'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist' Boss on That Devastating Finale and Season 2 Plans

The finale episode of the NBC musical dramedy dealt with death in a frank and emotional way, and creator Austin Winsberg says there's plenty more story to tell in a potential second season.
Sergei Bachlakov/NBC; Inset: Amy Sussman/Getty Images

[This story contains spoilers from the "Zoey's Extraordinary Dad" season one finale episode of NBC's Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist.]

The life-changing event that occurred in the finale of NBC musical dramedy Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist was explicitly spelled out in its pilot, when the father of Jane Levy's titular character was revealed to be dying from a degenerative neurological disease.

Inspired by the real-life experience of creator Austin Winsberg's own family, the season followed Zoey as she learned how to process her feelings about her father's impending death and to empathize more with her family and friends, all while possessing a supernatural ability to hear people's innermost thoughts via song and dance numbers.

In the finale, Zoey woke up and had a feeling something terrible was on the horizon when she sang "Bad Moon Rising," which her neighbor-turned-confidant Mo (Alex Newell) correctly interpreted as a realization of impending tragedy. Throughout the first half of the episode she tried to figure out what that bad moon was signaling — was her boss (Lauren Graham) about to get fired? Nope, she actually got promoted. Was Mo going to be heartbroken about his recent split? No, he and the ex got back together. Was something going to happen to her brother David's baby during childbirth? No, his wife's contractions were a false alarm. Was her relationship with her BFF Max (Skylar Astin) in danger? No, she actually felt a spark and finally kissed him after he professed his love.

But then the other shoe dropped — Mitch (Peter Gallagher) had been declining in health for the past few weeks, and he was likely in his final moments. The family all shared private moments with him, including a heart-wrenching rendition of Billy Joel's "Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel)" from Mitch and David (Andrew Leeds). Zoey's own moment came at the end, after she privately reassured her father that things were going all right in her life. Work was fine, her love life was complicated but she was dealing with it, and she was actually pretty content. As Zoey imagined a beautiful dance between herself and her father, he finally passed away.

After the funeral, everyone — co-workers, friends, family — gathered at the house for a massive one-shot group number set to "American Pie." After everyone left, the camera lingered on the family as they sat in their grief.

Winsberg told The Hollywood Reporter he always knew Gallagher's character would die in the series' first season — mostly because that's how it happened for his own father in his real life. Below, the showrunner discusses the epic "American Pie" sequence, his plans for a potential season two, and the added importance of telling the story of a loved one's death during the coronavirus pandemic.

Why was it important to show Mitch's death in season one versus stretching his illness out across multiple seasons?

The whole family aspect of the show was entirely based on what happened in my personal life. From the onset of diagnosis of my dad's PSP, progressive supranuclear palsy, to him passing away was nine months, and we had very little time to prepare for everything that was going on. Everything you saw over the course of the season in the house was literally stuff that happened in my family's house during those months — everything from the Taboo buzzer to him asking for lemonade on the computer, to the crying sprees to falling down the stairs to bringing in a caregiver, to the challenges with my mom trying to figure out the final resting place. It all came directly from our own lives.

I hadn't even really considered the possibility of it going beyond that because I was trying to stay true to what happened to us, and I also felt like there was a lot of interesting story to be told after the father passes away, after my dad passed away, in terms of how does a family move on, and what do people look like after tragedy has set in? So I always felt like my design for season two was going to be about moving on and was going to be about how do we move forward? It never really factored into my decision-making to think maybe we should keep him around, because I wanted it to be true to my own experience. I think there was also probably a little bit of fear or hesitation early on, because he's so immobile and has an inability to speak to anybody but her, that I didn't want it to feel ultimately just so sad every time that we went to that house, and that there wasn't an opportunity to tell more in the stories there. The idea of Sick Mitch and Mitch in that state, I felt like we had played that out.

How difficult was it for you to tell a story this personal, particularly with this last episode and watching a piece of your real life play out in front of you?

I felt a lot of pressure to honor the end. I had a lot of questions for myself about what did I want it to feel like, and what did I want the takeaway to be? I don't know if I would have been in this place six, seven years ago. Ultimately, I wanted the takeaway from it to feel a little bit more life-affirming and positive rather than just negative and angry. When Zoey gives her speech to her dad at his bedside, it's actually the exact same speech that she gives her father in the pilot, but in the pilot, where she's talking about everything being negative in her life — about the job and the guy she likes at work and this new power that's scary to her — I felt like it was important to give that same speech in the end but to actually spin it all in a more positive direction. Basically, she's had a version of acceptance over the course of the season, and she's also come to grips with her powers and abilities and is starting to see them as potentially a positive, good thing for her. But I think that's part of what helps him move on and actually pass away, that she says that she's okay.

It's certainly exposing, but from the beginning I knew I wanted to tell a story about my father in the last year of his life and becoming a dad while losing my dad. From the beginning it was always important to me to be real and authentic and true to my own experiences and memories of it. So at times that felt like a responsibility, and at times that felt like a burden. But I also felt like I wasn't doing justice to my dad and the disease if I wasn't being honest about it. Certainly in the writing and different moments on set along the way it would get emotional for me. I had many different reactions to it over the course of a season. A lot of times I was able to compartmentalize it and treat it like a story. But then sometimes I'd be on set with Peter and he would so channel something that my dad did, or a look, and he so resembled my father that it would surprise me and bring me instantly back to a memory and I'd have to leave set because I was so emotional. In writing the pilot, I cried a lot. Everybody cried a lot at the table read. I cried several times while we were rehearsing "American Pie." The day that we were shooting all the scenes of him in the bed when he was dying was a really hard day for me on set, and I cried five times the first time I saw the director's cut of the last episode. There were a lot of tears along the way, but I think some of those tears are cathartic and therapeutic and part of, for me, my process.

It was impossible not to cry when Mitch started singing Billy Joel's "Lullabye."

That was just one of the early ones that I knew was a must-have, because I'm such a huge Billy Joel fan and it's one of my favorite songs, and I think I've sung it to my kids at times. I just knew that that was one I wanted in there. And then when we decided that one was going to be in there, then it was just a question of, well, how many sad songs can we can put in this episode where it doesn't start to feel like we're beating people over the head with sadness?

This episode takes on added significance right now because a lot of people aren't able to be with their family members who are dying, or aren't able to mourn together. Do you hope this episode can be a cathartic experience for them?

Look, there's so much fear and sad stuff in the news right now. Every day I hear stories that break my heart. So I think it's an emotionally charged time for people for sure. I think that hopefully part of why people have tuned in to the show up till now is the combination of the comedy and the musical and the joy and the compassion in the show mixed in with the sadness. And I think the last episode has all of those things. So hopefully, even though there is sad stuff, and it's hard to watch that stuff during a sad time, hopefully the takeaway from it, certainly when the cast sings "American Pie," is this idea that we're all in this together, and that you're not alone and sometimes bad things happen, but there's still a lot of love around you too. I hope there are some positive messages within all of that and that it's not just sad for sad's sake. I think that's part of why I connect so much to "American Pie," because it just feels like we're all connected and life goes on, and how do we band together during these hard times?

Do you already have season two plotted out?

Yes, I've pitched all of season two to the network. I did a big Zoom call two and a half weeks ago with, like, 30 people where I pitched out the entire season. I know that the network is very behind the show creatively and loves the show, and we have a lot of external support. I think we're all cautiously optimistic that we're going to come back. I think the biggest question mark right now is that no one knows when anything's going to start again, and NBC has a bunch of shows that they've committed to for several seasons, and it's just about needs. But I'm feeling hopeful that we're going to get more.

The finale had a little bit of resolution in terms of Zoey's love triangle, as she finally kissed her best friend, Max. But does that mean it's over, or will romance even be on her mind at all after her father's death?

I think that she was able to see Max in a new light in this episode, and I think that she was able to because of this confidence that he has now and this inner strength where he's less sort of best friend puppy dog and more his own person. She finds that very attractive, and I think that's what drew her to kiss him and to take things to the next level with him. I think there's still definitely feelings there for Simon, and I think he's still a viable option. He understands grief and grieving on a whole other level than Max does. So I think the door is open for her to continue to move forward with both of those guys and figure out who she wants and what she wants. And I think also after the death of her dad maybe not being ready right away to jump into something.

Is there potential to see Peter back in some capacity?

If we could figure out interesting and creative ways to do it, nothing would make me happier.

How do you feel about what you were able to accomplish over the first season of the show?

If you know me at all, I am more critical of my work than anybody on the outside could ever possibly be. I feel actually immensely proud of everything that we were able to accomplish. I think that to do a musical TV show where we had eight days per episode to shoot an entire musical and to thread a really tricky tonal line each episode, the combination of the comedy and the drama and the music, and to do something that was so personal with people that I really get along with and love — Mandy Moore, our choreographer, has become such an amazing partner, and I'm so proud of her accomplishments all season — that I walk away feeling like certainly we did the impossible. We did a very unique and specific show on network television. NBC really gave us the latitude and the creativity to do the show that I wanted. So to be able to realize the vision that I wanted, and to check those different tonal boxes every week, and to keep the quality level up, and always challenge ourselves with the musical numbers, and really try to deal with some real human emotions in the process, I feel very, very proud of the work.

The finale didn't end on a cliffhanger or quickly shift away from Mitch's wake. Instead the camera lingered on the family as they sat together in their grief. That's not a typical ending for a network TV show.

I had a lot of debates about the very end. Originally "American Pie" was going to be act four, then it was going to be act five, and then it was going to be act six. We kept having this idea that we would do "American Pie" and then we'd show one more act of something with the love triangle, and then a big work thing, and then we would end on a cliffhanger. And I just felt like it was really hard to go past "American Pie." I also felt like, in the spirit of this being a musical, that a lot of musicals end with a big finale number, and to be able to bring all of our cast, including supporting people or people who were only in one episode into that wake at the end and have everybody singing and have this collective moment, and also to end with the idea of the day the music died, it just felt to me to be poignant and poetic, and I didn't feel like there was anything we could do that could go past that. Anything cliffhangery just felt a little manipulative to me in a way that I didn't feel was true to the show.

You got Bernadette Peters and Renee Elise Goldsberry to guest star this season. Is there anyone you'd want to hire for season two? And are there any songs you're bummed you didn't get to include?

There's so many people I would love to bring on the show, especially Broadway name people. I think there's an opportunity for people who are pop artists to come on to this show. I definitely mentioned several names in my season two pitch to NBC. A few of them offhand, I don't know if you know who Randy Rainbow is, he does amazing song parodies. I think he's incredible. Leslie Jones is someone who's been tweeting about the show who I'm a big fan of, and I think it'd be great to bring her in. Billy Porter, Kristin Chenoweth. There's a lot of people that I could see coming into this space and having fun in our world. I have a lot of ideas for that. Without giving away too many spoilery things, even specific characters for certain people that I'd love to come in in season two.

Then there were massive singers that we never got to do in season one. Just off the top of my head, Taylor Swift, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Adele, Aerosmith, U2, the Doors. There are a lot of major influential artists that I'm a huge fan of that we haven't even touched yet. And on top of that, there are a lot of different ways that we can play with the theatrical conceit and the ins and outs of "Zo-ality." Mandy and I too always want to continue to challenge and top ourselves. So I think there's still a lot of areas for the show to go, and places to grow, and fun cameos and great music and all of that.