Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist Showrunner Teases Zoey-Centric Episode 8
From show creator Austin Winsberg, the NBC series Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist follows Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy), a computer coder who suddenly finds herself with the ability to hear the innermost thoughts and desires of those around her – whether family, co-workers or complete strangers – in the form of popular songs that are often accompanied by full-on performance numbers. While the jury is still out on her ability being an unwanted curse or an incredible gift, Zoey finds herself connecting with the world in a way that can’t help but deeply affect her. The series also stars Mary Steenburgen, Peter Gallagher, Skylar Astin, Alex Newell, John Clarence Stewart, and Lauren Graham.
In Episode 8, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Glitch,” Zoey’s powers suffer a mysterious glitch after she receives some heartbreaking news. To discuss the episode, Winsberg got on the phone with Collider for a 1-on-1 chat about how this project evolved into the show it is now, how the Zoey character initially came about, why Levy was the Zoey they were looking for, how long they’d been planning on doing an episode where Zoey is the only one singing, what it took to have their lead do six musical performance numbers in one episode, what’s still to come this season, and much, much more.
COLLIDER: This story obviously had very personal inspiration for you, but what made Zoey the character that you decided to center it all around?
AUSTIN WINSBERG: Once I had the idea for the show, about this woman that was gonna be getting this ability and suddenly seeing the world in a different light, I felt like it was important to make that lead character somebody who wasn’t very attuned with the world. I wanted her to be somebody who wasn’t great at interacting with other people, and I wanted it to be somebody, so that when she got this musical ability, it helped her to learn and grow as a human being. So, I started thinking, “Who’s somebody that could benefit from this?” And I thought, “Well, what if it’s somebody who sees the world in very binary terms, and very black and white terms, and who’s very, what you see is what you get.” And I felt like that’s something that a computer programmer does, as somebody who works in zeros and ones, and spends so much time hiding behind the computer and not really interacting with other people. But suddenly, when she hears people’s inner most thoughts and feelings for musical numbers, it not only gives her a deeper insight into the way people are, but it forces her to interact with them. The more conflict and the more obstacles that you can put for somebody, the better. I felt like, if it’s somebody who’s already very attuned to dealing with other people and who knows how to deal with other people, there’s less to play off of that. And so, it became about, who’s the right kind of person that could really benefit from getting this ability.
I also love that Zoey is someone who is now forced into this musical world, who doesn’t really know a lot about music.
WINSBERG: Yeah. That seemed funny, too. With Mo (Alex Newell) being the DJ, Mo could help her and be her entree into this world, and could be her musical teacher. I know people like this, and there have definitely been parts of my life, where people would reference bands and songs to me that I had never heard of before, and it just seemed funnier than if she was music savvy.
Was it specifically the character of Zoey that sparked the idea for this show, or was there another aspect of the show that made you want to make this show?
WINSBERG: This show all started from the fact that my father passed away in 2011 from Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, or PSP, and the last six months or a year that he was alive. Before that, he was a very dynamic, outgoing, vibrant, 67-year-old man, and over the span of a year, little by little, it just took away all of his abilities and really decimated him. He was very imprisoned in his body, but for a large part of the time, we felt like his mind was still working. I was becoming a father while losing my father, and I always like to write stuff from a personal place, or from things that have happened to me in my life. I knew that, at some point, I needed to write something about me and my dad and what that time was like in our lives. I just needed some time and some perspective from it to figure out what that should be. One day, I was thinking about what was going on in my dad’s head because we didn’t know how much he was processing, or if he was processing. I thought, “Well, what if the way my dad saw the world, during that time, was big musical numbers.” That was the whole genesis of the idea.
I talked to my friend, Cara Dellaverson, who is the president of drama at NBC, about the idea and she said that she loved it. But, she was worried that, if it was just solely focused on the father it might be too sad. So she asked if there was a way to open that up. So, I came up with the idea of, what if the way this main character sees the world is through musical numbers. By seeing the world through musical numbers, they’re able to communicate with their dad and also get insights into people they never had before. So, by shifting it away from just being about the father, it made the show bigger.
Then I had a meeting with Paul Feig about it, to direct it and to come on as producer, as well. [He] said, “I love it and I wanna do it with you, but instead of the main character being a male…” — because it was gonna be based it on me — “… what if [they’re] female?” because a lot of Paul Feig’s brand is rooted in these female-driven stories. I thought about it for five minutes and I actually thought it was better. All of the dynamics I had in place when the lead was a guy, I just changed some of the gender stuff and did a few things differently, and that that became the show.
Zoey is a great character on paper, but you still have to bring her to life. What led you to Jane Levy? She’s so fantastic in this, but what made her your Zoey?
WINSBERG: I needed the character to be someone who you felt was believable in the coder world and somebody who was endearing enough that you want to follow, as the lead character. This show does a lot of different things, tonally. The show needs to be emotional and dramatic, it needs to be comedic, and it needs to be musical. Everybody kept saying, “You’ve gotta meet with Jane Levy. She’s the one.” She was the person we met with, and I just fell in love with her instantly. She totally got it. I thought she was a great conduit for being somebody who could be accessible and funny, but vulnerable and also awkward. She just felt like she checked all of those boxes and was amazing. It’s funny because our old offices were at these Lionsgate offices, and there was a movie poster on the wall right outside my office for Don’t Breathe. For a month, me and the producers would just stand outside of my office going, “Who should we cast in this?”, and Jane was literally looking down on us from the poster, and we didn’t even know it. She was right there, the whole time. Jane was the only person that we met with for this part. Once we met with her, it was done. She’s great. Jane is not a trained professional singer or dancer, and what she was able to do in Episode 8, with the musical stuff, the emotion and the comedy, just blows my mind.
Even though I would have loved the show if it had stayed exactly how it was originally, I love even more that you’ve now started playing with the conceit of Zoey’s superpower, whether it’s a flash mob, her being the one singing, or everyone actually hearing her. When did you know that you were going to start doing that? Was that something you’d always built into the show, once you had gotten further into the season?
WINSBERG: I had the idea, since the pilot, that there should be an episode where Zoey is the only one singing. Jane had expressed to me, very early on, that she wants to be able to sing and dance in the show, that she can do it and that she wants to do it. So much of the time, Zoey is the voyeur or she’s the one that we’re watching witness these numbers. She’s emotionally expressive in her face, with that stuff, but because she’s the lead, you always want to figure out, especially in a musical, how you get the lead to sing what they’re feeling. What’s her “I want” song? I just knew that I wanted to build a whole episode around that high-concept conceit. We’ve now established what her powers and the rules are. So, now it’s all about what are the ways we can twist it, that surprise people with it, go against expectations for it, and not be so beholden to a formula every week, [so that] everyone knows exactly what’s coming?
There’s a wide range of songs she sings in the episode, and I loved how important all of them were to the story. My personal favorite was “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” just because I laughed out loud throughout. What was the process for deciding the combination of songs, and do you have a favorite song from that episode?
WINSBERG: This episode is one of the things I’m most proud of, that I’ve ever done, in my entire career. It’s probably my favorite episode of the whole season, too. Mandy Moore, our choreographer, outdid herself in this episode. I think “Crazy” is one of the best numbers we’ve done, all season, with all those people in that giant space, and how do we physicalize what crazy feels like, and do most of that in a one-shot. “Pressure” is one of my favorite numbers of the season, too. The way that we came up with the numbers, a lot of it is chicken-and-egg. Some of it was just knowing what the story was, for the episode. A lot of times, in the writer’s room, we’ll come up with the story first and talk about how it could be a musical moment and what the musical idea is that we want to be expressed, and then think of a song that captures that. Other times, it’s like, “I want Leif to sing this song,” or “I want Zoey to sing this song.” There were definitely certain songs, especially as it pertains to the love triangle, that I wanted Zoey to sing. Certain songs are just very clear. When I knew that she was gonna have a moment with her father, I knew the song that I wanted that song to be, pretty easily. I wanted to make sure that there was a variety of songs in it. When she saw Leif and Joan kissing, it just felt like there was a funny song in there. We had that song pretty early, and it just helped to justify that the watch was having problems happening at Christmas, to connect it a little bit.
How did the curveball idea for the flash mob come about?
WINSBERG: We do it again, in Episode 9, in a big way, with another number that I think will surprise people. It’s just that, once you get into understanding that these are songs that Zoey’s hearing in her head, it’s about finding ways that you can play with the form, and change that or deviate from that, in some way. It’s an idea that we had for a long time, to have a number that she thinks is in her head, but really isn’t. Then, it was just a question of, when’s the best time to use that idea. In our writers’ room, we had an entire wall of songs that we wanted to try to use, at some point in the season, and we had another wall with different ways that we could heighten theatricality in a musical number, or defy expectations in a musical number. A flash mob that Zoey thinks is in her head, but is not, was one of those that was always up there.
I’ve already seen Episode 9, and I was moved to tears by the deaf performance. It’s such an incredibly beautiful moment. What was it like to conceive of all of that, and what are you most proud of, with what you were able to accomplish with that number?
WINSBERG: I’m glad you liked it. Thank you. First of all, when the idea came up in the room, what if Zoey heard somebody’s song who was deaf, the idea of what would that look like and how should that feel, the first thing I said was, “We’ve gotta make sure that it’s absolutely authentic.” There is a group in Los Angeles, called Deaf West, that’s done three musicals that I’ve seen — Big River, Pippin, and Spring Awakening, which actually went to Broadway — and I was so moved, every time I saw one of their shows. Their shows are always a combination of deaf performers and hearing performers, and the way that they choreograph and integrate them, it all feels like beautiful music and art.
I was really inspired by those three shows, so one of the first things we did was the artistic director of that theater and brought them on as an advisor for that number. Then, it was all about making sure that we only cast deaf people, to do that number. It was really important to me that we weren’t populating it with actual hearing performers. It’s all people who couldn’t hear and who could express through movement. For Moore, it was super challenging because she had to learn sign language. [As a choreographer], she had to figure out how to tell a number in a different way than we’re used to, how to use sign language to convey that, and how the sign language would factor into the dance of it all. It was a multi-step process of finding the right performers, from all around the country, who were deaf and that could do it, and then Mandy learning sign language, us working with Deaf West, and making sure that it all felt authentic. In the number, itself, they’re standing up for what they believe in. For me, it was the most impactful number this season, from the perspective of what it’s saying and what we were trying to achieve from it, and just making sure that it all felt authentic and real. The other thing I held onto really strong, from moment one, was that I didn’t want there to be subtitles and I didn’t wanna hear the words. It was really important to me that this number stood alone, and even if you didn’t know the song, you still understood what they were feeling, through the expressions on their faces and through their movement. There were a lot of people, every step of the way, who either wanted some hearing people in there that could be singing it while they were dancing it, or who wanted us to put subtitles on the screen. I wanted it to stand alone, and I wanted it to be the way that Zoey’s experiencing it. I felt really strongly about that, from minute one.
All production is on hold now and nobody knows what’s going to happen with anything, at this point, but how far ahead have you thought about the story that you’re telling? Do you have a pretty solid idea of what Season 2 would look like? Do you know what the last scene of the series is?
What can you tease, as far as what’s still to come, in the handful of episodes that are left?
WINSBERG: One thing that we can tease is that we have two big Broadway Tony-winners coming in, in the next few episodes. Renée Elise Goldsberry from Hamilton plays Joan’s work rival, and Bernadette Peters comes in, in Episode 11, as an unexpected help to the family. The love triangle between Zoey, Max and Simon continues to evolve, in unexpected ways. And we have one number, at the end of Episode 12, that’s a six and a half or seven minute long one-take oner that is the thing I’m probably most proud of, all season.
One of my favorite things about the show is the friendship between Zoey and Mo, and I think that Alex Newell is just fabulous, in every way.
WINSBERG: Couldn’t agree more.
What have you loved about seeing how that dynamic has evolved?
WINSBERG: I love that it’s evolved into a real friendship. I love that Mo, who had initial judgment about Zoey and who she was, has let Zoey into his life. And I love that Zoey has really learned from him, over the course of the season. The whole thing with the two of them, and why I like them as an odd couple, is that if Zoey is somebody who sees the world in very black and white terms, and is very science and math oriented, Mo is somebody who sees the entire world in shades of gray, and is a music lover and an art and culture lover. He opens his arms to people and is very accepting, whereas Zoey has been much more closed off. And so, I love that, in the journey of the two of them, Mo has helped Zoey open up and expand. And I like that it hasn’t been just one-sided, either. Zoey starts to help Mo, as well. It was always important to me to give Mo his own stories and to create a love interest for Mo, so that Mo could have his own agency. I never wanted Mo to be there as just the friend or the sounding board. There are a lot of interesting places that we can continue to go, in exploring Mo’s own life. I also think there’s a fun odd couple dynamic with Mo and Max, so there are some fun places that we can go with that, especially in Season 2. The various ways in which they can learn from each other is something that’s really exciting.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist airs on Sunday nights on NBC.