'Zoey's Playlist' Creator on How Devastating Finale Death Changes Everything for Season 2 (Exclusive)

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist
James Dittiger/NBC

Austin Winsberg breaks down Sunday's finale with ET, the state of the Team Max/Team Simon debate and what he's planning for season two.

Warning: This story contains spoilers from Sunday's season finale of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist.

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist capped off an extraordinary first season with a finale that was emotional, gut-wrenching and devastating, and yet filled with hope and optimism for the future. That tonal balance has been the secret sauce to NBC's delightful musical dramedy, which left us with all the feels after Sunday's tear-jerker of a closing episode, when it said goodbye to Zoey's dad, Mitch (Peter Gallagher), who succumbed to the rare degenerative brain disease, progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP).

A big question for the series, should NBC renew it for a second season, will be just how the Clarke family moves on without the family lynchpin around. What will Maggie's (Mary Steenburgen) life look like without Mitch? How will Zoey (Jane Levy) move on from losing her biggest champion? What will this mean for David (Andrew Leeds) and Emily (Alice Lee), who are expecting their first baby any day now? "That's a big concept and a big idea for season two, which is, how do we move on?" creator Austin Winsberg tells ET. "How do we live and what does the new normal look like after the person who was so important and so integral in our life is gone?"

While the crux of the episode revolved around Mitch's final hours and the wake, there were other big moves made, from Zoey seemingly choosing Max (Skylar Astin) over Simon (John Clarence Stewart) to Joan (Lauren Graham) temporarily promoted to head of SPRQ Point to Max's uncertain professional future. Following the finale, ET spoke with Winsberg about the season's final episode, if Gallagher will return for a potential second season, whether the love triangle is truly done, pulling off the final seven-minute musical number that's all one take and what the next chapter of Zoey's looks like.

ET: What did you want to accomplish in this final episode of the season? 

Austin Winsberg: I felt a big pressure in this episode to honor my dad, and also be true to the experience of what we went through, especially at the very end. A hospice worker came to our house at four o'clock on the day my dad died and said, "He's going to die today," and then left. We were scrambling, left to our own devices; several friends and family members came by to say goodbye before he passed. We had this living vigil going for him for several hours and I always wanted to have that time with the family, people saying their goodbyes and what the end looks like and felt like in my house, to be a big part of the show. 

Originally, the whole episode was going to take place over the course of the vigil. When we started breaking it, it just felt very sad and it felt like Zoey wasn't the most proactive, and it didn't feel like an episode of the show. I felt like we needed to still show some stuff at work. We needed to still explore some of the love triangle. We needed to, not necessarily wrap up but at least start to shift gears and take things into different directions, so we could see where storylines could go in season two.


What was the thinking behind Don McLean’s “American Pie” being the final song of the season?

Originally, “American Pie” was going to be Act 4, then it was going to be Act 5. But it felt very hard to move beyond that. Once you achieve that moment when he passes and you do “American Pie,” everything else felt like a coda. By pushing “American Pie” to the end, and by making it really feel like a musical finale moment for the season, that allowed us to have the first half of the episode be lighter and more comedic and romantic, and then get into the real emotion of it for the second half. 

What was the challenge in making sure the scenes where Zoey and the family are saying goodbye to Mitch still felt tonally Zoey’s but were uplifting in the end? 

The challenge was not making it all feel too sad and not making it feel like we were doing some kind of depressing, emotional porn for the episode, where it was just beating everybody's heads with the sadness of it. Part of that was calibrating the songs, what songs we should be doing and what the songs should feel like. There are a lot of really sad songs out there and there are a lot of songs about death and mourning. I didn't want the episode to live in that sadness the whole time. 

The other important thing was to make sure that the show felt some degree of hope and optimism. The thing that I tried to take away with some perspective and distance with my father, was to try to eliminate some of the feelings of anger and sadness and depression about it, and to try to find some positivity or light. When Zoey gives her speech to her dad at his bedside, it is the exact parallel of the speech that she gives in the pilot for her dad before he sings “True Colors,” only in the pilot she's talking about everything negative in her life. She's talking about this scary power she has, she's talking about the guy at work who doesn't like her, she's talking about the work stuff not going well. In the inverse of that, she's now talking about how she thinks these new musical powers and abilities might actually be helping her and how she's actually doing well at work and the guy who she had a crush on likes her back. And she tells her father that she's actually OK. By showing him her more positive outlook now, that's the permission that he needs to move on.

In an earlier conversation we had, you alluded to the fact that Mitch’s presence will still be felt in season two. Is the plan to have Peter Gallagher back or do you think Mitch’s chapter is done?

I'd like to have him come back in some way. I think it's just about, in what creative way does it feel true and authentic to the show and can we do it? We have had dream sequences on the show. I don't want to go as far as Dexter or Six Feet Under, where the dad is visiting her and commenting all the time because I feel like we already have our big magical device in the show. But I do think that there are ways and opportunities to cleverly have him come back. There are opportunities and ways to bring him back every now and then as a presence on the show, for sure.


This obviously is a big pivot point for the family and the final image that we're left with is them sitting together after the wake, just being in each other's presence. How do you foresee the family changing without their lynchpin there?

Yeah, I think that's a big concept and a big idea for season two, which is, how do we move on? And how do we live and what does the new normal look like after the person who was so important and so integral in our life is gone? From my mom having to go back into the real world again and having to be independent after being with the same man for 40-some years, I think Maggie could go on a similar journey of self-exploration. I became a father right when I was losing my father, so all of the feelings and emotions and complications that go along with that for David and Emily. And then Zoey, similarly, having to make a choice about, "What does his death mean to me? How do I extract meaning from his death? What kind of person do I want to be now?," and all of the struggles and challenges that go along with that. It was very much on purpose that the final image is just them on the couch, except for the empty space where Dad always sat. You’re still going to feel the weight of his absence going forward. 

How did the seven-minute, one-take final sequence come together?

It was definitely challenging. The idea actually started during episode t when we were filming “I've Got the Music in Me” and I was talking to our producing director Adam Davidson, and he said to me, "What if there was an entire act that was just one musical number?" And then we started thinking about, "Well, what songs actually lend themselves to that?" And there's not a ton of long songs out there between “Hotel California” and Pink Floyd. I remembered that “American Pie” was actually my dad's favorite song, so I kind of carried that idea with me all season and wouldn't it be cool to do something big like that?

I don't remember the exact moment when we landed on that as our big finale moment. But I loved the idea of bringing everybody into the same house and bringing everybody into the scene and having all of our characters sing together, in the same way that a lot of big stage musicals end with the whole cast on stage doing the big final number. It was incorporating the actors into it, and then it was incorporating all of the production crew into it because the number takes place over several hours, which is not like anything else we ever do on the show, so that had to inform lighting. We started off with 75 extras in the house, but by the end there were only four people, so that was a big thing. We had to work with the set decorators and production designers on all of the craft and food elements that got moved around, and it really became a 120-, 150-person thing that we were all working on at the same time.

Let’s talk about Zoey's love life. It seemed like she picked Max in the end, but Simon is still in the picture. Can you give us the state of the love triangle at the end of the season? 

Zoey and Max certainly had a big breakthrough, in that they finally had some sort of physical culmination of everything that's been going on. I think that Max has spent a long time being Zoey's best friend and being there for her, and maybe a little bit lacking in confidence or his own sense of self. By him leaving and going to the sixth floor and getting success in that world, and getting his own sense of validation, and then ultimately, in the episode, telling Zoey he didn't want the job back, that he wanted to look forward, that was the opposite of what had been going on with Simon all season, which was a lot of looking backwards. I think Zoey is very attracted to this new side of Max, where she's seeing him in a new way, that he's coming into his own confidence outside of their friendship. And so, I think that Max has made himself, maybe inadvertently, into a more attractive and worthy suitor for Zoey.


And Zoey continues to have this deep connection and bond to Simon. It was important to make both men viable, to not villainize one or the other and to understand that both of them have different dynamics and relationships with Zoey and they bring different things to the table. I think that's real in life. Going forward, she's going to continue to see the value in both. This might be disappointing to some people, but I wanted to have it be ongoing, that there isn't necessarily a clear-cut answer yet. But that these are two men she cares about. At the moment, it certainly seems like there's some stuff to be discussed and unfinished business between her and Max. But I also think that Simon is starting to do work on himself too, in ways that's going to make him continue to be a worthy adversary.

So Zoey and Max, whatever they are in the finale, that's not the be-all end-all? Like, they're not necessarily going to embark on some sort of exclusive relationship or take it to the next level?

We are going to continue to see the ways in which that dynamic with Max continues to evolve and surprise and change. It's been interesting to watch all the Twitter reaction and all the Max fans. A lot of these shows that have great love stories, they don't get together right away. Whether they are endgame or not, I feel like some of it is about the journey and how do we get to those places? These are characters who still have a lot to figure out and a lot of mistakes to make. Zoey is certainly going to be raw after her dad's death and maybe not in a place to be ready for The One yet. But I think that there is a lot to be mined out of both of those relationships going forward.

Max doesn't take the job back at SPRQ Point. What is his professional future? Do you have a place in mind for him in season two?

Absolutely. I have a whole season two plan about what happens with Max and work, and what that means, and how that informs his personality, what he does, the people that he interacts with and the ways in which it helps or complicates Zoey's life too.

Joan takes over SPRQ Point. What does that mean for her overseeing the entire company, as opposed to just managing a team?

It certainly puts her in a bigger power position within the company and I think fundamentally what it does is, it changes the dynamics of the fourth floor. Because now there's going to have to be somebody else that fills in her spot on the fourth floor. There's going to be all sorts of new dynamics on the fourth floor and in that bullpen, both with Max being gone and Joan in a higher position. It's an opportunity to really mix things up there and change established dynamics in fun and exciting ways for season two.


Introducing a new character, perhaps?

Yeah. Perhaps some shuffling, perhaps a few new characters. I have a whole bunch of ideas for that.

You’ve already pitched season two to NBC, but how are you feeling about a renewal? 

I'm cautiously optimistic. We have a lot of internal love and support at NBC. They've been so great with the show from minute one and really allowed the show to be my vision, which is so rare for network television. I'm so appreciative of how much creative freedom they gave me and I think that they just need to, during this corona time, figure out when productions can go back to work and how many shows are they going to need and what's it all going to look like? So I think they're figuring it all out right now. But between the internal support, the external support from our really great enthusiastic fan base, all the media attention we're getting for this show, it doesn't feel like we're ready for it to be over yet. And they really responded to my season two pitches well, so I feel like there's a lot of creative gas left in the show and it's hard to imagine it just ending.

If season two does happen, would there be a time jump? 

Yeah, I think it would be hard to pick up right after Mitch’s death, because the emotion of that would just be a little too raw and not allow us to maybe do all the tonal balance stuff that I like. Some passage of time would probably be a good thing for the show.

The first season of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist is streaming now on Hulu.

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