SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas,” streaming now on The Roku Channel.
“Nash Bridges,” “Ray Donovan” and “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” are all fan-favorite television series that are continuing their stories with two-hour original TV movies, but only “Zoey’s” is set at the holidays and managed to turn its project around within six months of its series ending.
The musical comedy centering on the titular young programmer (Jane Levy), who developed the ability to hear people’s emotions sung aloud to her, originally aired on NBC but was canceled in June of this year, after finishing its second season. Six weeks later, creator and showrunner Austin Winsberg had a “four-line idea” greenlit by The Roku Channel. This became a two-hour movie titled “Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas,” following Zoey and the rest of the Clarke family’s first Christmas without their patriarch, Mitch (Peter Gallagher). While many of the family members want to scatter for the holiday, Zoey convinces them to stay together and celebrate in a big way — the way Mitch used to.
“Two of my favorite musical numbers that I’ve gotten to do throughout the whole show’s life were both Christmas songs. I make jokes to Austin like, ‘You see that there’s some something in me where zany Christmas music is my truth. There’s this deranged-slash-earnest Christmas elf inside of me,'” Levy tells Variety with a laugh. (For the record, only “We Need a Little Christmas” is in this movie; the other is “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” which she performed in Season 1.)
Winsberg and his writers had five weeks to break the story, write an outline and pen the script. The team had another two weeks for pre-production before production had to begin in Vancouver, British Columbia. Almost the entire original cast negotiated new contracts for the project within that time and reunited to film for three weeks, with only a few days of prep first. (“I had four days to learn all the musical numbers, to record all my music, to have all my fittings, to get my wig tested, makeup test, memorize lines. Then I went to camera. Usually before the seasons we have two weeks,” Levy says.) The post-production team then had less than a month to edit before the movie dropped on Dec. 1. The story ended up being a condensed version of what Winsberg says he would have done in a third season, especially around the Zoey-Max relationship and evolution of Maggie’s (Mary Steenburgen) love life.
“It’s honestly a testament to the entire group because we had back so many of our department heads,” Winsberg says. “There’s so many people who are already so deeply entrenched in the world of the show, that it eliminates a lot of the questioning and guessing and ‘what ifs’ because we’re already on the same page about what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Created to be one part standalone holiday movie and one part direct followup to the Season 2 cliffhanger in which Zoey’s boyfriend Max (Skylar Astin) develops the same power to hear people’s heart songs, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas” features a mix of holiday classics (“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) and pop tunes through the eras (Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” and Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home,” for example), as well as a mashup of both (“Just The Two of Us” / “We Need a Little Christmas”).
“I started off thinking it should maybe only holiday songs — and then I listened to a lot of holiday songs,” Winsberg says. “The songs in the show are what we call heart songs and I have rules with those heart songs: They’re revealing what’s going on inside of somebody’s mind; they need to advance plot, reveal character or be funny or surprising in some way. Not many holiday songs fit; it was a bit limiting to get inside somebody’s head” with only them.
By using songs like “Bad Blood” and Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” in addition to “We Need a Little Christmas,” the movie provides a new way to get inside Zoey’s head and heart.
“In the past, whenever Zoey has sung and danced, it was a glitch where she knew it was happening, she was high on drugs, or it was a dream,” Levy recalls. “This was the first time I actually got to perform authentic heart songs, and after watching my cast mates do it for two seasons, I was very envious and I was really excited to reveal parts of Zoey that maybe we’ve never revealed before, in a way that was so private, she doesn’t know what’s happening.”
Meanwhile, Max also gets to experience what it is like to learn the innermost thoughts and feelings of those around him.
“It’s the ultimate equalizer; it’s what he’s been wanting — both Zoey and to be able to hear what she’s thinking or at least on the same level,” Astin says. “Where we pick up in the Christmas film, he’s just feeling himself. He’s got Zoey, he’s got the power and he’s got a thriving business that’s ready to franchise. He’s having such a great time with it, and it’s coming very naturally and even the things that are being shown to him from the universe are more surface-level, like someone needs an umbrella, so Rihanna, or ‘Cake by the Ocean’ and they’re really eating that.”
The first two seasons of the series saw Zoey grow emotionally and develop more empathy from witnessing those around her sing their hearts’ desires. Max’s journey is a bit more condensed: Within the two-hour movie he comes to understand the weight of the power when he hears the entire Clarke family sing “Wish You Were Here” at the holiday dinner table. But by the end of the movie, he has lost his ability because his lesson was a shorter one to learn than Zoey’s.
“She was worried the whole time that he knew about the power but didn’t possess it himself with the inequities between them or the inequalities between them. He wasn’t thinking the whole time how much she must have been struggling and how frustrating it could be for her. And I think he really gets to see that and understand that,” says Astin. “Max is someone who truly prides himself in his love and support, especially of Zoey. Now he can be the man for her, really, in the long run.”
After “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” was canceled by NBC, there was thought it might move to Peacock. When that didn’t happen, Roku swooped in to allow the story to wrap up with this movie. Almost all of the characters, therefore, get one more moment in the spotlight (and one more song), but they also leave the door open for new beginnings that could carry them into future movies, should the streamer order them.
Maggie, for example, flirts with the idea of a new romance (specifically with a tree farm owner played by David James Elliott — “They bond over botany,” Winsberg points out) before realizing she isn’t quite ready yet to move on from Mitch. Simon (John Clarence Stewart) solidifies himself as a solid friend to both Zoey and Max — something that Winsberg says would continue in future stories, rather than reverting back to the love triangle trope. Mo (Alex Newell) gets more involved with his boyfriend’s kids, and even Tobin’s (Kapil Talwakar) relationship progresses with a trip away. Only Joan (Lauren Graham) is absent from the festivities.
“Lauren is such a big presence that in order to bring Lauren back, I want to do it justice and really make her a focal point of the story. And as we were breaking the story, to just have Lauren in for cameo, it just didn’t feel right to us,” Winsberg explains. “I had an idea for a post-credits sequence, like a Marvel movie, where it was going to be Jan. 3 or something and it was going to Zoey’s first day back at work, and she was going to go into her office and see Joan sitting behind her desk. Joan was going to tell her that she’s leaving her own company and she wants Zoey to go with her.”
(Other ideas that were considered but didn’t make the final cut were a cover of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” which Winsberg says is “too ubiquitous,” and choreography on an ice-skating rink, which Levy admits she loved in theory but didn’t feel like she could pull off with only four days to prepare.)
Instead, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas” ends with Zoey and Max settling into their relationship dynamic now that Zoey is the only one with the power again. During a duet of “Time After Time” — shot and taking place on the same pier as the Season 2 finale moment where Max gets the power — Zoey’s voice unexpectedly drops out for Max. It was one of the more complicated pieces of choreography in the movie for both performers.
“A lot of times we do oners on this show, but there was a lot of ground to cover and quite literally a crane shot, a lot of pieces to it, so we broke it into three pieces: her taking me from the bench towards the observation deck and then us running up to the observation deck and then us being on it. And once we were on the observation deck, we shot it over each other’s shoulders as we would a scene, just to play the nuances of that moment and find the beats,” Astin recalls. “It was very cold and we’re making each other laugh a lot and there was a lot of complex camera movements, but our script supervisor on the day was very sweet and said that every time I lost the power and said the line, ‘I think they’re gone,’ her heart sank in her chest.”
The movie also ends with an explanation for why Zoey believes she got the powers, closing the loop on the biggest question of the series.
“What I think is nice about the movie is that we get to see her in love and happy with Max. When I was preparing to make this movie, someone had shared a quote with me that said, ‘Grief is just love with no place to go.’ And so, for me, moving forward, I was like, ‘Oh, Zoey is realizing through the power over and over again that she can’t retreat from life; she has to continue into it. Yes, she’s going to lose a great love, but she’s also gaining a great love,” Levy says.
“When she says, ‘Maybe the universe is just trying to tell me to look up,’ it’s like, maybe the universe is trying to tell Zoey to look up from your computer screen and look across at the person sitting on that bench. He’s in love with you and you’re in love with him, and even though you’re scared because life is scary and maybe you’re going to love something so much and it’s going to be so devastating to lose that love, you still have to love anyway.”