, we didn’t really know how much he was processing, if he was processing what was really going on, in his brain.”
And Winsberg was welcoming his first child at the same time this was happening with his father. “So I was losing my dad while becoming a dad,” he adds. Since he’s a writer at heart, he knew that eventually he would write about the whole experience, but he didn’t know when he would be able to or how he would even approach it. “With some distance, when I started thinking about it, I thought, ‘What was really going on in my dad’s head during that time that he was sick?'”
Since he comes from a musical theater background — Winsberg wrote the book for the Broadway musical First Date as well as the TV adaptation for NBC’s The Sound of Music Live! — the creator turned to music. “What if the way my dad saw the world when he was dying was through big musical numbers?” Winsberg says. “That was my way in to the show. It actually made me feel happy. It actually felt joyous rather than just sad, the idea that suddenly he had this musical take on the world.”
As he continued to develop that idea into what is now Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, the show evolved from being told from the dad’s perspective to a main character “who needed to have a new outlook on life and got the ability to suddenly see the world and see the way people are really thinking and feeling as big musical numbers.”
“I made her a computer coder in San Francisco because I wanted it to be somebody who thought of the world more in black and white, more binary, who suddenly got this ability to understand people better, and the way she understood people better is by hearing and seeing people sing their inner thoughts as these musical numbers,” he explains. And while Winsberg obviously isn’t a 30-year-old woman computer coder from San Francisco, the character of Zoey is based on his own life and experiences. “When my dad died, I had a different perspective on the world. You can’t always judge a book by its cover and the way that people are really feeling, that all came out of my own experiences and what I felt after losing my dad in such a tragic way.”
“But there are several characters in this show that are deeply based on me,” he adds with a laugh. There’s a deeply emotional arc at the beginning of the series where Zoey bonds with a seemingly perpetually happy coworker when she discovers he’s hiding a painful secret full of familial loss himself. “That whole storyline about bonding over grieving and loss, I had a really good friend during this time who her father had passed away six months earlier… she was the only other person that I knew at the time that was going through that grieving at the same time I was and her and I formed this very unique and unusual grieving bond with each other.”
And Zoey’s brother David (Andrew Leeds) is another stand-in for Winsberg. “His wife is pregnant and so becoming a dad while losing a dad, that’s what happened to me,” he says. “And a lot of the stuff in [Zoey’s best friend] Max [played by] Skylar Astin is based on my personality.”
Mining the most emotionally difficult time in his family’s life for a series made the entire development process “deeply personal” for Winsberg. “There’s a lot of stuff in episode 5 that feel really stripped of the headlines of my own life,” he says. “The first time I watched that episode back I had a very vulnerable, ‘I feel exposed’ reaction to it. When I’m writing stuff that’s sadder there are times that it’s challenging, especially when I’m listening to songs that I think feel right for a moment, I definitely get emotional and cry.”
When Winsberg watches scenes with Gallagher portraying a father suffering from PSP, he is shocked at how much the actor resembles what his father looked like at that time. “It’s almost uncanny sometimes. There are moments that take my breath away on set,” he says. “I don’t know what kind of research he did because I’ve done a lot of PSP research online as my dad was dying and there’s not that much. It’s a pretty rare disease so I don’t know what videos he found or what he looked at but he came in already there. Sometimes I have to compartmentalize it and recognize that it’s a job and I’m the boss and we’ve got to get the scene right. And then there are other moments when I go right back to a memory and it takes me back; I’ve had to walk off set and leave for a minute and catch my breath and stop crying.”
A powerful moment comes in episode 2 when Zoey’s new ability allows her to see her father sing “Moon Dance” to his wife. “It’s one of my favorite numbers of the season, and it was one of the moments where I took a step back and thought, ‘Wow, I just made my mom and dad dance again,'” Winsberg says. The “emotional ride” hasn’t been easy for the showrunner but he feels a duty “to be true to [his] experience and be true to the disease.”
“A big part of what I’m trying to do with the show is be authentic. I’m trying to be as truthful as I can in mining what I was feeling during that time and how everything went down and what happened,” he says. And while he admits with a laugh that his family is “used to” him “trying to mine stories from [their] life over the years,” this project, in particular, has been the most important for them all.
“This one is unique because it was such a painful time for us,” he says. “Watching some of the episodes with my mom and my sister, we all have different reactions. It definitely does take us all back to that time in our lives. They are open to it but they also didn’t realize I was going to be exposing so much. My mom keeps saying to me, ‘Don’t make it too sad!’ But I’m just trying to be honest about what happened.”
He pauses, and then clarifies. “I hope I’m not making it sound so depressing because there is a lot of comedy and joy and hopefulness and positivity in the show,” he adds. “It’s not just a sad cry fest. We deal with some complex issues like depression and grieving and disease and loss. We also deal with what it’s like to be a woman in a predominantly male workspace. There are a lot of different things we’re talking about in the show but underneath all of it, this show is about empathy and understanding.”
Since Zoey’s new ability helps her see the world differently, Winsberg hopes the show will do the same for viewers. “At a time in our country where everything is so heated and divided, for people to understand that we all have these emotions and feelings and that we’re all operating on many different planes at the same time, hopefully, the takeaway is for people to have more empathy and understanding and love and compassion for their fellow man,” he says.
And while Winsberg knows that PSP is a very specific disease, the themes of dealing with an ailing parent, sickness, and grief are universal. “Everybody can relate to loss and issues with family members and the emotion of the show,” he says. “I hope it connects with people. On set, we’ll do a number and or be shooting a scene and crew members will leave the set crying. People will come up to me and say, ‘I went through something like this with my dad, or ‘My mother just passed away,’ or ‘Thank you for doing this musical moment here becaue it feels empowering.’ I’m not just saying that — I wasn’t expecting some of those reactions. It’s nice to see that even though I’m telling something that’s deeply personal, it’s still resonating with other people too.”
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist debuts with a special pilot preview on Tuesday, Jan. 7 before its regular time slot premiere on Sunday, Feb. 16 at 9 p.m. ET (following an encore airing of the pilot at 8 p.m. ET) on NBC.