'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist' Says Farewell to Lauren Graham

[This story contains spoilers from the season two premiere of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist.]

Pandemic scheduling delivered a big loss to season two of NBC musical Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist as star Lauren Graham exited the series — for now, at least.

Tuesday's season two premiere saw Zoey (Jane Levy) emerge from a grief spiral following the death of her father and also introduced another life change for its titular character: The computer programmer's boss, Joan (Graham), took a new job in Singapore and Zoey was promoted in her place.

Graham's exit is entirely because of a scheduling conflict created by production delays resulting from the novel coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 forced production to shut down on Graham's Disney+ comedy The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers. The series, in which Graham stars and exec produces, was filming when THR spoke with her in February and shut down shortly thereafter. Still, Graham has the Disney+ show in first position — meaning any conflict would see the actress prioritize the hockey comedy over Zoey's. The actress initially joined the musical comedy in a recurring role that was originally intended as a season-long arc. Still, she remains on great terms with the production, and creator Austin Winsberg tells The Hollywood Reporter that Graham has an open invitation to return — schedule permitting.

"I would have loved to have had more of her in season two," Winsberg says. "Unfortunately, the character of Joan was a victim of covid scheduling. Lauren had committed to doing another show that was supposed to be done shooting by the time we went into production. But the pandemic changed all of that and both shows ended up shooting at the same time. So, there was just no way for her to do both. However, the door is always open for Lauren and Joan to return, and nothing would make me happier than having her back. Lauren and Jane have such a great rapport when they are playing off of each other. And I feel very fortunate that we were able to get her at all."

When Winsberg and his writers initially started crafting the second season, they included plenty of storylines that involved the character that had to be scrapped once the reality of the scheduling difficulties between the two shows became clear.

"Joan was going to be in a lot of the episodes, and then covid happened and their whole schedule got changed, and their schedule became the exact same schedule as our schedule, and that's why you see what happens with Lauren in the first episode," Winsberg says. "We had to adjust multiple episodes because of it. If covid had not happened we would've been golden because that show was supposed to shoot from March through June or July, and we were starting up in September, so it would have been fine. But then the schedules happened at the exact same time and there was no way to make it work."

As the Zoey's crew gears up to begin filming the eighth episode of season two in Vancouver there are no plans for Graham to return — yet — but another familiar face will likely be back. Peter Gallagher, whose character Mitch died in the season one finale after battling a degenerative neurological disease, appears via newly discovered video footage in the season two premiere and will be back at some point this season.

"It’s definitely not the last we’ve seen of Peter," Winsberg said of the character that was inspired by his late father. "Peter and Mitch are such a critical part of the show for me. And when you lose someone, they always remain in your thoughts. So our goal is to continue to try to explore Zoey’s memories of Mitch and find other organic ways for Mitch to be part of Zoey’s life. Mostly so we can keep Peter around."

In the meantime, Zoey and her family — mom Maggie (Mary Steenburgen), brother David (Andrew Leeds) and sister-in-law (Alice Lee) — will continue to grapple with the grief of Mitch's loss.

Medical dramas have been dealing with ultra-topical storylines for months now as nearly all of TV's first-responder series incorporated the pandemic into their seasons. And while season two of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist takes place in a non-covid world, the NBC musical manages to tackle plenty of themes that are all too present in 2021 — namely grief, trauma, isolation and other major experiences the entire world has dealt with since the onset of the pandemic. Whether or not someone has lost a loved one to covid — and, statistically speaking, so many people in the U.S. have — the world certainly dealt with grief and loss throughout 2020.

"I knew that I wanted the season to be about moving on, and I knew that I wanted the season to be about how do we present ourselves, how do we recover after a tragedy? Then when actual tragedy struck in the world as well, I think it's natural for some of those ideas that felt specific to our family to also be universal ideas," Winsberg said.

The second season begins with Zoey emerging from a weeks-long hibernation after her father's death, a pseudo "homage to quarantine," per Winsberg. "Some of the comparisons [to today's world] are intentional and some of them are inevitable when you're dealing with these ideas of loss and grief and recovery and how do you move on, just where we are right now."

But unlike real life, which will gradually return to some semblance of what it was like before the COVID-19 disruption, Zoey is thrust back into her life at a super-successful tech company — and back into her strange world of hearing other people's emotions through song.

Zoey's return comes with a massive Broadway song-and-dance number set to "Hello Dolly," featuring dozens of cast members and dancers. It was so jarring to watch after having minimal contact with humans for 10 months and counting that Winsberg welled up several times while watching the first cuts of the scene.

"For me there was something cathartic about seeing a group of people without masks on in the same room dancing and being joyful together. There's so many experiences that we took for granted a year ago that have much more meaning now, and to be able to put that on screen and to have a bit of that wish fulfillment for me felt very emotional," he said.

Below, Winsberg discusses how the pandemic changed how he thought about Zoey's second season and the other major challenges involved in producing a weekly musical during a pandemic.

A big number like "Hello Dolly" was complicated before the pandemic, but how were you able to pull it off with all the COVID protocols in place?

Mandy Moore, our choreographer, could probably talk about a little bit more eloquently than me in terms of all the specifics about the how-to's, but it started with I liked the idea that Zoey hadn't heard musical numbers since her dad died. It was kind of fitting with the [season one finale performance of] "American Pie," the day the music died. But I also knew because our show was a musical, it would be wrong to hold out on that until act six or something of the first episode. We still want to see musical numbers in the first episode.

The same way that "Help" was just a big number that got us into the pilot, I wanted to have a big number to come back to. And I also wanted it to be a big number that would make Zoey very uncomfortable. So when I thought of the idea of "Hello Dolly" as the big thing that happens in her first time back at work, I just thought, "Zoey would hate a big Broadway musical number." I don't know if we've ever really gone full-bore Broadway, and I thought that gave Mandy a fun opportunity for a big showy dance number. And then it just became about all the things that we needed to do to make that happen. So there was a lot of finding the dancers, testing the dancers multiple times before the day. We have lots of behind the scenes footage that is still weird for me to watch. Anytime she's rehearsing any dance number everybody's wearing masks. You're watching all these people do these dance numbers with masks on. And then just following the covid protocol rules that we had established on set, but it was a lot of logistics being able to get all those people in one space and making sure it was safe.

Have you had to change any plans with the covid protocols?

I went into the season knowing a lot of the challenges, so I wrote to a lot of the challenges. The biggest stuff was we had to get rid of a lot of interior location work. Last season we had a lot of scenes that took place at restaurants and bars and clubs and places like that. I basically had to jettison almost all of them. We realized that we would have more control and be able to be more in our own bubble if a lot of stuff took place on our existing sets. We built a few more interesting sets that we can go to, we created more spaces that felt like safe spaces that we can play in. So that was a big part of it. I also tried to limit to some extent the amount of giant dance numbers with, you know, 100 people, and try to be more strategic and judicious about that. There are more dance numbers this season that are one or two people. And then just being smart and strategic as a producer. How can I make the show still feel like the same show even though we have to be a little smaller at times?

How often will those big musical numbers happen, or will they be saved for special occasions?

It's more like instead of doing two or three an episode, can we do one an episode? Or if we're not going to do one in an episode, what is the super creative, unexpected thing that we're doing that we have never done before. In episode two we have a big dance number with the programmers in the bullpen and episode three we have another big dance number with the programmers in the bullpen. In episode five we have huge dance number out on the street, in episode six and seven. Almost every episode has at least one bigger number.

Watching the "Hello Dolly" number is a really interesting experience in 2021.

It really was so emotional when we were doing it, and then there was such a sense of relief when it was over. That was the first time where it was like, can we do it? And can we still do it like Zoey's and have some of the ambition? Mandy Moore and I are always trying to challenge ourselves. Right right now we're about to start shooting episode eight and Mandy's done almost 100 musical numbers in the show already. Each one of those musical numbers has a conceit behind it. There's a big idea. There's something novel we're trying to do. That's always the bar that we place for ourselves. "Hello Dolly" was a big one where it's like can we accomplish this? And I just remember both of us felt a huge sense of relief and accomplishment when that was over and we felt like we'd achieved what we wanted to.

What was the biggest challenge in season two, and was it just the covid of it all?

The biggest production challenge was certainly dealing with covid and figuring out how to do the show day to day in our covid world with all the procedures that need to be in place. The biggest creative challenge, I think, is now that Mitch is no longer alive and having his decline be the the main arc of season one, figuring out how to make the show emotional, comedic, musical, meaningful and create new arcs without him there and without resorting to another sentimental or emotional — it would have been easy for us to give Joan cancer, or something like that. I didn't want to fall into some sort of trope of somebody else getting sick or some other sort of medical condition or season two. So just creating emotional through lines and arcs that weren't about dad but still had emotional connectivity.

What is the biggest piece of the feedback from season one that you took into season two?

We're doing a new musical every eight days. Musicals that go to Broadway take eight years and we're doing them every eight days. The degree of difficulty and the degree of challenge on the show is always there no matter what we do, because when you're trying to be inventive and creative with five song-and-dance numbers every episode it's a really challenging thing to execute. In terms of what I learned, I think the show functions best when it enhances the comedy and the drama and the emotion. Tonally that's a challenging thing to achieve every single episode, so trying to be in that pocket as much as possible but also allowing certain episodes to just be fun and be OK with that too. We have a lot of characters that we try to service on the show, and sometimes we try to tell too much so I think learning how to trim the storylines has been part of the learning process. And it always has to start with Zoey, and it always has to be about what is Zoey's emotional through line in the episode. How is Zoey being active in the episode?

One of the biggest takeaways from season one that I really brought to season two was making sure that Zoey is always front and center and leading everything. If we don't know or don't care about what Zoey's going through in the episode it doesn't have the same emotional resonance for me. And the last thing I would say is just this love triangle. There were a lot of vocal people online about the love triangle. I know different people have different feelings about love triangles in general, and whether or not they are more Team Max [Skylar Astin] or Team Simon [John Clarence Stewart, Zoey's co-workers and love interests]. So, trying to navigate that in a way in season two that felt different than season one, that felt like we weren't going to make Zoey so flip floppy. She's not a teenager. This woman who's almost 30 years old, who's trying to make decisions and choices in her life, for her to constantly be going back and forth, I started to feel like that might get old with an audience. I also started to feel like people might lose interest in that story if they felt like either guy was being blown off for too long. So, trying to be smart and unexpected in the way that we handle the love dynamic.

Jane Levy got a great showcase in season one that saw her perform all the songs instead of overhear others, will she sing again this season?

I love any time Jane can sing on the show. She loves it too and she's an amazing dancer, and it's crazy that she was untrained in this stuff because she's so good at it. It's just about being creative about it because the conceit of the show is about her hearing other people's songs. Whenever Zoey sings it's just about being specific about the how and why and being creative about it. I can tell you that already she sings in episode two, she sings in episode three, and she sings in episode five. I will continue to look for more creative ways to have her sing in the back half of the season, but it's always something that I keep in my mind because I liked it, she likes it, and I think the audience likes it too.

It's interesting that you're talking about trimming back the stories and making them all about Zoey, because that feels inherently covid-friendly.

Yeah, in some ways. Also in season two of a show — I don't want to speak for every show — I felt like I also wanted to be able to explore characters on their own without Zoey, to be able to make them more three-dimensional in whatever ways I can. It's also important to give Jane a break so she's not in every single scene. I tried to create storylines for Maggie [Mary Steenburgen, Zoey's mom], for Max and Mo [Alex Newell, Zoey's BFF and neighbor], for other characters that would allow them to go on scenes without Zoey and to see them without Zoey too because I do think it's important to start to build out the world more in season two. It's a combination of being as clear as I can with Zoey's emotional through line, and then being strategic about the other stories that we're telling with the characters outside of Zoey that still try to tie in thematically with what's happening in Zoey's storyline in the episode.

Covid-wise, has shooting in Vancouver made you change any plans? Since Canada has a mandatory two-week quarantine, that's probably difficult in terms of getting certain guest stars.

Yes, we all quarantined for 14 days to start the season, and the majority of us are going are going back and quarantining again for another 14 days before we start. There were a few cast members that just decided to stay in Canada. The ones that didn't went home for two weeks. It's so hard. Everybody is away from their families and loved ones for months at a time. It's not like last season where they had the ability to come home on the weekends or their friends or their family had the ability to come visit them. People have been away from their families for three, four months.

As far as guest cast goes, you're exactly right. It's much more challenging the season to get somebody to just come for a one-off knowing they have to quarantine for 14 days. There's also expenses associated with that too. So I had to be a bit more strategic in terms of if I'm bringing somebody in I have to bring them in more from an arc perspective than just for one offs. We've been lucky that we've been able to get a couple of people to come in just for one episode. We were able to bring in Chip Zien, who's a big Broadway actor, to play Max's dad and he was nice enough to come in to quarantine for two weeks to be with us for one episode. I'd love to bring him back in the future, but because of all the covid rules we just don't have the ability to bring in, like, Renee Elise Goldsberry for example. I'd love to bring her in but to bring her in for one episode is a lot to ask of somebody.

And similarly, Lauren Graham — we had a lot of plans for Lauren Graham this season, but she had signed on to do the Mighty Ducks show during our offseason. That was originally all supposed to be shot and done by the time we went back to production and her character Joan was going to be in a lot of the episodes, and then covid happened and their whole schedule got changed, and their schedule became the exact same schedule as our schedule, and that's why you see what happens with Lauren in the first episode. We had to adjust multiple episodes because of it. If covid had not happened we would've been golden because that show was supposed to shoot from March through June or July, and we were starting up in September, so it would have been fine. But then the schedules happened at the exact same time and there was no way to make it work.

What else do you have in store for season two?

This season is about recovery for the family. We started with how do you move on after tragedy, and that's the overarching theme for the season. We get to watch Zoey and Maggie, and David and Emily with their new baby deal with that in different ways. I liked last season that we were able to tackle some complicated subjects with Mo's relationship to the church and with the death storyline we did in episode nine last season. I'm really proud of episode 6 that we do this season, which is a deep dive into systemic racism in the workplace, which is very prevalent in Silicon Valley. We wanted to be very true to that and still do that in our Zoey way. Episode nine, I liked the idea that if the show should go on that every season we would do an annual glitch. So we have our annual glitch episode that we're doing [where] another thing happens to Zoey's powers that creates unexpected complications in big, surprising ways. I'm very proud of the work we've done so far and I feel like every episode we try to do something original, inventive and a new direction that we haven't done yet on the show. Episode two we have an entire act that is just one scene in a bedroom between Zoey and Max that we rehearsed for two weeks like a one-act play. I'm very proud of that act.

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on NBC.