'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist' Creator on Surprising Finale Twist and the One Thing He'd Do Over (Exclusive)
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Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you have not watched Sunday's season 2 finale of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist.
After Sunday's Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist finale, you better hope and pray to the musical gods for a season 3.
In the final episode of the NBC musical dramedy's second season, Zoey (Jane Levy) learned she wasn't the only one with the fantastical ability to hear everyone's innermost thoughts and feelings through heart songs. Nope! By the end of the episode, she discovered that her best friend Max (Skylar Astin), whom she'd been hot and cold with all season, now has the power too, after he disclosed to her that he just saw her sing and dance to Modern English's "I Melt With You," a romantic comedy musical staple. As Zoey and Max digested the new piece of information, we're doubly intrigued by what the twist means for a possible third season.
The game-changing revelation came once Zoey got clarity over her true feelings for Max. (To put it plainly: She loves him and wants to give a romantic relationship a real shot.) After her boyfriend, Simon (John Clarence Stewart), broke things off explaining that a relationship shouldn't feel like work, Zoey found herself racing against the clock to make it to the airport on time to profess her feelings before Max boarded a plane to New York City to begin the next chapter of his life with Rose and restaurant career. Only when she arrived, she experienced Max's happy-go-lucky heart-song rendition of Michael Bolton's "When a Man Loves a Woman," mistakenly thinking it was about Rose. Some time passed before Zoey, alone on a bench rethinking if she just ruined her once-in-a-lifetime friendship with Max, was surprised when Max swung by and told her he broke up with Rose at the airport because he was thinking about her.
As the two aired out their long-awaited love confession, Max suddenly began hearing the beginning notes to "I Melt With You" and his expression -- shock, awe, confusion, worry -- said it all. "I want to be with you," Zoey said during her profession, "and somehow together we will find a way to make it work." Not that simple now! "Zoey, I think you sang a heart song to me," Max said slowly, a little scared yet excited about what just happened. A few seconds passed as Zoey processed what that meant before it dawned on her that this isn't "normal." And before you knew it, she and Max said the words we're all thinking: "What the..." Fill in the blank with the appropriate swear word.
To break down the stunning turn of events, ET hopped on the phone with creator/showrunner Austin Winsberg to explain the unexpected Max twist, address whether the love triangle is now truly over, the one season 2 storyline he'd do over again and what his plans for a potential season 3 are.
ET: The conceit of the show has always been centered on Zoey and her superpower of being the only one who is able to listen to other people's heart songs and know their innermost thoughts and feelings. But in the finale, you upend that and introduce this new wrinkle with Max now having that superpower too. When you were charting the season out, why did you arrive at this point and what about it made it a fascinating cliffhanger?
Austin Winsberg: We spent a lot of time in the room talking about superhero shows and superhero origin stories. And there is always a time in a superhero specifically, where they meet another character who also has powers. Then somehow, a supergroup comes together. And so, early on in this show, we always liked the idea that there would be someone else out there that also has the power in some way. From the beginning, I was always interested in the idea of Max getting the powers. We had really planted seeds in season 1, but really, especially throughout season 2, about the inequality in Zoey and Max's relationship. About the fact that she has a window into his brain and into his heart and his heart songs, that he just doesn't have into her. And the relationship was always going to be imbalanced and unfair.
I believe that for any relationships in life to be successful, there needs to be some kind of equality in the relationship. From a perspective of wanting Max and Zoey to work, and wanting them to work going forward, I felt like it would be interesting and important for Max to get the powers and to get that ability, to see what Zoey goes through and to understand that, and to have empathy for that and to realize that struggles, the challenges and the benefits of that. On top of that, just from a romantic comedy point of view, to be able to have this idea that people can be in a relationship and both know exactly what the other person is thinking at the same time, felt like a ripe area for romantic comedy going forward. I felt like it's opened up a lot of story threads, but even more than that, it's vital for their relationship to succeed that he needed to get the power.
This new Max twist also brought me back to how this all started in the first place, with Zoey getting her powers during an earthquake, right? What are the rules with how Max gets the power? Was there a specific turning point or a specific moment or am I being too micro about this?
I will say this. When she talks to her dad in the season finale, they talk a lot about the universe. All season long, she's been screaming at the universe about, "Why are you doing this to me, universe? What is the meaning of this universe? Why, why, why?" Mitch infers that he's part of the universe now and that maybe the universe is helping her on her path to recovery. Maybe the universe is also pulling these strings a little bit about why these things are happening to her. Zoey went through a real trauma with her father and somehow these powers and abilities that Zoey has gotten have helped her cope and have helped her learn human behavior and develop compassion and given her a way to communicate with her dad. And so, a lot of what we explored over the last two seasons is the burden, the pressures and the benefits of having this power and ability. I think that he intimates to her in the finale that maybe he is part of this grand design of why this stuff is happening to her. You can also infer from that in some way, that's maybe why Max is getting the powers in this moment too.
By bringing Max into Zoey's fantastical world, it lends itself to a lot of possibilities in exploring more of Max's story. We've met his dad and got more backstory into who Max is and how much he's changed since that first day at SPRQ Point to now. What do you have planned for Max? Can you give us a sense of the path you're taking here?
It's absolutely going to inform and affect his relationships with people. You bring up an interesting idea here that I hadn't really thought of so far, but [with regards to] this complicated relationship with his father. Maybe by getting a window into his father's heart song, through Chip Zien and his amazing Broadway chops, maybe it could help him gain some empathy and understanding for his dad. We've always talked about wanting to bring his brother into the show and other family members. Certainly anything that goes on with him and Mo, now that the franchise in New York is probably not going to happen; to evolve that dynamic. Him getting the powers and how long does that stay is all going to inform everything with him going forward.
The flashback episode, one of the season's best, ended up being the season's penultimate. Was there conversation over the placement of it in the season? If it happened earlier in the season, it could have illuminated, at least for me as a viewer, a little bit more context for Zoey and kind of where she was in her mindset. Can you address that?
Interesting. First of all, the challenges of COVID and the ability to get people to Vancouver and the 14-day quarantine in Vancouver, not being able to have Peter [Gallagher] as readily available to us was a challenge. When we did get Peter, I needed to make sure that we could get him for the right amount of time. I always knew that I wanted him in the season finale as well. I thought having him in a couple episodes was something that would feel big and something that the audience might've been hungering for. The other thing is that flashback story really shines the light on the connection between Zoey and Max. And that flashback story, the therapist even says it, "I don't know if it's a loss story or a love story." The reminder of what Max has been to her and how he's always been there for her was a necessary catalyst to get her to start getting more back towards Max. Even though there have been challenges and complications with those two, I felt like we needed the flashback from a memory perspective to start to get her to be thinking more towards Max. If we had done that in the middle of the season, it would have tipped the scales more in Max's direction than we would have wanted at that time.
I'm trying to remember where we were to come up with that idea when we're mapping out the arc of the season. Along with mapping out the arc, it has to do with mapping out where she was with Max and Simon. It felt like since this friendship sort of formed the story of Max and Zoey's love affair or whatever you want to call it, it felt like that was something that needed to happen towards the end because we knew we were leading them back towards each other.
Simon breaks up with Zoey in a pretty finite way, and his points are incredibly valid. And Zoey seems to be quite clear about her intentions with Max. Is this definitively the end of the love triangle?
Yes. I got into trouble with some fans on social media with an interview I did early on in the season, where I made it pretty clear that we were not... like we were going to end the love triangle or it was something about the love triangle. From my perspective, when I was thinking about the season, I started thinking about Zoey vacillating back and forth between both guys and I thought that we would frustrate people with the indecision. And I thought that if it was a little bit of Max in this moment and a little bit of Simon in this moment, people would just [think], "Enough already." So I thought, and I wasn't lying in that interview, we were not leading into the love triangle anymore because Zoey was making a decision. Both times in the season, Zoey was decisive about what she thought she wanted in that moment. And Zoey did decide at the end of the episode 1 that she wanted to be with Max. The problem was, she was still heavily into her grief and she wasn't ready for it yet. I thought it made sense because of the connection with Simon that she would have to play that out in some sort of real way. And I think them together was the fantasy of that or the expectation of that, might have been different than the reality. And also the fact that their bond was maybe rooted in grief.
And the big clue, which meant that she couldn't tell him her truth, she felt like there was something that was preventing her from telling him about the powers. And so I felt like they explored it. They tried it, it wasn't a perfect fit. She was trying. I don't mind that she had to try so hard in a relationship, whereas I feel like maybe things were a little more effortless with her and Max in a certain way. And so she does go back there in the end. I don't want to get in trouble again for people who think I'm lying. It's certainly my intention going forward that Max and Zoey are going to try to make a real go of it. In storytelling, you need to have conflict and obstacles in any relationship. And so I imagine that if we get the ability to go forward with these stories, that it's not going to be easy for Zoey and Max. But it is my intention to have them together and keep them together for awhile.
It's complicated by the fact that Max can hear heart songs! That's their conflict right there for the foreseeable future.
Absolutely. But, you know, I didn't realize that people think I'm naive about this. I thought love triangles were interesting and a good thing. There's a portion of the fanbase though that feel frustrated by it or strongly against it. And they felt like I deceived them in some way when I thought that the frustration over love triangles was indecision. And so I thought we were answering that by having her be decisive both times. I think if I had to do it over again, I probably would have kept Zoey and Max together a little bit longer before breaking them up... But again, it's like trying to service all of these stories, it's super, it's super challenging. There are a lot of characters to service on the show. And a certain percentage of the fanbase was so focused only on the love triangle and the show is about so many things.
Simon now has a new position at SPRQ Point heading up the incubation program for POC-owned small businesses. Where do you see his path going now that it seems he's found his purpose?
It was important for me to end Simon on an up note. I didn't want to leave him down and depressed after the breakup with Zoey. I wanted to give him a victory. We had brought up this idea of diversity at SPRQ Point and the need for inclusion. We played it out in episodes 5 and 6, but it's mentioned in several episodes after that. This is something that Simon really cares about. I feel like it's good. It keeps that kind of storytelling alive on TV. And it's an area that's important to John Clarence Stewart. It's something that we could continue to bring inclusion and diversity to SPRQ Point and also new storylines with new people that he's able to bring in. It felt like another new path throughout the storytelling and to also make him a real authority and leader in that state felt exciting to me.
Emily dealt with postnatal depression this season and that arc was incredibly poignant to see. What can we look forward to with her and David now that she's ending the season on a healthier note?
The next thing for the two of them is probably what is Davis going to do with his life? As much as it's great for David to want to be a stay-at-home dad and certainly there's no judgment there, there are also money realities. Maybe certain money complications could factor into season 3 and also David trying to get back [to work] and figure out if it's even what he wants to do with his life. In front of his whole man's search for meaning where that might take him. Similarly, I'm happy that Emily is on the right meds and feeling healthier. I don't have a definitive answer for you for that [character], but certainly there's a lot from my own relationship with my wife and storylines that we combined there.
Maggie makes the decision that she's ready to jump back into the dating world again. What can we expect to see from her as she re-enters that world?
Maggie's journey in season 2 was all about learning to stand on her own two feet after being with a partner for 40 years and a partner that she was very, very close to. There was no way that I could bring Maggie back out into the dating world or anything like that so soon after her husband's death, especially after how close they were. But even in episode 1 of season 2, Mitch says that he feels like they need to carry on and continue to live their lives. And then Maggie is in the hospital room in episode 12, she tells Mitch that she would want him to date other people and carry on. She takes the messaging of that and realizes she's still a vibrant woman. She still has a lot of life ahead of her and that she does need to figure out a way to put herself back out into the world again. I have a lot of funny stories in mind from my mother's own experience when she decided to put herself back out there. And my mom also has a friend Sandy whose husband passed away three years before my dad. She kind of became my mom's gateway and told her to climb back out into the world. I very much based Deb, the Bernadette Peters character on Sandy. I'm excited about the prospect that Maggie's going out into the world and David having to help Maggie with an online profile and the awkwardness that for Maggie and trying to start dating other people and what that feels like for her. There are a lot of stories to tell there. I don't think we've seen that much on television, women of a certain age trying to go back out into the world in a real way and trying to find love again. I'm excited about what that could look like for her.
There's still no official word on a pickup for season 3. How are you feeling about the show returning for another season? And if it does, what is the overarching theme you're going for in the next chapter in these characters lives?
Good question there. First of all, I am cautiously optimistic [about season 3]. We have a very passionate fanbase and it's nice to read articles where we're in talks for award consideration. It certainly feels like we have a nice momentum, but we still don't know. We still don't have clarity about whether we're going to come back or not. I know we have a lot of internal support at NBC and my fingers are crossed that it'll happen.
As far as season 3, season 2 was about grief and recovery. Season 3 could be about -- Zoey's 30 now and trying to make more mature decisions, Mo's trying to be in a more mature relationship, Maggie is trying to face things in a more mature, "This is who I am now," kind of way, SPRQ Point is trying to grow and mature. Some thematic idea out of growth and maturity feels like the right area for season 3. But like I said, I feel like the show is best when it's being comedic and musical and emotional all at the same time. And I would keep trying to do that.
For more on Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, watch below.
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