'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist' Boss on Why It Was Time for Zoey to Pick Between Max and Simon (Exclusive)

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist
Sergei Bachlakov/NBC/Lionsgate

Creator Austin Winsberg discusses Lauren Graham's 'unfortunate' departure from the series due to pandemic-caused scheduling issues.

Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you have not watched Tuesday's season 2 premiere of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist.

How do you move on after losing a parent?

That was the big question facing Zoey (Jane Levy) and her family as Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist kicked off its second season Tuesday. Six weeks after the devastating death of her father, Zoey still struggled to adjust to her new life without Mitch (Peter Gallagher), as she and the Clarkes each went about the grieving process differently. It wasn't until they came upon three video messages from Mitch, addressed to Zoey, her brother David and their mom Maggie (Mary Steenburgen), gently giving them the go-ahead to move on.

When it came time for Zoey to return to work at SPRQ Point, a lot had changed at the once-fledgling tech company. Not only was Max (Skylar Astin), we'll get to him later, no longer an employee, there was some unexpected reshuffling and an adorkable new face (hi George!). With Joan (Lauren Graham) relocating to Singapore(!) for a new role, Zoey was promoted to the head of the fourth floor. While exciting news for Zoey, who didn't quite take to her promotion with expected enthusiasm, Joan's surprise departure also meant a farewell to Graham, whose premature exit was caused by the pandemic-induced delay for Disney+'s The Mighty Ducks.

Speaking of Max, he decided to partner with Mo (Alex Newell) on a promising new app venture where users could order from different restaurants all in one place. (Seriously, why doesn't this exist already?!) And, in the interest of progressing the ongoing Team Max versus Team Simon debate among Zoey's Playlist fans, Zoey made a choice (for now) to explore a romantic something with Max, planting a kiss in the closing seconds of the premiere. What now?

Following the season opener, ET spoke with creator Austin Winsberg about why he decided to end the love triangle for now, Graham's "unfortunate" departure and much more.

ET: Mitch leaves the family video messages, giving them each one the OK, essentially, to close this chapter in their lives and move on. Is this just a preview of how you're looking to keep Peter Gallagher in the fabric of the show this season, even though Mitch is no longer alive?

Austin Winsberg: Yes, there's definitely a few more times where we're going to explore Mitch in different ways throughout the season. I made a conscious choice to not have Zoey talking to her dad in fantasy sequences a la Dexter, Six Feet Under, just because we already have a magical element on the show. So I thought we could only sustain that one magical element; I didn't think we could sustain another one. It was just about being creative about the ways in which you bring Mitch back. But I also want him to continue to be a presence because that idea that people still live on after death and are watching over you, or haunting you, or a part of your life still. I wanted that to be felt. I think it is very easy in grief to sit in your sorrow.

I didn't go back to work for three weeks after my dad passed away, and I don't know if my dad would have been happy with the weight of the debt that I took on. So I just felt, from a messaging perspective, if my dad could have said to me, "I don't want this to be the way that you continue," and to my mom and sister too, "I don't want you to stay depressed. I don't want you to live in anger. I don't want you to live being upset about all that happened. It's important for you, and I would want you, to try to move on." I feel like that's an important message and I do think that with all the devastation that we've felt with the pandemic, the way that people have lost loved ones. it's a good messaging -- that idea that life goes on and that it's important to try to be strong amongst loss and figure out a way to move forward and find meaning in death. I felt that was a nice thing that Mitch could pass on to them.

It's tough to top the seven-minute finale number in season 1, but the family's cover of "Carry On" in the premiere was quite fitting. How did that particular number come together?

I don't know if we're going to top "American Pie." [Choreographer] Mandy Moore and I, the bar for us is really high. We're always trying to be inventive and creative in the ways in which we make musical numbers work. We counted a couple of days ago -- we're shooting episode 7 right now -- we're almost up to 100 different musical numbers already on the show. Each musical number has its own conceit and its own idea behind it. It is never just somebody singing. There's always an idea behind the song, behind the movement, behind the dance. The challenge we put on ourselves to always try to be creative, to one-up ourselves, to get excited about the next musical number. But that number in particular, it was important to show the family all coming together. "Carry On," in a way, is a good thematic idea for the whole season. It was important for them all to take the messaging that they got from Mitch and to try to hopefully use that as a beginning of a path forward. As we were breaking that number, it definitely took a lot of conversations between Mandy and I. We tried a few versions that didn't work and then we came up with this idea of people being frozen and that they were almost the passing of the baton -- they would take turns taking over the song as they're setting the dinner table. We liked the metaphor of them being frozen in time because that is how you feel after death. You're just shell-shocked. They're all a little frozen in their lives at this moment and need to move on. When we came up with that symbolic idea of freezing, but also the idea of letting go of being frozen and moving on and setting the table together as a family act, the family was setting the dinner table the way that they always would with Mitch there, [but this time] without Mitch there, locked in for us. 

Eric Milner/NBC/Lionsgate

At the end of the premiere, it appears Zoey makes a decision with her love life and decides to move forward romantically with Max. After a season spent establishing a love triangle between Zoey, Max and Simon, why did you decide to -- at least for now it seems -- have Zoey test the waters with Max?

I started to get some concerns about the fact that love triangles can get a bit repetitive and that we're also not in high school. We're dealing with a character who's turning 30 this year on the show and grown men. I started to feel that the more flip-floppy the Zoey became, the more that that might not only turn off the guys, but also turn off the audience. At a certain point it starts to defy credibility, in terms of mature adult relationships. I also felt like it was a bigger and bolder swing to make a choice, and then see the ramifications of the choice. I just thought that rather than continue down this will-they-won't-they oath with both guys, and continuing down this endless flip-flopping the rest of this season, it was much more interesting creatively to pursue an avenue. And then see what happens with it. I felt like that was more interesting storytelling or what felt more true to me. The whole message of the first episode is about moving on and making choices. It was important for Zoey to make a choice right along with that.

Is Simon still out of the picture romantically or are you leaving that door open still?

The romantic storylines that I wanted to do, there's no clean ending here. These are ongoing relationships with both men that are going to continue to evolve and become more complex.

What does the ring Max gives Zoey signify to you? Is it going to be an important marker for her this season?

Yeah. We talk about at times that Zoey is her own version of a superhero, and that in a way, this is a version of a superhero show. It was important, like any superhero, to give them their superhero costume or uniform. The idea of giving Zoey a shield felt fitting to me. What would that look like in our universe? This idea to give her a form of protection, as a way to shield her from the world, felt like a nice metaphor. I don't think we lean too heavily into it that much this season, it's another element of her superhero costume.

Mo and Max decide to team up to develop a new restaurant app. What might we expect from this new partnership?

That is a huge story thread that's going to play out through the entire season. I liked the idea of putting Max and Mo together as this odd couple. And to see what it looks like with the two of them going into business together. One of them is very right-brained, the other one is very left-brained. One is very creative and artistic, the other one is much more technical, computer savvy and logically-minded. I like seeing how those two personalities will clash with each other or complement each other. We also got really excited about the concept that they created together. I spent so much time on the specifics of this restaurant idea that had we not been in a pandemic time, I wish we could have opened a pop-up version of it. Once you see the finished depth of it all, it's something I'm really, really proud of. I think hundreds of hours went into the design of this and also the way it works. I'm fully ready to open the restaurant tomorrow.

Speaking of SPRQ Point, Joan is relocating to Singapore, which means Lauren Graham is leaving the show. Was that always the plan to have her exit or have a smaller presence in season 2? 

The Lauren Graham piece was an unfortunate byproduct of scheduling. She had signed on to do The Mighty Ducks show for Disney+ and they were supposed to start shooting that show in March, and they were going to be done in time for Lauren to be a big presence this season on the show. Then the pandemic happened, and they shut down production, and they went back into production at the exact same time that we started shooting. Scheduling completely overlapped and there was no way for her to do both shows at the same time. I had Lauren in multiple episodes this season and unfortunately we had to change all of our plans because of the scheduling. I love Lauren and I think she was a great presence on the show. We were always going to make Zoey the head of the fourth floor, but we had a lot more with Joan in taking over the Danny Michael Davis role, and still functioning as boss/mentor to Zoey in her new role. A lot of that just had to be changed in jettison because of Lauren's schedule. That was a real bummer. We loved her presence on the show. She likes doing the show and we just couldn't make it work.

Sergei Bachlakov/NBC

How does Zoey essentially becoming the new Joan shift the focus at SPRQ Point? There's also a new member of the bullpen, George, played by Harvey Guillen.

We just wanted to give Zoey more responsibility and we wanted to give her more opportunities to interact with other departments outside of the programmers. We had talked about bringing in another boss of the fourth floor, bringing a new dynamic that way. Then we got excited about the idea of giving her more responsibility, more people to interface with, because the more challenges and the more things we throw Zoey -- the more obstacles beyond her musical powers -- the more opportunity we think there is for story and conflict. Not only does she have to deal with the programmers now, but she has to deal with some real-world responsibilities as the boss. SPRQ Point is in a freefall through the first half of the season after Danny Michael Davis is under house arrest. So Zoey has to deal with a lot of the ramifications of SPRQ Point being in freefall. There are some major work stories where she has to step up in a way as boss of the fourth floor that she wouldn't have if she was still in the bullpen.

We also liked the idea of giving Leif what he wanted, which was to be manager of the programmers, only to realize that that's not as easy as he thought it would be. It was good, messy complications. Then the idea that she's now Simon's boss created some interesting complications because he works the fourth floor. Then George, just in taking Zoey out of the bullpen, and Max not being in the bullpen anymore, it was about fleshing out that space and creating another comic presence in the bullpen. There's a big storyline between George and Zoey that really plays out in episode 4. We liked this idea of this eager puppy dog, lovable character who worships Zoey and what that means to her as the boss.

The hug between Zoey and George felt like a hug for the audience too.

We're all so disconnected right now. Sometimes you just want to hug people, and certainly Zoey keeps a lot of it bottled in this episode, a lot of her own emotional stuff. So for her to accept that embrace and to really take that in, I felt like it was important for her to see someone that she had really helped. And then to feel that. To feel that in an episode when she's been feeling so alone, or freaked out, or not ready to enter back into this world again.

One of my favorite numbers was Max and Simon's duet to Jet's "Are You Gonna Be My Girl," which was hilarious and awkward, but in an enjoyable way. Are there any numbers down the line that you're excited for people to see this season?

Like I said, Mandy and I are always trying to one-up ourselves or change the game or do something different. Every episode, hopefully we have at least one number that was like, "Wow, didn't see that coming," or, "Wow, that was creative." Episode 2, there's a chair number with rolling chairs in the bullpen that I think is really awesome. The entire act five of episode 2 is all Max and Zoey, and we rehearsed that for two weeks like a one-act play, and there are multiple musical numbers in that act. I just loved the idea of doing an entire act of two people in a room together -- that was really exciting to me, treating it like a Neil Simon play. Episode 3, we do a really different visual and creative conceit where Zoey gets to sing three numbers. Episode 5, we have a really fun number on the street with a lot of people in it. Episode 6 is a deep-dive into systemic racism in the workspace. We're going to be talking more about this later, but we brought in a guest choreographer for that episode and really tried to look at the numbers differently. Every number in that episode is sung by a person of color in the show, but also written and performed by people of color in the world and really leaning into that story and the ideas behind that. We have a lot of stuff coming up every single episode, where we're trying to up the game, change the game. Last season, we did a glitch episode where Zoey was singing all the songs. We have another glitch episode this season, but it's a completely different kind of glitch that affects her powers in a different way that's surprising. We have a lot of fun, inventive musical stuff coming up.

What do you want people to know about this new season? How do you want people to feel as they watch the season progress?

I got a lot of really amazing messages and tweets after season 1 about how the show made people feel. Even though the father was suffering from progressive supranuclear palsy, which is a very rare brain disease, a lot of people found the universality in that, and the idea of loss, losing a parent. I feel like if this show, in any way, can bring joy to people, help people heal, connect to this idea of empathy and human connection, and the importance of human connections, and realizing that there are things going on underneath the surface with all of us, and to check in with other people in our lives to make sure we're OK. Maybe these are lofty ambitions, but I do feel like my big takeaway that the show is the emotional component of it and the way that it makes people feel. I hope in season 2, we continue to be a nice escape for people, but also hopefully make people feel good and make them want to reach out and connect to others, especially in the time right now that we're feeling so disconnected.

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC. For more on the series, watch the video below.

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