My love for Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is well documented, and the show has only grown more ambitious (and beloved) as its first season concludes.
Zoey (Jane Levy) has a lot on her mind: a promotion at her tech start-up job, a love triangle brewing at work, and her father’s (Peter Gallagher) PSP diagnosis [Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, a rare degenerative neurological disorder]. As Zoey prepares for an eventual life without her father, she develops the ability to see and hear other people’s intimate thoughts in the form of musical numbers, hence her “Extraordinary Playlist.”
Whether its Levy singing CeeLo Green’s “Crazy” on an elevator floor or John Clarence Stewart [Simon]’s intimate rendition of “Mad World” in the show’s pilot episode, Zoey’s musical numbers, in the hands of this incredible cast and choreographed by two-time Emmy winner Mandy Moore (Dancing With The Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, and La La Land) will leave you spellbound.
For me, my love of the show stems from my personal connection to its exploration of loss, but also it’s ability to showcase human connection and empathy in such authentic and unique ways. Showrunner Austin Winsberg created the show based on his own father’s battle with PSP, and it is precisely because of Winsberg’s vulnerability that we are able to see such raw moments of grief and humanity on TV.
I spoke to Winsberg about just how he was able to parlay his personal experience into such a dynamic show, how he feels about seeing his family’s intimate moments portrayed on-screen, how Zoey continues to push boundaries, and what comes next. In speaking with Winsberg, I’ve developed an even deeper appreciation for what he has been able to create.
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: I urge everyone to watch this show, and I urge awards bodies to pay attention: Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist truly is extraordinary.
Read my full conversation with Winsberg below.
Awards Daily: I have to get personal with you for a minute because I think it will inform my questions and our conversation moving forward. I lost my father to an aggressive brain cancer and seeing Zoey watch as her father deteriorates and slowly loses his facilities, it feels as though it’s ripped from my own experience.
And I know that you, of course, based the show on your own experience with your father and losing him to PSP. That’s where I’d like to start, just watching the show as a daughter who has lost her father in a similar fashion, is incredibly emotional for me every single episode. But this is your story! Talk to me about putting your heart out there like this. What is that like for you?
Austin Winsberg: Well, first of all, thank you. And I’m so sorry for your loss.
AD: Thank you! To be honest, I debated mentioning it to you. I thought, ‘Well is this stranger even going to care?’ But, it’s important to me that you know why the show means so much to me. But also, that I think it’s just incredible that not only are you willing to share your personal experience publicly, but you’ve created an entire show about it. I’m so curious about that! It’s hard for me to even imagine. [Laughs].
AW: Of course, I care! And I have so much empathy for other people that have gone through it or are going through a version of what we both went through. I’m getting letters and Facebook messages every single day from people who have family members with PSP, and PSP is pretty rare so I think that the people that are seeing PSP representation on TV, they feel like they want to reach out because it’s unique to them. But then also other people who have to deal with family members with neurological diseases or just the death of a family member. I think there’s something about it that is, unfortunately, universally relatable to a lot of people.
I don’t know if it was my intention going into it to create that audience bond. It was mostly me just feeling like I needed and wanted to write something about that time in my life and my dad. That was the trigger, the whole reason behind the show.
AD: In the show, Zoey’s grief manifests in her ability sudden to hear people singing their hearts out to her. But how did you decide, ‘Okay, this needs to be a story?’ Or even a TV show? How did you go from grieving your father to deciding that you wanted to manifest that in this way? Do you know what I mean?
AW: Absolutely. I’ve always tried to, in my writing over the years, to take stuff from my own life. I’ve always tried to draw from my marriage, from my dating life, my children, whatever I could draw from. And when my father passed away and during that time, it was such a charged, difficult, emotional, time in my life. Also, I was losing my dad while becoming a dad at the same time.
I wasn’t ready to write about him right after [he passed away], it was too raw. But I knew at some point I wanted to write about what that time looked like.
A few years ago, I sold a TV pilot about a family moving on or trying to move on, a year after the patriarch had passed away. And that was a half-hour comedy, believe it or not [Laughs]. And I just felt after that I wasn’t addressing what that actual time looked like and felt like. And I thought, maybe I should write a play about it. Maybe a two-man show with monologues between the father and son. Maybe I should try to write a little movie about it. I didn’t know what form I wanted it to take.
I got involved in musicals in the last several years, and I had a musical on Broadway [Winsberg wrote the book for the musical, First Date which opened in 2013] I did the live musical for NBC [an adaptation of The Sound of Music also in 2013].
I just had this idea in my head, ‘What if the way my dad saw the world the last six months he was alive was through big musical numbers?’ And for the first time in five years of thinking about what I should write about me and my dad, it was the first idea that made me smile. And instead of just feeling sad and depressing, there was something about that notion that gave me joy.
AD: I love that!
AW: I started creating a story about a father and son and what the dad was seeing during that time through music.
I pitched it to Cara Dellaverson, who’s the head of drama at NBC. And she said to me, ‘I like it, but I’m worried that maybe it’s just a little small or a little too sad. Is there a way to expand that idea a little bit?’
I thought, ‘What if there is a character who may be able to see the world through musical numbers?’ And by seeing the world through musical numbers, not only does it give them a deeper understanding of what people are going through, but the other aspect of that is it allows them to communicate with their dad at a time when their dad can no longer communicate.
Once I had that idea in my head, the whole concept crystallized, and I thought it was finally a way to tell the story that I’d been wanting to tell for several years about my father and what that time looked like.
And maybe this is about having a little bit of distance from it but trying to find some lightness and some hope in it. The takeaway can be more about compassion and empathy rather than just talking about this terrible thing that happened
AD: I was reading interviews you conducted as you were promoting the show when it was premiering. You talked about how emotional it was for you to see some of those scenes being filmed because, of course, it took you back to the most difficult moments of your father’s illness. Now that the show is out in the world and you’re watching the completed episodes, have those emotions changed or evolved for you in any way?
AW: Well, I have a couple of thoughts about that. First of all, everything that happens in the show with the father in season one is the stuff that happened in our family. There isn’t a story in the family dynamic that isn’t directly stripped from our own personal headlines. I felt like it was my responsibility when writing it, and creating it, to be as authentic and true to our experience as possible. I felt a lot of Internal emotional pressure to honor my father and my family and to represent in an authentic way what we were going through.
I feel like there are a few stages of the process, the first is writing about it. And sometimes when I’m writing, I go to an emotional place and it brings me back to memories and not all those memories are still pleasant. But I feel like I’m trying to be true to the memory of the way that I felt like those things happen.
And then there is phase two of that, which is putting it on the screen, seeing it on set, and seeing Peter Gallagher dramatize that. And oftentimes when I was on set, I would have the ability to compartmentalize and just treat it like making the show. But, then every once in a while, when Peter’s capturing the physicality of PSP — and Peter does bear a resemblance to my dad at times, there were moments on the set where Peter would give a certain look or do a certain gesture and it would so instantly take me back to a moment that it would take my breath away and I’d have to leave set and I’d get really emotional.
Now there’s phase three of it, which is it is out in the world. And I go back and forth at times also between it just being like, this is the show. Then there’s certain moments or certain things in certain episodes that feel very raw or familiar that are definitely hard in the moment.
AD: Watching Zoey feels like a similar experience. I read in an interview, I believe in EW, that your mother asked you not to make the show ‘too sad.’ I thought that was so sweet. May I ask how she’s reacted to the show? And what it’s like for her to see her experience portrayed on television too?
AW: I think my mother too, has a similar push-pull over it. I think she’s got moments of pride and moments where she’s invested in the storyline. And then I think she’s got some moments where she’s like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you told that story.’ [Laughs] Or moments where it’s really hard to see because it so reminded her of that particular moment, you know? There are probably a few things within the show that maybe my mom wouldn’t have wanted to put in there, but I felt like it was important to show it.
AD: One thing that I appreciate about Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist that is quite unique, and not often talked about, is that you’re portraying what it means to be a caregiver for somebody who is sick and slowly losing their facilities. We don’t see that portrayed as often as we should; what that looks like, the stress of the situation, and how difficult that can be.
Yes, Mary Steenburgen’s character is a caregiver, but she’s also a vibrant, talented, complete person outside of that and I love that we get to see all of it.
AW: Yeah. I think a lot of times the focus is on the person who’s going through it. There are so many other people that are affected by what is happening. And my mom, who was married to my dad for 40-odd years, like the show, at a certain point in our process, we did bring in another caregiver to help her. [In Zoey, Howie (Zak Orth) is a caregiver brought in to help Maggie as Mitch’s condition worsens].
But, for a long time, it was just her, and it can’t help but take a toll on everybody. And the way that people respond to that, you want to think that you’re just going to be loving, and supportive, and caring. But, of course, you have your own internal life, all your own emotions that you’re dealing with. She’s dealing with the anger of it. She’s dealing with the fear of what the loss might look like. She’s going from being co-dependent to a future where you have to be independent and what that might look like.
Especially with a disease like what my dad had, and maybe it was way with your dad too, every week another facility got taken away. Every week there’ll be something else that’s a new challenge for him. My mom had a long period of time where she couldn’t ask for help, she was constantly on-the-go and dealing with everything that was changing. I just wanted to give life to that and all the emotions that are involved for anyone who is a part of that.
AD: You’re doing such a beautiful job of it. I have to ask you about the episode “Silence” which featured a song performed entirely in American Sign Language (ASL). Tell me about your collaboration with the Deaf West Theater Company and how that episode came about.
AW: Absolutely. I mean, one of the things that is important to me in the show is representation. I think Alex Newell is a reflection of that and Alex Newell’s story in episode four about dressing male and church came directly from his own life and trying to be as authentic to his story as possible.
We’re always talking in the writer’s room about other forms of representation. But also, ways in which Zoey’s new powers and abilities can reveal things about people that you wouldn’t expect, or give voice to people that might not necessarily have that voice, and also surprise people.
Our script coordinator said in the room one day, ‘What if Zoey were to hear a deaf person’s song and what would that look like?’ I instantly was like, ‘That’s a really interesting idea, let’s think about that.’
I remembered right away that I’d seen three productions in Los Angeles from Deaf West. Big River, the production of Pippin, and then the production of Spring Awakening that went to Broadway. And I was so moved by every one of those productions because at least half of their shows are deaf actors and the other half are hearing actors. And they did this amazing dance and choreography where you just feel like you’re watching this art and you’re so blown away by the abilities of the deaf performers. And I leave every one of their productions so emotionally inspired and also recognizing that they can do anything. And I thought, ‘I want to do a number that feels like it captures that spirit and energy of what I saw in Deaf West.’
Then it was just about, ‘Well, what’s the story that’s going to lend itself to that kind of idea?’ We landed on Howie’s daughter (Sandra Mae Frank) and Howie telling her that she can’t do something.
One of the rules of the show is that if anybody singing, that’s what they’re feeling at the moment. I wanted a feeling where a group of people, is effectively being told that they can’t do something. And all of them rising up and saying, ‘We can do anything we want to do.’
We landed on [Rachel Platten’s] “Fight Song” and that idea of, ‘We are going to fight for what we believe in.’
I felt really strongly from minute one that there shouldn’t be any hearing people who are singing in the scene, that there shouldn’t be any subtitles to tell us what the lyrics are saying, that simply by the instrumentation of the music, the choreography, the gestures and the facial expressions of all of the deaf performers that [the audience] would know what the song was about and what they were trying to convey. And I thought, ‘If [the performers] couldn’t hear the lyrics and why should we?’
And then it was just a process of working with Mandy Moore, our incredible choreographer, and bringing in the artistic director of Deaf West, David Kurs, and finding all deaf performers from around the country that were being as authentic to themselves and their experiences as possible.
AD: So do you start with your story first and then fit it to a song? Or do you have a song in mind and write to that? What comes first? It’s like the chicken or the egg…
AW: It actually is a little bit of chicken and the egg! [Laughs] Usually we are working on the story and say, ‘Oh, this would be a good moment for a song. What’s the kind of song that we want at this moment?’
We might want a song here about someone’s anger or a song about someone’s jealousy or a love song, whatever it is. What’s the idea behind the song?
But because Zoey’s is all I think about 24-7 now, any time I’m listening to the radio, or a new song pops into my head, I’ll write it down. We had a wall of songs in the writer’s room of songs that I knew we’d want to use in the show, songs that I felt like really clearly either conveyed an emotion or told a story.
Sometimes with our big board of ideas of where we knew we’d want to go with the season, I knew that in episode eight [Glitch] when Zoey’s power glitches. I knew that we wanted [CeeLo Green’s] “Crazy” in there, so I had the song from the get-go. But, it is a little bit of chicken and the egg.
When we knew we wanted to do an ASL number, we said, ‘Let’s make it a protest anthem in a way.’ Then we landed on “Fight Song,” and once we landed on that, I had some clarity about where to go from there.
AD: I do want to touch on the rest of the season, but have you heard anything about season two?
AW: We are very cautiously optimistic that we are going to get a second season. There’s been a lot of great critical response. People really love the show internally as well. So, we’re feeling cautiously optimistic, but nothing official yet.
AD: Season one has covered SO much ground so where do you see season two going? What are some things that you’re hoping to explore in the future?
I’m trying to figure out how to answer that without giving any spoilers. [Laughs] I think that there are still a lot of stories to be told. There’s a lot of stuff to be mined in the love triangle, there’s a lot between Zoey, Simon, and Max that I think we are in in the early stages of.
There’s a lot of family dynamics that continually evolve. There’s a lot of work dynamics that will continue to evolve and change. One of the things we tried to do in the show is what we call “emotional procedural storylines” where Zoey hears somebody’s inner song and learns something about them, whether that’s somebody that we already know or new characters that come into the show. It’s all about going deeper and seeing what’s underneath the surface. And I think there’s a lot more to mine, both with our characters in this show and new characters that we will bring in, that will surprise people.
We’re constantly thinking of new theatricalities and new ways to surprise with Zoey’s abilities and the musical numbers. I have a lot of good ideas for new things to do that we didn’t get to do in season one. And also continuing to tow the emotional line between comedy, emotion, and music in a way that feels grounded and hopefully universal.
I know that that’s super vague, but I feel like we’re just getting started in terms of who these characters are and where these journeys go
AD: I love it! I also love Peter Gallagher in this, are we going to see flashbacks or get to explore more of his character before the PSP?
AW: I would love to see more of what Peter looked like before PSP. I think that would be a way to continue to honor the spirit of my dad too. My dad was such a vibrant, dynamic man. I mean, he was an interior designer in Los Angeles and was so gregarious, and I feel like any opportunity to show what Mitch looked like before PSP would be awesome.
AD: I did get the chance to speak to Jane Levy for Awards Daily. She is the most delightful human being, and she’s terrific as Zoey. She talked to me about meeting with you and how you were so involved with the casting. Can you just talk about that process? Because this cast is incredible! As I said, Mary Steenburgen is so good, Peter Gallagher, of course, Lauren Graham…They’re such big names. But, then also your supporting cast members are all doing such incredible work, too!
AW: Yeah. As far as casting goes, there were certain people that I knew from minute one that I were my “Wishlist People.” I knew that if we could get them, that would be incredible.
Jane was actually the only person that we met with for the show [for Zoey]. I just felt like there are a lot of things that are required for Zoey. You’ve got to believe her as a smart, socially-awkward computer coder who isn’t that comfortable with people in the world. You’ve got to buy her as a charming, leading lady that you want to follow through these romantic storylines. You need to be able to do the comedy and the drama and then on top of that, the singing and dancing. And Jane has never classically trained in any of that. I knew that the role of Zoey required an endless amount of stuff, and from minute one sitting down with her, I just felt like she understood the characters deeply. I also feel like I know how to write to Jane’s strengths and I feel like there’s this kind of chemistry that happens between the two of us. I just felt totally confident in her hands doing it.
And Mary was the first person that we tried to go after for Maggie. Peter was the first person we tried to go after for Mitch. Skylar Astin was my first choice for Max. I always liked to write that character that’s sort of the neurotic, comedic, charming, lovable kind of guy. I knew that he could do all of that as such an accomplished singer and dancer. They were the first people I went after. I have one meeting with each of them and they each said yes.
AW: Robert Ulrich was our casting director and he cast Glee, I wanted somebody that had a musical background to come in to help us with the rest of the casting process. He’s really great at finding unique people with specific talents.
We made every single person who came into audition sing two songs as well as read the lines. And one of them was going to be a song from the show and one thing was going to be one of their own songs. So everybody else we found in the audition process.
AD: Your characters, even the supporting ones, are all so rich and fully-realized. How did you achieve that?
Alex’s part was originally written as a woman and Alex came in for it, and I just thought that he added so much to it. And I guess that’s part of the process too. You know, opening up your eyes and not necessarily having one idea in your head. I thought that suddenly. by making the character of Mo somebody who’s a male that is female-representing, that actually brought even more into Zoey’s world and actually added to the representation on the show.
Once you cast people, I think it’s about really having a lot of time where I talked to them. I understand who they are, what their own struggles are, and just try to bring some of that to the surface.
AD: Okay, last question, I promise! I have to ask this or else fans of the show are going to be so upset with me because I know how invested everyone is in the love triangle already. Do you have one side that you’re rooting for?
AW: I think it was all because I put the idea of Team Max versus Team Simon in episode three. I think I was so concerned about wanting to make sure that people understood that we were developing a love triangle that we’ve really created two separate camps! [Laughs].
I mean, the idea of Simon in the pilot was based on an experience that I had. I found that when my dad was dying, that the only other people I wanted to talk to were others who had gone through their own feeling of loss before, or could understand what I was going through. I don’t know if you felt this at all?
AD: Oh, completely.
AW: I had a friend during that time whose father had passed away suddenly, On Valentine’s Day of a heart attack.
AD: That’s awful, I’m so sorry!
AW: We were both relatively young to have to lose a parent in that way. While she was going through her grieving process, I was already pre-grieving for my father before he had even died. And I just found this very deep, emotional connection based on grief with her and I wanted to create. I thought that was from a writing perspective, that’s an interesting place to start a relationship.
I’m just a giant romantic comedy fan. I love the movies of Nora Ephron and Nancy Myers. I knew that I wanted to be able to tell romantic comedy stories within the show. I think that it’s important to make sure that both of the men feel viable in different ways.
And the men bring out different sides of Zoey’s personality. Not that one is bad or one is good, but to actually have two real choices on the table to explore both of those relationships in different ways.
AD: So do you have an ending in mind for the show? Or for Zoey herself?
AW: I definitely have some ideas about where it goes in the future. [Laughs]. I have it completely mapped out through season two already.
AD: Really? Well, that’s such an exciting note to end on. Thank you so much for your time. I tried to keep my compliments to a minimum as much as I could, but I just love the show so much.
AW: No! [Laughs]. I will never back away from compliments. And I’m sorry you had to go through it too. I’d love to hear your reaction as you watch the rest of the season.
AD: [Laughs] Oh, I’m sure I’ll let you know.
There’s a new episode of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist on April 19 at 9/8ct with the season one finale airing on May 3. You can catch up on the show OnDemand and on Hulu.