Sometimes, there's nothing more cathartic than a good cry that's unrelated to the current state of the world.
That's what the finale of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist gave us tonight: a good, long, loud sob. We always knew it was coming, and that's partly what made it so intense. It was an emotion that had been building all season long, especially as it became clear that Zoey's dad would not be surviving.
We felt that we knew he was about to die just going into the finale, so as Zoey kept singing "Bad Moon Rising" and worrying about what bad moon was rising, we knew it was only a matter of time.
But first, Zoey (Jane Levy) got Max (Skylar Astin) his job back (which he didn't want) while Joan (Lauren Graham) was offered the gig of running the whole company while Danny Michael Davis runs from the law. Zoey also helped Mo (Alex Newell) and Eddie (Patrick Ortiz) get back together, and then was in the process of hooking up with Max (!!!) (or at least trying to while he kept singing heart songs) when the call came.
The Final Songs
We didn't start crying until the opening notes of Billy Joel's "Lullabye" started playing as Mitch sang to his unborn grandson, and then we didn't stop crying for the rest of the episode, which was mostly just a sequence of Mitch-related songs specifically designed to reduce us all to a puddle on the floor.
After "Lullabye," Maggie sang "Dream a Little Dream" to her husband, and as Zoey talked to him about how OK she is and he began to go, Mitch appeared to Zoey and asked her to dance with him as "True Colors" started playing.
What then followed was a seven-minute sequence at the reception after Mitch's funeral of "American Pie," sung by nearly every main character in one long take throughout the Clarke house until all the guests were gone and it was just Zoey and her family remaining, and then it was just Zoey singing alone.
The whole show is inspired by creator Austin Winsberg's experiences with his own father, Richard Winsberg, who died of PSP, and the whole show has had an element of wish fulfillment in terms of how Winsberg wishes he could have communicated with his dad in the end. But that final song was a particular tribute to him, as Winsberg told us while we tried not to cry on the phone.
"When we were shooting episode two, our producing director on the show, Adam Davidson said to me on set, what if we do an entire act that's just a song?" he explained. "And I always liked that idea and felt like it was really ambitious. And when we were trying to think of songs that could work that, that were long enough that I could tie in story wise, the song that popped into my head was 'American Pie.' And 'American Pie' happened to be my dad's favorite song."
"There was something I thought was kind of beautiful lyrically about the day the music died, and for her dad to represent a lot of music and joy for her," he continues. "It felt like a strong thematic idea and I liked the idea of having the last act of the season be like a big musical finale, with everybody in the same space and everybody taking over parts of the song, and then to be able to use a song that my dad loved so much as the song became the icing on the cake of that."
And as we cried watching that number, you can bet Winsberg has cried a few more times.
"I cried so many times in that number. I cried writing that number. I cried the first time that [choreographer Mandy Moore] brought me into the house, and she only had like 12 people, the people who were singing and dancers pretending to be other people. I cried the first time I saw it. I cried on the day that it was actually happening. I cried the first time I watched it in the cut. So yeah, a lot of tears with that."
"Lullabye," Winsberg says, is one of his own favorite songs and he knew it would be a part of the show extremely early in the process, and though Maggie's "Dream a Little Dream" took a little longer to land on.
A Little Fantasy
Mitch's last moment with Zoey was a departure from the way the show usually works. People usually only sing to Zoey during their heart songs, and him speaking instead of singing was not immediately the plan, but it does mean there could be a future for Mitch on the show.
"We spent a lot of time trying to figure out and debate whether or not Mitch should, in fact, sing a last song to Zoey, a la 'True Colors.' And I went through hundreds of songs before landing on the idea that actually maybe it's more powerful for them to talk to each other and not sing. I liked the idea that he was taking her away from having to bear witness to his last moments intentionally, and I liked also that it opened up the door to potential fantasy or otherworldly ideas going forward."
The Future (and the Present)
Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist has not yet been renewed for a second season (which is preposterous, if you ask us), but assuming it does continue, Zoey's got a sort of new life to figure out how to live. And Winsberg couldn't help but find parallels with what we're all dealing with IRL.
"The question going forward for everybody in the family, especially for Zoey is, how do I move on? And what does life look like now that he's gone? And how do we rebound and bounce back?" he says. "And I think a lot of the question, and this is clearly by accident, but I think these are questions that everybody's going to be asking after being home in an isolation, everything we've been dealing with for the last few months, you know, how do we return to normal? What does normal look like? And how do I want to be in the world? What are the positive things that I could take away from this? And I think that with my own dad and with his passing and, in time, you know, getting over the just the grief and the sadness and anger about it kind of, find any positivity in it, and I think for me some of that positivity was finding compassion and empathy for others and trying to make my relationships with the people that are in my life better and trying to be more present and live in the moment because you never know what can happen. So I think these are all lessons and takeaways and things that the family and Zoey can learn from and where we can derive story from going forward too."
Team Max vs. Team Simon
Of course, the finale had a lot of emotional dad stuff to figure out, but it was not without its romance for Zoey. She could finally have Simon if she wanted him, but she was about to happily hook up with Max (if he could stop singing), so that triangle is still very much a triangle, though Winsberg did not create that triangle imagining how much fans would latch onto it.
"First of all, we shot all of this before it aired, so I didn't realize there were going to be so many passionate Team Max and Team Simon people out there," he says, but he's planning on a slow play. "I never wanted to villainize one of them completely, or to make it such a clear-cut answer. I like the idea of two good guys and two viable guys, just guys that bring out different things in Zoey, and she can lean on in different ways."
Winsberg says he wanted to give people some of what they want in the finale without closing the door completely on either guy, and "however unsatisfying that night be for Team Max or Team Simon fans," that love triangle will definitely be back if the show returns for season two.
Mostly Winsberg just really hopes everyone found something to enjoy in this show during this strange time.
"I hope the show has given people some connectivity and something that they could relate to and watch during this difficult quarantine time, and I hope that we're able to continue to do more."
Same, NBC. Hurry up with that renewal!
E! and NBC are both part of the NBC Universal family.