‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’ Finale: Creator Austin Winsberg Talks Death, Love Triangle And What’s Going On With Season 2

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains details from the Season 1 finale of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.

In tonight’s season finale of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Zoey (Jane Levy)’s powers are once again on the fritz. While going about her morning routine, she finds herself singing out loud—this time, to the tune of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising.”

Taking this “heart song” as a bad omen, the she anticipates bad news throughout the day, finding a great deal of it amongst her friends and colleagues. And not all of it ends well.

In the midst of a creative breakdown following her breakup with Eddie (Patrick Ortiz), Mo (Alex Newell) refuses to reconcile with her beau despite Zoey’s knowledge of Mo’s inner feelings and her attempts to get them back together. While at work, Zoey learns her best friend Max (Skylar Astin) has been fired from SPRQ Point, and that her boss Joan (Lauren Graham)’s job may be on the line.

Eventually, Mo and Eddie reconcile, Zoey gets Max his job back, and Joan is put in charge of SPRQ Point as CEO Danny Michael Davis (Noah Weinberg) deals with legal troubles.

What isn’t resolved, but only further complicated in Episode 12, is the season-long love triangle between Zoey, Max and Simon (John Clarence Stewart). After breaking off an engagement, Simon’s flame burns for Zoey, just as Max and Zoey become closer than they’ve ever been. Informing Max he has his job back, Zoey learns that he doesn’t want it—and in his newfound excitement about diving into the unknown, he sparks something in her, leading the pair to kiss for the first time.

But just as Zoey lets her guard down, she gets a call, informing that her terminally ill father will soon pass away. Back at her mother’s house, three heartfelt, musical exchanges occur as Zoey, brother David (Andrew Leeds) and matriarch Maggie (Mary Steenburgen) say their final goodbyes to Mitch (Peter Gallagher). Father and son duet, in heart song, on Billy Joel’s “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)”; Maggie sings “Dream A Little Dream of Me” to Mitch, now on his deathbed. Zoey then imagines a final dance with her dad—and suddenly, he’s gone.

The finale winds down at a vigil for Mitch, where Zoey joins friends and family in one final heart song—an emotional rendition of Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

For series creator Austin Winsberg, the finale—titled “Zoey’s Extraordinary Dad”—couldn’t be more personal. In 2011, his own father Richard passed away from progressive supranuclear palsy, the same disease that took the life of Mitch—and it was this tragedy that spurred him to write the series in the first place.

Below, Winsberg explains how tonight’s finale was conceived, and goes into great detail about his plans for Season 2.

DEADLINE: How did your finale for Season 1 come together?

AUSTIN WINSBERG: I always knew that Mitch’s death was going to be a part of the ending of Season 1. Initially, I thought it could happen in Episode 11, and then Episode 12 would be dealing with the aftermath, playing more into the love triangle and some of the dynamics at work. The more that we started working on Episodes 10, 11 and 12, the more I felt like it was really hard to go past Mitch dying. It was really hard to do something light and romantic comedy, or love triangle-y, in the wake of death, so we decided to push Mitch’s passing into Episode 12.

Then, this whole season, everything that happens in the family and with Mitch is based on what happened with my own dad. Literally, to an episode, every story that happens in the family is something that happened in our own house. The day that my father passed away, a hospice worker came to our house at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and said, “Your father’s going to die today.” Then, they left, and we were left to our own devices, trying to figure out what to do. For the next eight hours, friends and family members came over to say their last goodbyes. It was kind of this living vigil that we were doing in the house.

So, I’d always pictured doing an entire episode that took place over this vigil time, where the family was there, and friends were coming by, and we were just experiencing it, almost in pseudo-real time with the family. But as we started breaking that as an entire episode, it felt so tonally different than the rest of the show. It just felt really, really sad and depressing, and I think that Zoey’s fires best on all cylinders when it’s a combination of comedic and romantic, and emotional and musical, and all of those things.

So, instead of making that time in the house the entire episode, we decided that it would be better to make the first half feel more like a regular episode, where we’re digging a little further into the love triangle, we’re opening up a new door for work opportunity in Season 2—especially for Lauren Graham—and then to have the moment come where we realize, okay, this is the end.

Then, the other big thing was “American Pie,” and trying to figure out where we should put that. Originally, that was going to be Act 4—then, Act 5—and then we ended up making it Act 6, to feel like a big musical finale for the season.

DEADLINE: You mentioned Joan’s ascension at SPRQ Point. What inspired this plot point? What does it mean for the show, going forward?

WINSBERG: The first part of that was that Lauren got cast in the Mighty Ducks show. At the time, because we had a one-season deal with Lauren, it wasn’t exactly clear how much we would get her in Season 2. So, we wanted to be open to the idea of being able to bring her back—but if we couldn’t have her, to figure out an elegant way to not.

Then, I also felt like by giving her this possibility of a promotion, it just opened us up to new storylines and dynamics on the fourth floor, in the bullpen, be it what does it mean for Zoey, what does it mean for potentially a new boss coming in. How did the dynamics shift, now that Joan is rising in the company?

Then, talking to Lauren about it, it’s all of our goals to have Lauren back for as much as possible. Things have shifted a bit, because they were supposed to film Mighty Ducks during all this corona time, and they were going to be done by the time we start shooting. So, it’s a little unclear now how the schedules will work, but we love Lauren. She has been great with the show and wants to come back, so it’s just about figuring out how many episodes, and how to make it all work together.

DEADLINE: How do you see the show’s love triangle at this point? It seems, in the finale, like Zoey might be leaning toward Max, though it’s still unclear.

WINSBERG: It was important to me with the love triangle to make both men feel viable, and to not just villainize one of them, or come to a specific conclusion by the end of the season that she’ll be with Max, or she’ll be with Simon. She’d already made out with Simon in Episode 8 and Episode 10, so I felt like for parity’s sake, it was important to give Max that victory [Laughs]. Also, she’d spent a lot of time getting frustrated with Simon over his endless looking back—and by Max going off on his own, and finding his own strength and confidence on the sixth floor, instead of just being sort of the best friend and the puppy dog, I think that Zoey sees a new side of him. He’s a guy who’s now looking forward and coming into his own, and I think it’s that confidence, and the looking forward, that attracts Zoey to him, in the moment when she kisses him. But then Simon comes back at the end with the lasagna, too…

So, what I wanted to show for the ending was that these guys weren’t going to be bitter, competitive rivals, but that they’re both worthy. Going into Season 2, it’s going to continue to be complicated.

DEADLINE: While Mitch has died, Zoey has sometimes spoken with her father in visions, including in the finale. Do you see opportunities for Peter Gallagher to return for future episodes, in this way? 

WINSBERG: Well, we all love Peter. He brings such a great energy to the show, and saying goodbye to Mitch at the end of the season was also like saying goodbye to Peter. It was sad for everybody. You know, thinking about, “Does he suddenly start appearing and talking to her, à la Dexter or Six Feet Under?”, I feel like we already have a magical conceit in the show. So, to add another one feels a bit like what we call “bananas on bananas.”

But because the show does lend itself to dream sequences and fantasies, I could see there being opportunities to bring him back. Certainly, the way that it resonates most closely with me is, I used to see my dad in dreams after he passed away—and every now and then, something would take me back to a memory. So, if we can find creative and original ways to still try to thread him through, I think it would be great.

DEADLINE: Are you still waiting to hear about the prospect of a second season?

WINSBERG: Yeah. I pitched Season 2 to the network like two and a half weeks ago, so we have pretty mapped-out arcs for everything that happens. I think right now, NBC is just trying to figure out when production can start. They have commitments to a bunch of shows for multiple seasons, and [they’re figuring out] what all their needs are going to be, but they’ve been incredibly supportive, unlike anything I’ve ever felt, and really let me do the show that I wanted to do. There’s a lot of internal love and support, and media attention has been great for the show. Now, we have a really nice fan base, and the show does really well in streaming and Live-Plus, so I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re going to come back. But they haven’t told me anything specific yet.

DEADLINE: Are there specific characters you’d like to explore in more depth in Season 2? Bernadette Peters has been a great addition to the show as Deb. 

WINSBERG: Absolutely. There’s a lot more I want to do with Mo in Season 2; I want to get into a work situation with Mo. I think we haven’t done a deep enough dive yet into Max’s backstory, so there’s a whole story thread I want to do with Max and his father, in particular.

As far as Bernadette Peters goes, my mom has this friend Sandy. …Her husband passed away a couple years before my dad, and Sandy, in my mind, is kind of like Samantha from Sex and the City [laughs]. Sandy was sort of my mom’s entrée back into the real world, and the dating world, and I think while it’s too soon for Maggie to be dating again, I love the idea of this person—this sort of spitfire with all this energy, [with] a real vivacious life-after-death attitude—that helps get Maggie out of her shell. And I think bringing Bernadette back for that would be amazing. I think we’ve got to give Maggie some friends.

I think there’s opportunities to see some more people at SPRQ Point. There’s some ways that I want to continue to populate that bullpen and make that interesting. I have a lot of ideas for the love triangle, and places we can go for Simon. So, what’s interesting—and what I pitched for Season 2—is, now that we’ve established everybody in this world, whats next? The big part of it, especially for the family and for Zoey, is how do we move on after a tragedy, and what does moving on look like, and how do we rebound and come back from it.

I think that’s also resonant with everything that’s going on in the world right now, just this idea of, once we leave our bubbles and go back into the word, what does it look like? Is it the same world? Do we look at things differently? A lot of what I want to do in Season 2 is about man’s search for meaning, and how do we find meaning after tragedy.

DEADLINE: Do you have a musical wish list for the show, looking ahead? Are there particular artists you’d like to feature?

WINSBERG: For sure. There were a lot of huge artists that we didn’t even touch in Season 1—top of my head: Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Aerosmith, Queen, The Doors. The thing that I think is really cool about the show is, we can do any genre, era, style of music. For me, the only thing that’s important is that it makes sense within the rules of the show—that it’s somehow revealing character or advancing plot, and that it’s a song that I feel has been somewhat in the popular consciousness. I think maybe we could go a little further in Season 2, in trying to do songs that are a little bit more out-of-the-box, or that people maybe aren’t as familiar with. But for me, the goal is still probably trying to keep it somewhat in the Top 40, or at least [to maintain] a degree of familiarity with the songs.

DEADLINE: Is there more to explore, in terms of Zoey’s powers, and the rules by which they function?

WINSBERG: One thing that we can absolutely continue to explore is her relationship to the powers and how she feels about having them, what she can learn from them. That’s all character-based stuff, but the other aspect of it is the mythology of the powers. We touch upon this a little bit, seeing the MRI room again in the finale, and I like the idea of a little bit of, “How did this happen, and why did this happen to me?”—digging a little bit deeper into the mythology. I don’t want to get too lost in the mythology, but…I think there’s fun to be had with it.

DEADLINE: What has it been like working on a series that’s so personal to you? Did the events of the finale make for a tough shoot?

WINSBERG: It’s been emotional, cathartic, surreal, rewarding…I have felt a responsibility to honor [my father’s] memory and what we went through, so there were times when I was writing or pitching stuff where it would be emotional, and there were other times where I was able to compartmentalize it, and treat it like it was just part of a story in a show.

Certainly, in writing Episode 12, I cried. I cried on set, watching them rehearse “American Pie.” I had a hard day, the day where he was dying in the bed. When I watched the first cut of Episode 12, I cried multiple times. So, it’s hard to completely dissociate from it—and yet I do feel like my best writing comes out of writing what I know.

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