Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and the Ugliness of Grief

Warning: This article will contain references to a character’s father’s suicide.

Of all the shows on television today, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist has quickly become the one I look forward to the most, bringing humor and heart week after week, in a time when people are desperately longing for both. But amidst its comedic and romantic beats that seamlessly weave boy-band pop hits from the early 2000’s and 1980’s British rock band power anthems into the plot, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist tells a real story about loss and grief. A story that resonates for anyone who has experienced either, likely due to the inspiration taken from show runner Austin Winsberg’s own life, as he lost his father to the same illness that afflicts series character Mitch.

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Zoey’s Extraordinary Outburst” – the show’s tenth episode – explored grief in a way that is not often done on television (and the writers will likely continue to explore this theme in the remaining two episodes of the season). Particularly not for female characters. Grief is heavy. It’s complicated. So perhaps most shows can’t be blamed for treating it with a sort of casual dismissal – paying lip service to its existence in the last two minutes of an episode, only to have the characters largely forget about it from that point on.

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In real life, grief isn’t so easily acknowledged, accepted, disposed of, or moved past. In fact, of all the ugliest emotions people may come to wrestle with at some point in their lives, grief is perhaps the ugliest because it presents in so many other ugly emotions. Anger. Bitterness. Desperation. Despair. Denial. Guilt. Hatred. Selfishness. It is also the one emotion almost everyone is guaranteed to experience at least once.

It is therefore a credit to a show like Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, that they treated this complicated, heavy, overwhelming emotion with such brutal honesty. And it was a brutal episode, make no mistake about it. But while it was perhaps the most open in acknowledging the ugliness of grief, this wasn’t the first time the concept of loss and grief has been explored on the series. It is a theme that has been woven throughout the series, as Zoey has struggled to watch her father’s slow decline into his illness. It’s also a theme that has been explored in a slightly different way through the character of Simon, Zoey’s coworker and possible/probable season two love interest. (I refuse to acknowledge that the show has yet to be officially renewed. I refuse.)

Zoey and Simon share a similar grief. Simon lost his father to suicide; Zoey is losing her father to an incurable, lingering illness. Note that I have not – and will not – say that they share the same grief. Because another thing about grief is that it is unique. Two people may lose a parent, but they will not experience grief the same, they will not necessarily express the grief the same way, and they will not necessarily be changed by their grief in the same way. I can tell you that my brothers both experienced, responded to, and were changed by their grief about the loss of my father in a way that is vastly different than mine – and vastly different than each other.

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Zoey and her brother David would likely experience, respond to, and be changed by the loss of their father, Mitch, in different ways. Although they were both raised by him, they likely had different relationships with him, as well as different experiences in life that have shaped the people they are and the way they respond to trauma. In the same vein, Simon and Zoey may have lost (or are likely soon to face) the loss of their fathers, but it is under different circumstances, and their relationships with their fathers were likely different. So while they will share a similar grief, they will not share the same grief. They have also experienced this trauma at different times, so they are in different stages of coming to terms with their loss.

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Simon and Sudden, Unexpected Death

Viewers are first introduced to Simon in the series’ pilot, when it becomes immediately apparent that he is the unknowing subject of Zoey’s crush. He comes off as friendly, professional, and perhaps a little distant. We – and Zoey herself – soon learn that his laid-back demeanor hides a hidden pain. He is grieving the suicide of his father, and all the grief and guilt that such an experience so often brings.

His father’s suicide happened several months before the events of the Pilot – less than a year, in fact. Over the course of the show, it is repeatedly reiterated that Simon has not yet come to terms with this loss. And, honestly, nobody should expect him to have successfully processed all that trauma and all those difficult emotions in so short a span of time. It is easy to believe – or perhaps wish – that there is a set calendar for a person to work through grief, but this simply isn’t the case. Nor is it the case that the Kubler-Ross stages of grief are like an invisible checklist, and once you move through one “phase” and into the next, you can put it permanently behind you. Rather, it is a continuous process of “one step forward, two steps back.” One can experience rage at the unjustness of it all, face it, come to terms with it, accept it, and six months later, be overwhelmed by it again.

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There is a certain amount that is left open to viewer interpretation, since the show being told from Zoey’s perspective and not Simon’s, after all). However, it’s safe to say that grief has influenced many – if not most – of Simon’s actions and decisions in the series. His rush to propose to former fiancé Jessica may well have stemmed from a desperate desire to embrace happiness and ignore his grief. His decision to isolate himself in his grief and not share it with her is not an uncommon response to such trauma. Even the actions which eventually led to the end of his engagement may well stem from fear, specifically fear of losing someone he loves again.

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How he manages to successfully navigate his grief is a story that will likely be unresolved until the next season. But grief is something that he has grappled with for a while, and so he recognizes what it can do to a person. It is therefore for that reason that he understands when Zoey lashes out at him – angry at the world, angry at the unjustness of her father’s situation, angry at the illness that is so cruelly taking him from her inch by inch. He can understand what many who have not lost someone cannot: Grief is complicated, it’s unjust, and it’s ugly…but it’s also human, and overwhelming, and real.

Zoey and the Long Goodbye

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Zoey and Simon’s experience with grief is like two sides of the same shitty, shitty coin. Simon’s grief came suddenly, from an unexpected event. It is understandable that he would question if he missed some of the signs and wonders what he could have, would have, should have done differently. (Though Zoey’s reminder that his father probably intentionally hid those signs, and you cannot save someone who doesn’t want to be saved, are nonetheless true.)

Zoey’s grief, on the other hand, is like on oncoming freight train. She’s been watching it speed toward her for months, with no way to stop it, slow it, or avoid it. She hasn’t lost her father in one, unexpected act. He’s slipped away from her day by day. Neither circumstance is “better” or “worse” than the other, and I imagine one isn’t really any easier to cope with than the other. However, they are two different experiences.

As I wrote before, grief doesn’t take a linear trajectory through the seven “stages” to come out whole and healthy and happy in the end. Prior to “Zoey’s Extraordinary Outburst,” Zoey had of course realized that her father was dying and was trying to cope with it. But she had not really dealt with her grief, and in the aftermath of discovering Mitch was in the final stage of his illness, she was unprepared for the rage that so often accompanies grief.

In Simon’s case, right or wrong, his anger had a target. He could choose to be angry at his father, for taking his own life. He could be angry at his mother, for moving on. Or he could be angry at himself, for missing the signs. He could even choose to be angry at all three, and while none of those would be entirely rational, they would at the very least be understandable. And, again, anger is probably something that he has dealt with many times since losing his father.

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Zoey’s anger, on the other hand, had no clear target. When your father dies of a long, lingering illness, who do you blame? Where do you direct your anger? At the doctors, for not knowing how to fix him? At him, for getting an illness he didn’t choose? At the illness itself? At yourself, for not having a background in medical research of a rare disease nobody in the family saw coming?

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I have seen a lot of irritation towards Zoey’s behavior on the Internet over the last few weeks, as fans were frustrated with her attitude and the things she said. And, to be absolutely clear, her behavior was not okay. The things she said were not okay. But, then again, the whole point is that Zoey herself is not okay. Her grief, which she has not entirely faced the entire season, presented in rage without a target, and she took it out on everyone around her. She crossed several lines, and the people in her life have every right to be angry and hurt. She also owes a whole list of apologies.

But they – and the fans – also do need to understand that her attitude also stemmed from her grief. It was important that Zoey recognize that, too, and Simon helped her realize that very thing. It doesn’t excuse her behavior, but hopefully the next time she is overwhelmed again by grief and the negative emotions that come with it, she will find a way to process and deal with that anger in a healthier and more productive way. Because grief is completely natural and human and overwhelming. But it also never entirely goes away.

Episodes of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist are available to stream for free on Hulu and the NBC app.

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