Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist creator talks season 2 renewal chances and unpacks that finale
Warning: This article contains spoilers about Sunday's season 1 finale of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, "Zoey's Extraordinary Dad."
All season long, Zoey and her family have been preparing to say goodbye to Mitch after his Progressive Supranuclear Palsy illness got worse. And after she saw herself sing "Bad Moon Rising" in the mirror, Zoey had a feeling something bad was going to happen. Her fears came true when Mitch took his last breath and died surrounded by his family. Zoey had one last vision of her father, dancing together as he passed away. It was beautiful, it was moving, and it was downright heartbreaking.
The finale continued with Mitch's funeral and ended as everyone left. The Clarke family sat with each other in silence as Mitch's spot on the couch remained empty, and Zoey started to cry.
Below, EW got Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist creator Austin Winsberg — who based the series, and this episode in particular, on his own life and experience losing his father to PSP — to break down that emotional finale, tease where the series will go in season 2 if it gets renewed, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Losing Mitch (and Peter) is obviously going to have a huge impact on the show, so how will things change heading into season 2 if the series gets renewed?
AUSTIN WINSBERG: My whole goal with the show is to be real and authentic to my own experiences as much as possible and putting it through the lens of this family. One of the ideas going forward in season 2 is how does a family move on after death and how does the family move on after tragedy and what are the ways in which we try to rebound and bounce back? And what are any lessons, if at all, that we can take from this experience to hopefully make ourselves better people? It informs the family in a huge way, like with my own mother in the Maggie [Mary Steenburgen] story, the idea of going back into the world and having to learn to be independent after being married to the same man for over 40 years. With David [Andrew Leeds] and Emily [Alice Lee] the idea of becoming a parent while losing your parent and what kind of father does he want to be and what lessons from his dad can he hopefully impart onto his child? And then for Zoey just this idea of where do I go from here and what, if any, good can I take from this? The overarching thematic idea I'd like to do in season 2 is a little bit of man's search for meaning, and amongst all of our characters but especially for Zoey what kind of person do I want to be and how can I make the most of the time I have? She learned from her dad that time is precious and it's important to live in the present and trying to take those messages but at a time where you're also grieving too. There's going to be emotional complexity for Zoey ahead and she might not always act in the ways that we would think or expect for her to act because of it.
What kind of discussions has there been about a potential second season?
About two weeks ago, I got on a Zoom call with 30 people and pitched out the entire arc for season 2 for all of the characters. I talk to the network all the time just about the ratings and the attention that the show is getting. And I know that there is a huge amount of internal love and support for the show. There's also a lot of external love and support both from fans and from the media and people like you who've just been really awesome vocal advocates. Everybody's just at a little bit of a standstill right now trying to figure out with corona what it means, when can we get back to work, when can production start up again? NBC has a lot of commitments to other shows for multiple years, and I think everybody's cautiously optimistic that the show will come back but we just don't have clarity yet. I believe it's going to happen. You never know but we really do have so much love from the president on down at NBC that I really feel like it's going to happen. But you never know, especially in this time where there's so much up in the air.
Will Peter Gallagher still appear on the show moving forward in some capacity?
Peter has become such an amazing part of the tapestry of the show, and there's so much love for Peter amongst the cast. He brings a great energy every time he's onscreen. So I would love to figure out creative ways to continue to have him involved in some capacity. I think that Zoey already has the power to hear music and see music, so I think to make him come back in a way like in Dexter or Six Feet Under where she's suddenly seeing her dad everywhere she goes I feel might be what we call bananas on bananas, [laughs] but I think there are still creative ways that we can either through flashbacks or dream sequences or things like that find ways to still bring him back every now and then. Certainly in my own life, my dad would visit me in dreams, and I think that there are powerful ways to include him when right. There's a lot of internal pressure from Mary and others to keep Peter alive, [laughs] however we can.
What was it like making this episode, knowing how deeply personal this story and this moment is for you and your family?
I felt a lot of pressure, my own internal pressure and my own high bar and expectations and wanting to do my father and that story justice. I cried certainly a bunch of times while writing it. I remember after our table read everybody sat in silence for several minutes and there were a lot of tears in that room. I remember certain things when we were shooting even when I saw the very, very first version of "American Pie" with just [choreographer] Mandy Moore and some dancers playing some of the actors. I remember walking into that room and getting instantly emotional. "American Pie" also happened to be my dad's favorite song. I think that there were other times throughout the season where I was able to compartmentalize more and treat it like we're just doing a story even though it really happened to me. There were definitely moments during the shooting of the last episode where that was harder. But it's important to be true and people have a good meter for things that feel forced or bulls--t or inaccurate and so I think maybe part of why people respond and get emotional to this stuff is because there's something universal about these feelings and whether people have experienced it or have fears of it, it just rings true to them. And I hope that's because of me trying to really just put myself and my truth out there.
Has your family seen this episode yet?
They have not. My mom read [the script] but she has not seen it.
Have you had conversations with the rest of your family about it?
They know the gist of what's coming. The end for my father unfortunately was not the happiest ending, for lack of a better word. My mom was concerned about the degree of authenticity of that and how far we were going to go with that. And that was certainly some level that we had to modulate in the editing room, just how graphic we wanted to be in the depiction of that. There were some discussions about what photo we should use at the end. So I did carry on a conversation with my mom throughout the process to some extent, while also still trying to not inhibit things that I felt were important to show.
The "in loving memory" end credit tag dedicated to your father at the end was lovely – what did that mean to you getting to pay tribute to him in this episode?
Are you trying to make me cry? [Laughs] I wasn't sure if I wanted to include a picture of me and him, or just him. And that picture was kind of a placeholder that I put in just when we were doing our first cut, but it seemed to get a reaction from a lot of people that felt like I should make it about both of us instead of just him. I think part of it is certainly honoring him and his legacy and trying to be some kind of, for lack of a better word, representation of what he went through. I think also at this point it feels like in some ways it's gone beyond that. I've gotten a lot of emails and messages from people who have family members that are either suffering with or have passed away from the same disease that my dad had, and it's a pretty rare disease so I think to bring awareness to PSP is something that goes beyond just my dad and what he went through. I also wanted to put a little bit of a face to it because I don't know how many people who watch the show are actually aware that this really happened. That was always a little bit of my intention, to put in there, whether people know it or not, showing my dad at the end is to imply that this isn't just a musical fantasy but that what the Clarke family is experiencing is what we actually went through.
In happier news, Zoey took steps forward in her relationships with both Max (Skylar Astin) and Simon (John Clarence Stewart) in the finale – where is her head at with that triangle moving forward into season 2?
Her and Max have taken a big step because now it's not just talking about their feelings, they've actually acted on them in some way. By Max actually going up to the sixth floor and by getting some success on his own and creating some of his own independence and confidence and looking forward, that's all stuff that has actually inadvertently forced Zoey to look at Max in a new light. He's not just her best friend anymore, she's really attracted to this newer, confident Max. At the same time, Simon for the first time is starting to move on and move past his father's death and his feelings about his engagement breaking up and also trying to look forward instead of looking backward. Going forward, clearly Simon understands the grief process more than Max and in some ways the roles are inverted now because now Simon can be the one to help Zoey through what she's going through. And Max now is also on a new path that is interesting and exciting to Zoey so it opens doors in season 2 for both of these guys to continue to be viable and to bring different things out in Zoey. What I didn't want to do was put a firm exclamation point on one or the other or to villainize one or the other, but to allow it to be something that could continue to play out going forward. That might be disappointing to some fans, but I do feel like we have to continue to, like any good, long television romantic comedy, it's important to keep those threads alive.
I’m rooting for her to end up with Max so watching him call Simon and bring him into the mix again was tough.
What is the rush for all the Team Max people out there to have her end up with him and like to be endgame at the end of season 1? [Laughs] Why is that the goal?
I just love Max so much and I want the best for him!
Well I can tell you and I can tell the Max shippers out there that I have lots of interesting and fun ways to continue to explore their relationship and to take it to the next level in season 2.
What lessons did you learn from season 1 that you’re going to apply to season 2?
I think it's important to always strike a tonal balance. I really do feel like the show is best when it's being comedic, emotional, and musical at the same time, so always trying to make sure that episodes have some balance of that. I also think because now that Mitch is gone, there are ways to not maybe have certain things be as heavy at times. And maybe it's okay to be a little bit lighter. I think there are also ways to continue to bring in surprising what we call emotional procedurals with people that she has to help and continue to have different feelings about her powers.