SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Zoey’s Extraordinary Return,” the second season premiere of “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.”
While the first season of NBC’s musical comedy “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” was very much about the titular character (played by Jane Levy) and her family adjusting to their patriarch’s slow health decline, the second season thrusts them into full-on grief after his passing.
In the initial weeks after his death, which played out off-screen between the episodes of Season 1 and Season 2, Zoey cocooned at her mother’s house, taking time off of work and prolonging any decision about her romantic life. In that time, her magical power of being able to hear the inner thoughts and feelings of those around her sung out also ceased.
“I felt like it would have been impossible to start right after his death. I just think it would have been too raw and we would have been living in the heaviness of that for too long, so I felt like we needed at least a little bit of a time jump between Season 1 and Season 2,” showrunner Austin Winsberg tells Variety. “Then I thought if Zoey had shut herself off from the world in living in her mom’s house in this bubble for the last two months, I felt it was a nice metaphor for what we’re all going through with the pandemic.”
Eventually life had to go on, and the second season premiere, titled “Zoey’s Extraordinary Return,” saw Zoey not only return to work, but accept a promotion that would make her the boss of the entire fourth floor at SPRQ Point, but also finally choose between Max (Skylar Astin) and Simon (John Clarence Stewart).
“Zoey’s trying to move forward, and that’s the message of the first episode — from the videos from Mitch to the family singing ‘Carry On.’ The whole message this season is, we have to move forward; we have to carry on after a tragedy. But it doesn’t mean it’s easy and it doesn’t mean the decisions you make are the right choices,” says Winsberg. “This season is all about, how does Zoey move on and what forms does that take? We do recovery and relapse and rebellion and regression and rebirth — a lot of ‘re’ words — to try to get her to become whole again.”
Here, Winsberg and Levy break down the Season 2 premiere, including Joan’s (Lauren Graham) departure, the move with Max and where that leaves Simon, as well as what’s to come for the rest of the season with these relationships and Zoey’s musical ability.
A lot of times when people are in a heightened emotional state, like one of grief, their behaviors and decisions can be reactive, rather than truly representative of who they are. Is that a fair assessment of where we’ll find Zoey in at least the early half of this season?
Levy: Zoey is in a lot of pain and she doesn’t want to feel the pain that she’s in, and when we’re in a lot of pain or anxiety or fear I think we act a little manic as a way to protect ourselves from the hurt. So yes, I think that Zoey is in a very reactive state; I think Zoey needs therapy, quite frankly. She has a magical power and she just lost her father! It’s very Zoey to be like, “Let’s pull myself up by my bootstraps and just continue on,” but she’s going to fail. Starting off the season, every episode is Zoey coming up with this misguided plan as to how to not grieve anymore.
Along those lines, is it fair to call her decision to kiss Max and therefore “choose” him for a relationship a reactionary one that she may come to think differently about as she gets further along in her healing process?
Levy: It is an impulsive decision. I think it comes off of “Carry On.” The whole episode is about other people having life gone on since Zoey has been hiding at home and she has to begin to consider, not necessary moving on, but carrying on. And I think the thing with Max comes from her thinking [that] she has to live her life and really, she just wants to feel good. This is a person where she’s safe, and Episode 2 is basically about her having a grief vacation, where she can just feel high on love and touch and affection from another person.
Winsberg: When Zoey makes a decision to choose that relationship with Max, I think she’s going forward with the best of intentions, thinking, “I have to make a choice and this feels like the right choice at the time.” But there are going to be complications that come along with that because she’s still grieving and beginning to feel overwhelmed with all of the responsibilities and choices she is making.
Now that Zoey and Max will be together, where does that leave Simon?
Winsberg: We unfortunately had to cut a scene from the first episode where he talked about being in therapy himself and all of the stuff he learned about after breaking up with Jessica. So Simon is very much in a “trying to better himself” place and wants to support Zoey in whatever ways he can in her grief journey because he’s been through it himself. We talk more about the therapy he’s in in Episode 3, I think, and he does learn about Zoey and Max and has a particular take on it that might be a little bit surprising, but he very much stays present and very much remains the grief constant in her life because he can relate to what she’s going through more than anybody else. And then we start to take him on his own story and journey in Episode 2.
The premiere episode also saw the departure of Lauren Graham, who is shooting “The Mighty Ducks” for Disney Plus, and therefore her character, Joan, Zoey’s boss and mentor. When you knew you had to write her out, what made promoting Zoey into her old position the right move?
Winsberg: [Joan] was always initially going to take over the CEO job with the company, and we debated, “Do we bring another boss onto the fourth floor?” And we realized that it was more interesting to give Zoey that job because it forces her to interact with other people beyond just the programmers, and it forces her to have to step into a real boss role. And then it gives Leif the opportunity to step into the managerial role that he’s wanted and see whether he can handle that or not. We just felt there was interesting story complexity to Zoey having to take on more responsibility, and how does she navigate that while also still going through her grieving?
And doesn’t it expand her grieving to also include the loss of Joan? How does that affect her in the role?
Levy: It was a big loss for Zoey to lose Joan. She lost her father and then she comes back to work and is losing Joan, and I find that to be really sad. What I’ve been thinking about a lot is, without Joan, how as a boss can she emulate Joan? It’s ripe for comedic work where Zoey thinks being a good boss is yelling at Leif because that’s what Joan did. I think that Zoey makes a good transition into being the boss. She’s quite good at her job and doesn’t have to work that hard on [it], but, of course, you will see the dissatisfaction of the brogrammers through heart songs about the way Zoey behaves.
Zoey’s power gives her the ability to understand what her now-employees are going through on a deeper level. How does that affect how she is as a boss and, Austin, what kind of statement are you trying to make about leadership through that?
Winsberg: It’s interesting the way this stuff becomes meta because I always try to lead with empathy with the cast, with the crew, with the writers. My whole philosophy on life shifted a lot after my dad passed away, so I do think there’s a connection this year. I think the big takeaway from the show in general is the need to connect, the reality that you don’t always know what’s going on right below the surface with people, and needing to try and listen more to be empathetic to other people’s needs wherever there’s human interaction. [But] at a certain point in the season, she’ll begin to feel the burden-slash-overwhelming responsibility of the power, and that’s going to cause some challenges for her.
Are there plans to bring Lauren back to guest star later in the season?
Winsberg: I would love to bring Lauren Graham back. It’s just about figuring out scheduling, the 14-day quarantine, how it all works. Everything is much harder with guest stars this time because we shoot in Canada and everyone has to quarantine for 14 days before they shoot. Unfortunately we had a lot more storylines planned with Lauren that had to fall by the wayside because “Mighty Ducks” was supposed to be done by the time we started, but then the pandemic happened and our schedules were exactly the same.
Can we also talk about George (Harvey Guillén)?
Levy: He’s not good at his job at all. He’s basically a liability!
He does seem like a lot. How will he shake things up going forward in the season?
Winsberg: By making Zoey the boss of the fourth floor and not having Max in the bullpen anymore, I felt it was important to just flesh out the bullpen a bit and bring another comedic point of view in. And I just liked the idea that rather than Leif and Tobin, who seem constantly against Zoey, [there would be] somebody who was completely pro-Zoey, Team Zoey. And I liked this big teddy bear of a character who really means well, but maybe we’ll learn is not as skilled at the job as we need him to be. And this really plays out in Episode 4, where there’s a problem Zoey has to deal with at work and that problem pertains a lot with George. It was a way to shine a light on Zoey taking on an expanded role and the challenges of blurring the lines of work and friendship and how that can complicate things.
You already touched on how her power starts to feel like a burden at some point this season, but will she start to make connections that some of the music she hears may be able to help her heal as well?
Levy: I think that she is a very fractured person who is in crisis and there are moments that the songs help her and could be quote-her therapy, but I think she needs a little bit more help integrating it all.
How much will Zoey get involved with the heart songs this season, whether it’s her singing or simply interacting with those around her singing?
Levy: We’ve been talking a lot about how Zoey starts to partake. [Mid-season] we’ve done 97 musical numbers. So I’ve been talking a lot to Austin and Mandy [Moore, choreographer] about how do we explore Zoey’s relationship with her power moving forward? After 97 songs, we can’t just have her stand there and watch it. I liken it to a dream: when you’re able to wake up in the middle of your dream and you know you’re dreaming, you’re able to try things. So how Zoey becomes more involved in these musical numbers is something we’re exploring this season.
Winsberg: I’m always trying to find creative ways for Jane to sing on the show, so I can tell you that Jane has a surprising singing moment in Episode 2; Jane sings multiple times in Episode 3; Jane sings in Episode 5; and we have another big glitch episode, Episode 9, where the glitch happens in a different way from last season. I loved our glitch episode so much that I thought, should we be so lucky for the show to continue on, it would be nice to have the glitch as an annual tradition on the show, but each time to have it be a different type of glitch. We haven’t shot Episode 9 yet, but that script is written and that is what is coming up.
Even if the glitch manifests differently, does there need to be a common reason for this glitch compared to the last one?
Winsberg: The reason in Season 1 for the glitch was because she was running away from dealing with the news of her father and she kind of went into a fugue state, and there’s another big thing like that. A lot of the rules of the power are about the responsibility to the power, the need to help people when they are singing to her, otherwise she’ll be haunted by the songs, and we have a new permutation, if that’s the right word, of what happened that triggered the glitch in Episode 9.
Looking at the music on the show in general in Season 2, how are you choosing what songs or even genres to use where, when and for what character?
Winsberg: I do have a wish list of artists, but there are some artists that are more challenging than others in just getting the rights to their songs. I’ve also learned how subjective music is. Everybody has a different idea of songs that they know and songs that mean something to them, and I learned this generationally because we have several writers on the show this season who want current artists that I barely know, versus executives who want songs from different time periods. And so, it’s definitely been a bit of a challenge finding a sweet spot where it feels like songs that are relatively universal, but also advance plot [and] reveal character. My goal has always been to use a cross-section of songs across time periods and genres, but rap has become particularly hard for us because rap usually has a lot of samples from other songs so you have to pay the rights for at least two songs. Also, rap can be so lyrically specific that it’s hard to find a fit for the show, and there’s also normally a lot of different writers and producers on the songs so it can be hard to get the rights. Rap is an example of something I wish we could have more of, but it’s a challenge to get.
“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on NBC.