Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist stands as a one-of-a-kind series that delivers a variety of musical performances on a weekly basis, but not in a way that viewers have seen before on shows like Glee or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. With Zoey acquiring a set of superpowers that give her insight into the people around her via musical numbers nobody else can see, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist provides pure escapism with a cast stacked with powerhouse singers on NBC. Executive producer Paul Feig spoke with CinemaBlend about the current Season 2, and he broke down what helps the show stand out.
Given that Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist delivers escapism (including with an absence of COVID in Season 2) but infuses it with a healthy dose of drama and development, Paul Feig explained the process of striking a balance with the storytelling following the very heavy death of Peter Gallagher’s Mitch:
When [creator] Austin Winsberg first pitched [the show] to me, I really fell in love with it. Because I love musicals and I've been wanting to do one forever. And, you know, the thing about a musical is, it's so hard to figure out what the context of a musical is. Is it something where people can just burst into song and everybody in the audience accepts it? Does it have to have a reason why they burst into song? And so you know, I just loved how this has a built-in explanation for why these musical numbers would happen. And why they also weren't just sort of frivolous things. They actually made this, I like to call it sometimes almost like an emotional procedural, or a mystery where she hears the song, and then has to figure out why she's hearing it. And so, I think it's that balance between that idea and the fun of that idea. But that is then used so brilliantly by Austin, and the writers, performed so great by the cast, is that it's used not in a frivolous way.
Even just the few episodes of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist Season 2 that have aired so far have shown off how the show avoids frivolity. For every Broadway-worthy number like “Hello Dolly” and “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” to deliver over-the-top fun, there is a performance like Skylar Astin’s hilarious but heartfelt “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”/Boyz II Men mashup, Jane Levy’s intense “Nowhere to Run” dream sequence, and the Clarke family’s “Carry On.”
It’s no procedural that will be confused with Law & Order: SVU elsewhere on NBC, but definitely delivers on the emotional front. Paul Feig elaborated on what sets Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist apart as a TV show when it comes to the musical elements as well as the character development:
It's so execution-based because this show could easily be about, you know, everybody's falling in love all the time. So they're just singing songs about love, or it's, you know, a show I loved but, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, all the musical numbers were very funny in that. But what Austin really wanted to do, and especially since this is such a personal story to him, because his father went through the same disease [as Mitch], is using it as a way to communicate with somebody who can no longer communicate. And so I think it's a balance of our fun musical numbers, with the emotion of what the musical numbers can be used for in dramatic moments that really hits a nice balance, where, like you say, it is pure escapism, but it's not frivolous. It's also saying so much about the human condition, in a way that dialogue alone couldn't do as well, because we all know when we hear music and a song that moves us emotionally in places where we might not all agree upon if somebody's saying something or making a speech about something, might not do the same thing as effectively.
Zoey refers to the songs she hears as “heart songs” for a reason, as they shed light on what characters are truly feeling, if not necessarily saying. While that has caused problems between her and Max with Zoey knowing what’s going on in Max’s head without Max having the same insight, it has opened the show up to its mysteries for Zoey to solve.
The latest installment of Season 2 actually was a prime example of the emotional extremes that Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist can reach, with the programmers hilariously going full Annie to bemoan their “hard-knock life” in the same episode that Zoey was slowly unraveling due to her “Nowhere To Hide” dreams. Paul Feig weighed in, saying:
That's always been a big thing on the show is to not stick to any one style or genre of music. I mean, this season having a big Hello Dolly number, you know, when she comes back, but then the ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl' by Jet. It's so important to all of us that the music fit the moments and the emotions, and just like since it's coming from various people that she's encountering all the time, we all have different music we love, we all have different music and songs and styles of music that mean something to us individually, and it's also just a very fun way to get somebody's personality out in a much more visceral way. You know, by hearing what songs are going through their head to represent what they're feeling in their life at that moment.
Zoey sings so rarely compared to the other major characters on the show that the songs going through her head whenever she bursts out tend to come across as especially meaningful… and occasionally awkward for her, as we saw with her unfortunately timed songs back when her powers were glitching in Season 1. Still, she has already gotten to sing in more than one episode in Season 2, which has meant Jane Levy showing off her musical talents.
I asked Paul Feig if Zoey singing more was a goal for the second season, or just a perk of the plot for the first few episodes, and he shared:
We always love to move her towards that. Jane wanted to also, and she's so good at it and so fun when she's performing. Knowing her the way that we all do, sometimes you're like, ‘Oh, I wish she didn't just have to react to everybody else.’ So when she had her episode in the first season, where she sings everything, it was just so funny and so effective. And she was so good at it. I still think she deserves an Emmy just for her 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus' scene, which I still think is one of the most brilliant comedic performances I've ever seen. When I saw the dailies, I was like, 'Oh my God, Jane, you're like a powerhouse.' That is a hard thing to pull off. But she did.
Not all of Zoey’s songs when she was glitching were as adorable as her “I’m Yours” performance to Max, and Jane Levy went all out with “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” as Zoey was very inconveniently in an office with Joan and Leif, trying and failing to fight against singing and dancing. It really showed off Levy’s skills as a comedic actor in a season when she was so often called upon for drama with Peter Gallagher’s Mitch, and she’s delivering no less in Season 2.
As for casting Jane Levy and the rest of the stars of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, it’s no coincidence that even the characters who seem unlikely to burst into song (including Zoey herself) have the pipes to deliver showstoppers. Paul Feig explained:
When this was cast, the goal was to make sure that everybody being cast had musical abilities, that could do this. We didn't want anybody who would fall short or not be able to surprise you because, you know, you're hearing somebody's innermost thoughts, you're not hearing the reality of what their vocal pipes might do or not do in real life. And so that is very important to Austin especially to make sure that everybody was very skilled musically.
Skylar Astin’s duet with Jane Levy to Kelly Clarkson’s “A Moment Like This” in a recent episode showcased the show’s ability to combine heart songs with real-life singing, as Max got the instrumental backing on his half of the song while Zoey went a capella during her half. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is already going in some new directions in Season 2, and there’s no reason to doubt that will continue even as a hiatus approaches.