Jun 15, 2021
By Matt Conner
The core of a great song—a truly great composition that reaches beyond typical marketplace constraints—is all about connection. Somehow in the span of a few minutes, the listener is given language and imagery for their own emotions and experiences. It’s company for the journey, so to speak, and it’s the substance that makes a track memorable even in a digital era.
This same connection is at the heart of NBC’s musical dramedy Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. Not only does the show itself use many songs that would fit the aforementioned description, but show creator Austin Winsberg aspires for the Emmy-winning show to provide the same connection for viewers.
If you’re new to Zoey, Jane Levy plays the titular coding protagonist who develops an ability to hear the internal thoughts of others—as musical numbers. If that sounds funny, it is. It’s also full of heart. The second season just wrapped on a show that Winsberg continues to protect as an escape for viewers while simultaneously taking swings at serious issues. The end result is a “tightrope walk” for everyone on the show’s staff, a goal worthy of the work.
Note: Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist was recently cancelled by NBC and the show is currently looking for a new home at another network or on a streaming service. The cancellation was announced after our interview was conducted and thus was not covered.
Matt Conner (Under the Radar): The second season recently wrapped. What was that like for you to emotionally see that through?
Austin Winsberg: It’s always emotional and anxiety-producing for me when an episode goes out. [Laughs] I’ve kind of instructed my family not to talk to me from the 6-7 hour on the West Coast when I’m live-tweeting with the East Coast and watching them react in real time. It’s a weird feeling because we spend so many months on these episodes, talking about them, fretting over story points, writing them. Then in 42 minutes, it’s over.
There’s no real feedback. It’s not like you go into a theater and people laugh or cry or boo or whatever. So you only have that limited time to process what it was and then sometimes later I read the articles of what people say about it. Every time it feels emotional and fraught and complicated. I try not to be too influenced or swayed by public opinion, but I can’t help but be affected somewhat by what people are saying, especially if there’s a continual them or idea that comes up in people’s responses to things.
In general, I’m very proud of this season. We made an entire musical season of television during COVID. I think we did 70 or 80 musical numbers, and we were able to not lose any of the scope or feel of season one. I also think we tried to take some really big swings in terms of subject matter we tried to tackle this season. So by and large, I feel proud of the work we did. Hindsight is 20/20 and I can point back to a few things here and there where I think, “Maybe we could have stuck that landing a little better.” But there were also curveballs thrown at us along the way that impacted what we had to do, too.
I read an interview where you discussed your longing to protect the show’s ability to be an escape, an uplifting place for people to turn. Yet you mentioned how the show doesn’t flinch from engagement on some serious topics. How do you balance that or walk that out?
The first thing I talk about the show with the writers, the directors, the actors is tone. The tone of the show, I think, is most successful when it’s teetering between drama and comedy and emotion and musicality—when it’s trying to be all four of those things at once. That is a tightrope that we walk every single episode. On some, I think we achieve that better than others.
But I feel like the show is about Zoey trying to understand the human condition. It’s Zoey trying to learn empathy and trying to learn what people present on the surface isn’t always what’s going on beneath the surface. It’s for all of us to maybe look at each other in different ways and understand we all struggle, that we all have complicated lives and things going on. So I feel like a show that is about human condition and learning people makes it important to talk about struggle and the various challenges that we face.
This season, we did a deep dive into systemic racism. That was a real challenge for us to tackle. We also did postpartum depression and stories about partnerships. The entire season for Zoey and her family was about grief and trying to move on. Even though the show lives in a casing of comedy and big musical moments, what it’s really about is exploring human emotions.
Do you think the show is subversive in that way?
[Laughs] I don’t know about subversive. I think that I’m trying to project a certain worldview, that when it comes to issues of diversity and love for your fellow man, those are ideals that I feel strongly about that I try to imbue to the show at times.
I love your description of the tightrope act. What have you learned about pulling that off successfully that you didn’t know back in your first season?
Well, season one had the benefit, from a story perspective, of the decline of the father. All of those stories that we did in season one were based on something that happened in my own life with my dad. In season two, we had to open it up beyond that and explore other people’s pain in different ways.
If you’re going to get a TV show on the air and be so blessed to do that, I feel like it’s important to take creative risks when you can and talk about subject matters that are important or mean something to you. Certainly issues of mental health and grief and depression and all those things are personal to me and mean something to me. I feel like I’m always trying to take from my own life, because that’s where things can be authentic. I’m also taking from other writers’ experiences and actors’ experiences and what the show enables us to do—and maybe I didn’t know this in the beginning—is tackle heavier subjects at times.
My dad passed from a disease called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, which is a very rare neurological disorder. There was part of me that was like, “Maybe people won’t understand this or won’t connect to this.” And one of the things I’ve learned is that the more specific you can become, the more universal it becomes. Whether or not people can relate to PSP specifically, they can relate to the care of someone who is dying or not well. So I am always about specificity and authenticity and I think the cast feels strongly about being advocates for that as well.
I think that’s true in song, too. You hear an artist mention a specific street or name their partner and you get lost in that, too.
People write songs from a place of emotion. I wanted to do systemic racism on the show because there’d been songs written as protest. To encapsulate different kinds of songs in the show, it’s one of the benefits of the show and why I think it could have real longevity is because the music we listen to—it all comes from a place of emotion. To be able to channel those emotions through character makes for a very rich spot for a story and for connection.
Is there a most elusive song that you’ve not yet been able to fit into an episode?
There are multiple artists that I’m told are very hard to get, so I haven’t chased them very hard yet. So it’s more about the artists. Bruno Mars is one that comes up a lot. I’ve wanted to use multiple Bruno Mars songs, but I’m told it’s hard to get, so we haven’t really pursued him. Coldplay, U2, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Adele. There are heavy hitters out there that I was told would be difficult to get, so we haven’t pursued them as vigorously as we could. I’d like to take some bigger swings in season three.
The other hard one for us is rap just because a lot of rap songs use a lot of samples, so you have those fees. There are usually a lot of producers on it, so it takes a long time to get approval and we don’t always have that time. Then also, a lot of rap songs are very lyrically specific and don’t work with what we’re trying to do narratively. I also haven’t figured out how to navigate the swear words. [Laughs]