'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist' Is More Than a Vibrant Musical Drama: Why It Gets Personal (Exclusive)

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist
Sergei Bachlakov/NBC

Creator Austin Winsberg talks to ET about the freshman series, which returns Sunday.

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist is a quirky, vibrant trip down musical lane, but the series is much more than a candy-colored tale centered on Zoey (Jane Levy), an insulated 20-something woman who, after a chance accident, gains the magical ability to hear the innermost thoughts of her family members, co-workers and close friends through elaborate song-and-dance numbers. It's a deeply personal story for creator Austin Winsberg, who channeled his experiences with his late father, who had a rare degenerative brain disease, as the inspiration for the series.

As NBC's musical dramedy premieres in its regular time slot Sunday, Winsberg -- whose past credits includes NBC's live Sound of Music production and Jake in Progress -- explained why he felt there was a place for a story like this on television, which isn't afraid of digging into the messiness of tragic circumstances while injecting a feeling of hope.

"My father died in 2011 of this rare neurological disease called progressive supranuclear palsy or PSP. Before he died, the last year of his life, he was a very dynamic, outgoing, vital, vibrant man. When he came down with this rare disease, and just over the course of a year, it completely decimated him," Winsberg tells ET of his real-life connection. "It was the same year that I was becoming a father, while losing my dad at the same time. I always knew that I wanted to write something about that time in my life, what my father went through and what my family went through, as painful as it was."

"His body stopped working, but his brain kept working. We just didn't know how much he was processing," he recalls. "And then I started thinking, 'What if the dad in the show, the way he communicates is through big musical numbers?' That was my way into this idea and once I thought of it that way, instead of it feeling sad and depressing to me, it felt joyful and hopeful." Ahead of Sunday's time slot return, ET spoke with Winsberg about the freshman series, reservations his family had about getting too personal and introducing his own take on the rom-com love triangle.

ET: How personal are the relationships that we see onscreen with Zoey and her family, especially with her parents Mitch (Peter Gallagher) and Maggie (Mary Steenburgen)? How much of your own familial dynamics, situations and conflicts did you infuse into the show?

Austin Winsberg: It's incredibly personal. I don't know if I've ever done anything more personal. Every single thing that we see with Mitch, for the most part, was all something that happened with the family during that time or something that came up was an offshoot of something that happened with the disease. So that is very true to what went on with us. Similarly, a lot of the dynamics of Maggie, the Mary Steenburgen character, were definitely leaning on emotions and dynamics that were happening in the house, ways in which my mom was feeling during that time. There's some universality, I think, in dealing with a sick person in your house and what that looks like. But certainly all of the ways in which it happens and manifests and goes on throughout the season is all based on stuff that went on in my house.

And similarly, a lot of things that go on with Zoey and aspects of her brother, David (Andrew Leeds), and aspects of [her relationship with] Max, Skylar Astin's character, they're offshoots of me and my personality in different relationship dynamics I have. The relationship between Zoey and Simon (John Clarence Stewart), where they're bonding over their mutual grief, that's a very similar dynamic that I had with somebody during that time because I just found that the only people I wanted to talk to while my dad was dying were other people who understood what grief and loss felt like. 

Sergei Bachlakov/NBC

Did you have conversations with your family about certain moments from your real life that you wanted to portray onscreen? Did they have any reservations about putting specific challenges that the family may have went through?

We're still having those conversations -- and my sister as well, because it wasn't just me, it was my brother, it was my wife. We all lived through this together and I do find that my best writing comes from stuff that's personal. I think that they're all accepting of it and there have been certain things about my dad or during that time that I think it's hard to relive some of that. Peter Gallagher is channeling the disease and he looks like how my dad looked during that time. Sometimes I'm able to compartmentalize it and feel like I'm just treating it like a TV show, and other times it will bring me back to a moment in time and I'll just get choked up or I'll have to leave set 'cause it's too emotional for me. I think my family has embraced and leaned into the fact that we are dealing with it and they're accepting and allowing the authenticity to be there because I want to be respectful of what happened and also true to the disease. 

Recently, there have been a handful of TV shows that focus on grief and the aftermath of monumental loss, such as Dead to MeSorry for Your Loss, Sharp Objects and Russian Doll. What was important to you in portraying a family that was going through a difficult moment with the patriarch going through PSP?

It's important for me to always approach stuff with humor and levity...Because I found, even in our saddest moments, and maybe this speaks to who I am or my family, there's still humor, whether that's gallows humor or humor as a defense to protect yourself. It's not always so heavy. But if you can find the lightness within the heaviness, I think that's real. It was important for me, even though we're dealing with a situation that on the surface can feel depressing, to not totally make it feel depressing in the show. To still make it feel entertaining in some way or that the dad's disease doesn't define them, but it only reveals things about character.

It's a way to show a family dynamic in a new way where... how is this family adjusting, coping and dealing with a situation that's very challenging for everybody, but doing it hopefully with grace and comedy and messiness and all of the real that goes into that? This is only one aspect of the show. It's one aspect of Zoey's life and what she's dealing with. But this show is also very much about other things going on in Zoey's life and Zoey's world. It's not defined by what's going on with her father, even though that's probably the closest relationship.

How are you navigating the musical elements of the show? What are the rules that you set in terms of when it's OK to incorporate a musical number and when you want to avoid one?

There are three main rules in terms of how musical numbers should happen or function on the show, and a lot of those rules are based in musical theater. The first rule is that songs need to advance the plot. The second rule is that the songs need to reveal character. And the third rule is: Are they funny or ironic in some way? Whether that checks one or all three of those boxes, I always had to do a fact-check to make sure we're not just putting in a song for song's sake that's either revealing character advantage or funny or surprising in some way.

What is the most surprising song-in-scene moment this season that you were able to pull off?

There's a bunch of those. It was important to me that all the songs, at least in season one, were recognizable or popular songs in some way because part of this is all of the songs in the show are an external expression of people's internal needs. And so, I wanted the audience to understand emotionally what people are going through and part of the connectivity of that is through songs that people already know. I wanted there to be some identification to the songs already, whether we use the song in a light that people don't know or will say, "Oh, I never thought of this song that way before," where it feels like it's lining up with what's happening in the moment.

You're also setting up a love triangle between Zoey and her co-workers Simon and Max, the latter of whom has a secret crush on her. What can you tease with the dynamic that you've set up?

I'm a big fan of romantic comedies. The love triangle is something that carries through the entire season. I liked that in Felicity, the TV show, that Felicity had to choose between Noel and Ben and it was two worthy suitors that were men who were different from each other. But it wasn't like the one untouchable guy. It was important to me to have two interesting, worthy men who also bring out different things in Zoey, and to hopefully have the audience like a shift in different dynamics. We do this thing in episode three, where we ask: Are you Team Max or Team Simon? A deliberate thing because we do want people to have opinions about that and to play that out as a reoccurring romantic side of the show. Which guy should she be with? Which guy will she be with? How is her romantic life going to play out?

Sergei Bachlakov/NBC

Is there a clear choice by the end of the season? 

Both relationship dynamics get more and more complicated as the season goes on.

You've assembled quite an impressive ensemble cast. Were these all your first choices?

Jane was our first choice for Zoey. Mary Steenburgen, Peter Gallagher, Skylar Astin were all people that I approached. They were my first choices and they all said yes. Some of the other people we found through casting, but all of them were surprising and exactly what I wanted. Half the cast we got offer-only first choice, and then the second half our casting director, Robert Ulrich, who cast Glee, he brought in a lot of incredibly musically talented people and everybody who auditioned would have to read lines and also sing two songs to us. When Alex [Newell] came in, I was familiar with him; we had heard about his role on Once on This Island and the second he came in, I was just like, he brings a different energy and flavor to the show that I thought was awesome, and his voice is unbelievable. Once we cast Alex, it was all about how can we be authentic to Alex and Alex's experience and make sure that we're being active in our portrayal of who he is and what the characters like. Zoey is a character who sees the world in black-and-white, binary terms and to have this colorful, gender non-binary neighbor who is very open to music and the world was Zoey's entree into this other life. It felt like an interesting counterpoint in the dynamic and the chemistry that the two of them have together is awesome.

What is your intention with Mo's storyline? What are you looking to really explore further there?

Alex is a male who is female represented, and I wanted to be true to what that means to Alex. Episode four deals with Mo's issues of faith and what it was like for him to continue to have faith and wanting to get involved in the church, despite people in the church maybe not approving of him or who he is. I did a lot of deep talks and research with Alex when trying to get that right. That entire episode is based on Alex's own experiences. Most of the time when we're dealing with stuff between Zoey and Mo, we're not addressing the gender or sexuality stuff at all.

I wanted a character who was the opposite of Zoey, who was somebody who's very attuned to the world, who's creative and emotional and into music and open and warm and welcoming and loving of other people versus Zoey, who's closed off and became a computer programmer so she didn't have to deal with people. And now, she's forced to have to help people in their lives and Mo helps her to become more of a person of the world, to see the world more in shades of gray instead of black-and-whites. To appreciate music more and to become her kind of helper, an advocate in that world, but also to give Mo his own agency. We have a whole love story that plays out for multiple episodes for Mo and to really create a fully three-dimensional character with his own needs, emotions and conflicts as well.

How would you describe the ride that we're going to be going on?

This show is heartfelt, emotional, fun, theatrical. We're living in a time right now where there's a lot of division in this country, in this world and there's a lot of anger and this show is really a cry for empathy -- a desire to understand people better, to look beneath the surface, to get to know who they really are. The show is light and bright and unique and fun and different from what's on TV right now. I hope that people will want to see it because of the fun and the color and sophistication of the dances and the musical numbers, but also be drawn into these characters and relationships and really care about Zoey and Zoey's journey.

Watch the first episode below.

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist premieres in its regular time slot Sunday, Feb. 16 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.

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