Warning: The following contains spoilers for Sunday’s Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist finale. Proceed at your own risk!
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist wrapped up its freshman season on Sunday with a finale that was very big on tears and full of music that went on… and on… and on. In fact, the episode’s final act was a seven-minute musical number shot in one continuous take as the camera weaved through Mitch’s wake. The impressive “American Pie” performance, featuring the show’s entire cast, capped an emotional season ender, in which Zoey said a heartbreaking goodbye to her father… and potentially opened her heart to BFF Max, whom she finally kissed.
Below, showrunner Austin Winsberg breaks down the making of the musical oner and teases how Zoey’s grief will complicate her relationships with both Max and Simon.
TVLINE | There were a lot of really poignant musical numbers, especially in regards to the storyline with Mitch. What were you looking for in the song choices for this episode?
First and foremost, I didn’t want it all to be so sad that people felt like we were bludgeoning them or hitting them hard over the head. [Laughs] There were some concerns along the way that if we had too many sad songs and too many numbers in a row that felt really, really depressing that it was gonna become one-note or gonna feel like torture porn or something.
When my father passed away, a hospice worker came to our house at four o’clock in the afternoon and said, “Your dad is going to die today,” and then left. We were left to our own devices to figure out what to do. The next eight hours in my house were spent with friends and family members and people coming over to kind of say their last goodbyes. Initially, I had imagined this final episode as the entire episode taking place at the vigil before [Mitch] died. As we were breaking it, it was just relentlessly sad, and it was hard to make the episode feel either active or also an episode that felt like the rest of our show, and I still wanted it to feel like our show. So when we got away from that idea somewhat, I found, hopefully, a balance where I could still show some of the lightness and carry through with the love triangle and stuff with Joan and other parts of the story, and create some comedy and levity in the show, and then kind of relegate the sadder portions of it to the second half of the episode.
“Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel)” is a Billy Joel song that I’ve loved for a long time, and it’s a song I’ve always loved for my kids. I always knew that I wanted there to be a goodbye song with David and Emily and the baby, and that song, I knew from the beginning, was what I wanted. But that’s a really sad song. So I knew that I couldn’t do too much sadness with the song stuff after that. Then when we had this idea for “American Pie” and to do an entire act that’s just a song, that idea happened really early on, actually. I was talking with our producing director Adam Davidson in Episode 2, and we were talking about what are some fun ways we can do musical numbers in the show, and Adam said, “What if we did an entire act that was all one song?” I loved that idea, and we realized that that could be really satisfying, if the final act of the season was all one number. There’s not a lot of songs that are long enough that can kind of make that work and felt tonally appropriate. “American Pie” happens to be my father’s favorite song. When I thought of that song, and also the concept of the day the music died, it felt very much like what Zoey would be feeling, because so much of the light and the love and the music came from her father. So it felt poignant, and also felt like something that could be a big finale where you could get everybody together and everybody’s singing. Because the show is a musical, too, I was looking for, “What’s our big musical finale for the season?” It felt like that checked a lot of boxes.
TVLINE | How difficult was it to find a song that would also fit every character in that final act? I was so impressed with how well the lyrics matched up to the characters at certain points.
[Laughs] Thank you. Most numbers in the show — maybe all the numbers in the show — it’s important to me that they, basically, lyrically match up with what’s going on story wise. That either they’re revealing something about the character or moving the plot forward. And that number actually does sort of break some of what we call the Zoe-ality rules in the show, because I consider it more of like a tone poem than the literal thing of Zoey seeing a person singing the song in the moment. And also, we never have songs take place over a period of time. They always happen either in the blink of an eye or over the course of the two minutes of the song that we’re doing. This song takes place over hours at the wake… I agree that there are definitely moments where they are very much paralleling what’s going on in their life. I remember the first time I listened to it in my car like, “Oh, that could work for Simon, that could work for Mo.” I was happy about those moments where it actually did work, and then there’s other moments where it maybe doesn’t link up exactly, but I felt like the emotion behind it was what linked up, and so I was kind of OK with it not being lyrically perfect.
TVLINE | How difficult was it to pull off, technically? And what went into the process of putting it together?
Incredibly difficult. It was definitely an all-hands-on-deck process. It started with Mandy Moore and I, our choreographer, the way it always starts, with her and I talking about what we want it to feel like, what’s happening in the number. We always knew it was going to be a trade-off from person to person to person. I had kind of designated on the page, for the most part — this might have shifted a little bit — who was singing what. So we worked out how it would work and who would sing it. And then it was about Mandy going off and figuring out, both on set and in the rehearsal studio, what that actual passing of the torch would look like. Then we had our director Jon Turteltaub working with us on it, and then we brought in Brad Crosbie, who was our steadicam operator, because so much of it is about the camera movement and the framing.
Then it became a dance amongst a lot of different departments, because we had 75 extras in that scene that had to all move in a certain way and move from room to room. We start off with 75 people in the house in the beginning, and only four people in the house at the end. We had to work with our set dressers and our production designers, because we had to make sure that the catering looked a certain way, but then also in one shot the catering is all on the dining room table, and then in the next shot, it’s supposed to be an hour and a half later, [and] there is no food on the table. And with our lighting department because it had to go from day to night.
So there were so many departments that were all working in conjunction with each other to create the effect of it and to make it all work in this seamless seven-minute shot that, really, was almost like doing a piece of live theater in that space. Thankfully, we had the opportunity there, where we don’t always have the opportunity, to rehearse it multiple times. It was really created over a two-week period, while we were doing a whole bunch of other stuff, and if memory serves, we might have been able to take one hiatus day just to work on all the logistics of that number.
TVLINE | Do you recall how many takes it took until you guys got it perfectly?
Believe it or not, we’ve got it right on take six. Because we were so well rehearsed and had done it so many times leading up to it, we only ended up doing seven takes. We all felt great about take six, and then we did one more take just to make sure, in case there were any problems will take six.
TVLINE | And is it a true oner? There’s no tricky editing?
No. The interior of the house is on a soundstage, and the exterior of the house, we shot outside and brought in some of the rain. So the only edit is from the outside of the house to get inside the house. But the second you are inside the house, there is not a cut.
TVLINE | The number also ends on this very poignant and kind of different note with Zoey singing acapella by herself. Why did you decide to end the finale on that moment?
This show is about Zoey, and I wanted to be with her, alone, for that final piece of it. I always like any opportunity for Zoey to sing, and because we’re in a more non-literal place there, I felt like we’re just sort of experiencing what she’s feeling, and I really wanted the season to end on the lyric, “The day the music died.” It felt poignant to me that that would be coming from her, and also to know that we’re on this journey with her. When we pull back on this family at the end, it’s also kind of like a glimpse into Season 2 and what’s next, because how does this group of people who’ve had this loved one that’s meant so much to them, how do they move on? And what does life look like when tragedy strikes, after a trauma in a family? So to kind of leave them all alone in the room, especially on the couch, with that empty space on the couch, which was the space where he sat so much of the season… I just remember there was a very specific space on the couch where my dad always was. The moment when he was no longer there, and yet that couch was still there, was so resonant for me and was such a very powerful image for me that I just wanted to kind of live in that and be with Zoey for the end of that.
TVLINE | There were also some developments on the love triangle front. What exactly has changed for Zoey when it comes to her feelings for Max?
Over the course of the last several episodes of the show, Max has really found his own confidence and his own strength. I know that there were a lot of ‘shippers and Team Max fans who liked the Max who was sweet and there for Zoey, but some of it was at the expense of his own agency. It was important for him to get some distance from Zoey and find something that he was good at. He really put himself out there by the middle of the season, doing the big flash mob and professing his love for her, and for her not to really confess it back, and for her to also have feelings for Simon, was hard for him. So he needed to create his own space and find his own success outside of Zoey to gain his own confidence, and by Episode 12, when she gets him the job back and he says that he doesn’t want it back, he really is into this idea of looking forward. I think that she’s grown frustrated over the course of the season with Simon spending a lot of time looking backwards and living in the past. And the idea of Max being this confident character who’s really excited about the future and really excited about what’s to come, that just stirs something in Zoey, and she’s able to see that on top of being this guy who was there for her and really does love and care for her, he also is asserting his own strength and independence and she finds that attractive. That’s one of the things that helps her see him in another light beyond just the friend light that she’s put him in up until now.
TVLINE | She also still connects with Simon on a very deep level. We even see her tell her dad, somewhat good-naturedly, that the engaged guy at work now likes her. So where does that leave Zoey’s heart when it comes to the two men in her life?
I definitely wanted to keep it open-ended going into Season 2, and I didn’t want it to be definitive that she had made a choice for one or the other. I still wanted to put on the table that these are both good guys, who are both viable in their own way. The fact that she’s seeing Max in a more romantic light, but also with Simon coming back in Episode 12 and he’s actually starting his own personal growth and working on himself, it’s going to continue to create different options and challenges for Season 2. I didn’t want to go completely Team Max or Team Simon by the end. But there’s still, hopefully, some questions about what’s going to happen, and certainly with the death of her father, that’s also going to impact where she is at, emotionally, and what she’s going to be ready for leading up to Season 2.
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