Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist creator teases more 'mature' love triangle in season 2
Zoey (Jane Levy) will finally choose either Max (Skylar Astin) or Simon (John Clarence Stewart), and sooner than you may think.
The romance is about to heat up on Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist!
The NBC musical drama ended season 1 on a heartbreaking note as Zoey (Jane Levy) and the rest of her family had to say goodbye to Mitch (Peter Gallagher), who lost his battle with PSP (progressive supranuclear palsy). While Zoey grieves for her father in season 2, she's also going to let love into her life. That's right: Zoey is finally going to make a real decision about her love triangle.
The romantic back-and-forth with her best friend Max (Skylar Astin) and her coworker Simon (John Clarence Stewart) is going to get a resolution, and sooner than you may think.
"Because Zoey is almost 30, and she actually turns 30 this season on the show, to continue to play this flip-flopping of, 'Which guy? I don't know, maybe this one, I don't know, maybe that one,' it felt kind of juvenile to me," creator Austin Winsberg tells EW. "That's more like a high school show and we're not a high school show. I just wanted to be a little bit more mature about it and I felt like being more mature meant making some decisions."
While the Zoey-Max-Simon love triangle occupied a lot of season 1 — even as Zoey tried to avoid it while preparing to say goodbye to her father — Winsberg decided that he didn't want it to drag on any longer. "Having her make a decision, that maybe doesn't make the audience feel like we're just stringing them along," he says. "Or like these two guys would at some point just be like, 'You know what, if you can't make up your mind with either of us then just forget it.' It was important to make decisions and then go down those roads."
No matter who you want Zoey to pick, you definitely won't want to miss the final scene of the season premiere. "We do make that decision at the end of the first episode and that does carry over and have residual effects that continue through the rest of the season," Winsberg reveals. "It was interesting to explore those arcs in unexpected ways in season 2 rather than just making it a will-they-or-won't-they of who will she pick. You can expect that there will continue to be love stuff going on with both of those men, but maybe not in the ways that you would expect."
So what else can fans expect to see from the new season of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist? Below, EW got Winsberg to reveal more about how Zoey and her family are coping after Mitch's death, how the premiere mirrors life in quarantine, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where is Zoey at mentally and emotionally when the premiere begins?
AUSTIN WINSBERG: In a fragile place. The premiere takes place six weeks after Mitch passed away, and Zoey has been living in her parents' house, in her old childhood bedroom, with her mom [Mary Steenburgen], and she hasn't left the house in six weeks. And she hasn't heard a heart song since the day her dad died, since "the day the music died" as they say in "American Pie." We start the episode with her deciding that this is her first day back at work, that she's got to go face the world again after hiding from the world for a while, and in our own way it's a little bit of a metaphor for everybody quarantining and being in their own bubble, and then going back out into the world again and what that looks like. Zoey is still in early stages of grief and recovery, and she kind of just wants to go back to a normal life and not make any decisions. [She] isn't ready to make any big moves in any direction, but then very quickly realizes that the world has moved on without her and that she's going to have to make some decisions in order to exist in the world.
How much of your own personal experience did you draw from in showing how Zoey and the rest of the family are handling grief this season?
Very much. I didn't go back to work for three weeks after my dad died. I remembered that going back there in the beginning, I was just so guarded. Going back into the world for the first time was scary and challenging and I was so emotionally raw. I was afraid of what would trigger me because I was very easily triggered emotionally by stuff back then. I wanted to bring some of that feeling back to Zoey. As far as the season itself goes, I thought it would be really interesting to explore how all of these family members deal with grief in different ways, and what are the different things that they take from Mitch's death and how do they move on from it. Zoey's whole emotional arc of dealing with the grief became our through-line for the season and a lot of that is representative of what I went through in the first year after my dad died. So if season 1 was about stuff that happened in my family the year that he was dying, a lot of the emotionality of season 2 is reflective of what went on the year after my dad died. There is no clear path to grief, everybody's grief journey is different, but I was interested in exploring what recovery looked like for Zoey and Maggie and David [Andrew Leeds] and Emily [Alice Lee]. I was becoming a dad while losing my dad so David becoming a father right after losing his father brings a lot of unexpected complications for him that are kind of ripped from the headlines of my own life too. And then with Maggie, my mom, after having been with the same man for over 40 years, suddenly found herself being independent and having to navigate the world without her partner there, a lot of those stories are stolen from what happened with my mom as well.
Music is obviously such a big part of this show but we don’t see any musical numbers for a bit in the premiere until Zoey returns to work. What can you tease about the moment she finally hears her first heart song after Mitch's death?
I knew that I wanted to kick it off with a really big musical number to show that we could still do a big musical number during the pandemic [laughs] and, à la "Help" being our big musical number in the pilot, I just wanted something that, after Zoey not hearing music for all that time, to suddenly be bombarded by a giant musical number as her first one back. That felt funny to me. And then I started thinking about what would be a number that would really get under her skin, and I thought that if we did a big Broadway number, that could be something that Zoey would really not like and also give Mandy Moore, our choreographer, an opportunity to do a really big Broadway-style dance that I don't think we've really done so far on the show. "Hello, Dolly!" got in my head and it just made me laugh and felt like a funny entry for her back in the world.
What was it like pulling off such a big ensemble number like that during the pandemic?
When we did it there was still a lot of anxiety about whether or not we would be able to do a number that big during corona, and I just remember this huge sense of relief that Mandy and I both felt after it was over that we had actually been able to shoot a number like that. And I remember the first time watching a cut, I got emotional watching it. You forget about this human connection that's lost during this time, so to be able to see a bunch of people doing this big joyful dance together, it stirred up a lot of stuff.
How did shooting during COVID affect season 2?
We have a lot of COVID protocols on set and we have a lot of safety mechanisms in place. Getting those systems in place was a learning curve and a process for us. I started to anticipate some of the challenges early. I tried to write to some extent to those challenges. The first big change is that last season we did a lot of interior location work at restaurants and clubs and bars and places like that. And I knew that those were going to become really difficult to shoot this season. We had to build a few more standing and existing sets that we could use in our own bubble that we could have full control over. One of the writing conceits of this season was what are some other spaces that we can build that we could go to a lot? Another thing was just trying to be strategic about the times that we do big musical numbers versus one person singing or two people in a room and trying to be smart and judicious about the ways that we did those. Other than that, it was just being smart about the production of it. There really weren't that many changes. It's certainly weird when we're watching rehearsals or when Mandy sends me these pre-vis dance videos, and you're watching 30 dancers in a room all dancing with masks on. It's still a weird thing to view, which was also one of the reasons why I didn't want the show to take place in a corona world. I just didn't want that endless reminder during our upbeat, uplifting, hopeful musical show. I'm sorry we're still in [the pandemic] but if we can provide any comfort, that would be awesome.
This season also has a new dynamic with Mo (Alex Newell), Max, and Simon becoming friends in the time that Zoey's been living at home. Where did that idea come from to bring those three central characters together in a new way?
The first thing was, in terms of talking about the love triangle and the Team Max vs. Team Simon, I didn't want to make it that one guy was a good guy and the other guy was a bad guy. Skylar and John were very clear about not wanting to view Zoey as a prize. I use their words in the first episode: "She's not a prize, she's not a commodity to be won." I liked the idea that Zoey was sort of shut off from them in the last two months so they ended up leaning on each other to find out what was going on with her and a friendship was formed. That felt interesting to me and a place where you could really get deep with the storytelling with these two guys, rather than being two guys that hated each other. That's unique. And we had done a few scenes last season between Max and Mo, and I really liked the fun Odd Couple pairing of the two of them. One of them is very left-brained and the other one is very right-brained. One is very emotional, creative, and artistic, and the other one is more logical and has this computer mind. It would be a funny opportunity and also with Max no longer working at SPRQ Point, if we put them in some sort of business venture together, what that dynamic would look like? Would they complement each other? Would they clash with each other? So that became a big overarching idea for the season, getting Max and Mo into partnership with each other.
Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist season 2 premieres Jan. 5 on NBC.