Zoey’s Extraordinary Paley Front Row Panel

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Paley Front Row is being streamed on virtual platforms rather than via live-action panels. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist creator Austin Winsberg, choreographer Mandy Moore, and actors Jane Levy, Lauren Graham, Mary Steenburgen, Peter Gallagher, Skylar Astin, Alex Newell, and John Clarence Stewart attended the panel, which celebrated this extraordinary first season.

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THE POWER OF MUSIC

Jade: I really love the way everyone involved with the show talks about the show itself. Not just the experience of working on it – which sounds both wonderful and incredibly intense – but the way they view what the show is and what it should be. I particularly loved how the cast talked about the way musicals connect emotionally to the audience in a way that other types of shows (or plays) do not. I’ve personally always loved musicals for that reason – whether it’s the musicals from bygone eras, like Singin’ in the Rain, White Christmas, or everything in Fred Astaire filmography, or whether it’s more modern interpretations, like Hamilton, Rocketman, or every Disney or Muppet movie ever. We can form very deep, emotional connections to music, and songs can often bring us back to moments in our past, both happy and sad. Zoey’s is a fantastic show in the way that it combines drama and humor with these musical moments. Do you think it would be as effective or as emotionally resonant if it didn’t have that musical aspect?

Lizzie: I think the music makes this show, to be quite honest. There have been many shows about workplace relationships, and many shows about grief, and I think so much of what makes this show stand apart is the music – and this idea that, through it, we’re all still connected, despite the fact that we might not be able to communicate through regular means. And I think that’s pretty much what Austin had in mind with the show, you can clearly see in this conversation how much, not just the show, but that message in general, means to him.

I’m also a big fan of musicals. They feel like a way, even for people who are not very good at expressing their emotions, to just, let go, and not just that, to find something about others that they might not have discovered otherwise. 

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Jade: Peter Gallagher’s comment in particular really resonated with me, when he talked about the way the songs in the show already reside in all of us, and this helps people connect to the story and the emotion. As I’ve discussed with you before privately, I actually don’t listen to a lot of contemporary music. Not because I’m against the idea, but I haven’t owned a radio in over 20 years, so a lot of modern music has really passed me by. There were several songs that were utilized in the series this season that I’d never heard before the show (including ones used in really key scenes, such as “Sucker,” “Jealous,” and “All of Me”), but even without that pre-existing familiarity, the music itself helped suck me into the emotionality of the scenes. It made me think of the fact that Zoey also isn’t familiar with a lot of songs she hears. As I said before, songs help serve as reminders of our own past. Do you think Zoey’s lack of musical familiarity is representative of the fact that she is emotionally out of touch, not just with the people around her, but with her own feelings?

Lizzie: 100%. I think the way the show works we, as an audience, but most importantly Zoey, as our vehicle, is discovering life and feelings and just …the messiness of reality, something she’d avoided for so long, by just remaining shut up in this black and white little box that she lived in. It’s, however, hard to stay in that box when people are literally screaming their feelings at you, which is the equivalent of the singing, and that helps Zoey, and us, to sort of connect. I don’t think it matters if you know the song or not – it just matters that you feel its message.

This is especially important as the audience has very different degrees of knowledge of the song choice. I would consider myself someone who doesn’t know MANY songs, but then there’s Jade to show me I actually do know a lot of songs. We are both, however, very far from being able to guess any songs. And yet the show somehow manages to hit the right notes (pun intended) with every type of fan, and that’s super rare. 

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Jade: Let’s talk about their turnaround time. They have 8 days to film per episode, and Mandy Moore talked about the fact that they may do five to six songs in that time. I’m exhausted just thinking about it! As a fan, I’d love to have eighteen episodes to the season, but I can understand why Austin has said on Twitter that such an episode order would probably kill them.

Lizzie: I don’t know how 12 didn’t. Just thinking about filming “Crazy” in a day is driving ME crazy. And that’s without counting the amount of rehearsal all these numbers probably require. I think this just, generally, speaks to the talent of this team, and these performers, because the things we’re seeing are hard when you have time to pull them off, so imagine how much harder they are with the limited time.

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NOT THE TYPICAL MEAN BOSS

Jade: As we’ve discussed in our episode rewatches, there’s something really special about the relationship between Zoey and her boss, Joan, and that’s something that they touched on in this interview. It’s clear that all of the actors have brought a level of thoughtfulness to their interpretation of the characters that really adds some wonderful depth and nuance to the show. For Lauren, it’s the fact that she didn’t want to be the stereotypical “mean boss” and her feeling that Joan probably doesn’t know how to have female friends. It’s also her believe that Joan has probably been the only woman in the room for most of her career. You and I have worked in a profession that can be similarly male-driven, so I think the realization of how that would have impacted her professional interactions and attitudes really struck a chord with me for that reason. This really does add something extra special in her relationship and connection with Zoey, not just as a friend but as a mentor, in that Joan probably does see a lot of herself in Zoey but also likely wants Zoey to have a somewhat easier professional experience than she likely had. Does that make sense?

Lizzie: It absolutely makes sense, and I think it’s one of the reasons why their relationship, and Joan in general, speak so much to me. You can tell there’s a lot of thought put into the ways he behaves, in general and with Zoey, and you can tell this that they’re going for this sort of awkwardness and yet fondness. Joan isn’t trying to give Zoey things, but to encourage her to earn them, to be better, and I, for one, would have really loved a female mentor of this type, which is something that I never got. I think it would have made all my professional interactions much easier, and not just that, probably would have made me more confident much earlier. 

Also, I think a little bit of it is a reflection of a genuine fondness between Lauren and Jane, and I always appreciate that as I’m getting attached to characters and/or relationships.

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ALL’S FAIR IN LOVE AND WAR

Jade: Skylar Astin. I wasn’t going to talk about this (she lies), but you kinda egged me on while we watched this interview together. Can we take a moment from this Very Important and Emotional Interview and comment on how good he’s looking in this semi-post-quarantine life? I don’t know what he’s doing, but it seems to agree with him. Is it the squirrels? Is he actually a Disney prince in disguise, and they help him get dressed in the morning? Please tell me the fact I do not have squirrel friends is entirely the reason I do not look half as good after my similar stint in quarantine.

Lizzie: I, sadly, do not have squirrel friends either, and maybe that’s why my hair doesn’t look as good as his, but seriously, did you check out his hair? Also, does that man know what light favors him or WHAT? This is something men are sometimes oblivious to, but he was sitting in the perfect spot, with the perfect light for his complexion, and it just made me smile how he looked like he had pro’s preparing him and most of the rest of the cast looked like they were at home using zoom, WHICH THEY WERE. So yeah, he might just be a Disney prince. 

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Jade: Okay, back to more serious things. As I mentioned before, it’s clear that all of the actors have approached their characters with thoughtfulness and care, and that really is apparent in their discussion in this panel. For example, Skylar mentioned that he loves Max’s integrity and the show’s honesty in allowing the characters to have flaws and express different points of view from Zoey, who is indisputably the main protagonist. I actually think this is really one of the show’s strengths – none of the characters are perfect but, more than that, the writing acknowledges that none of the characters are perfect. Each of them is on their own path of growth, just as Zoey is. That growth isn’t always going to be pretty, and it isn’t always going to be in line with Zoey’s own growth, even.

Lizzie: I think this speaks also to what John said, and in general what the show has tried to do with Simon and Max. We all clearly have our preference, and part of my preference does indeed have to do with Simon’s emotional cheating, but most of it is just …well, preference. We all like some ships better than others for reasons that are hard to explain. And that preference ship wise doesn’t really preclude me from liking Simon as a character or understanding that his mess is very, very real. Sometimes, I think, we judge characters like we judge real people, and bring cancel culture into it, and don’t allow either a chance to grow, and we are all flawed beings who will fuck up over and over again. I believe characters – and people – should be allowed a chance to learn and get better, which absolutely doesn’t mean they get a pass on the off chance that they learn, but it does mean that people are not black or white, usually, just shades of grey.

Except like, Nazis, you know. Nazis are the exception.

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Jade: I’m a shipper, so I have to throw this out there. Skylar said he’s rooting for Max both romantically and independently, and I just have to say… SAME.

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Lizzie: I am absolutely rooting for Max in the sense that I love the character and I want the best for him, but if I’m being honest I’m also rooting for Zoey, and I really, honestly believe Max is the guy for her, the one who will be there through thick and thin, the one that will make her smile, the one that can understand her without words, and just …the one that will make her happy. So I’m also rooting for that. How can you not?

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LIFE’S NOT ALWAYS BEAUTIFUL

Jade: Another thing you and I have discussed before about this show is its handling of grief. We’ll talk about it more in a moment as it relates to the storyline with Mitch, but let’s talk for the moment about Simon. John Clarence Stewart expressed that he loves Simon’s vulnerability and the fact that the show doesn’t try to be too “clean” in its depiction of grief. I have to say, I agree 100%. Grief isn’t pretty, it isn’t convenient, and it isn’t linear. It’s messy and ugly, and some measure of it stays with you forever. I think it’s incredibly important that the show acknowledges and reflects that, because that’s something you don’t often get with television.

Lizzie: Right! I’ve always felt a connection to Simon, and part of that has been that, despite the things he did wrong – like everything to do with Jessica and his romantic relationship or lack thereof with Zoey – you can tell the man is in pain, and grief is such a …a complicated thing. I don’t like to say you can’t understand it till you’ve experienced it, but in so many ways, you can’t. Which doesn’t mean you can’t be supportive, let’s make that clear. But as someone who lost her father a few years ago, Simon’s grief just feels real, and familiar, and very, very relatable. And I appreciate that the show isn’t trying to sanitize the man OR his grief, because yes, grief is messy AF, and TV, like you say, so often ignores that. 

Jade: Alex Newell gave a similarly beautiful answer when he discussed his own experience with faith and identity, and his comment that “confidence is body armor.” Do you agree with this statement? Also, can we get more scenes about Mo’s background and his faith – including more scenes with his pastor? I was really moved by that whole storyline, and I’d definitely want to go to that pastor’s church, you know?

Lizzie: I really, really agree. The fact that episode 4 was based on Alex’s own experience absolutely broke me. I feel like I need to go rewatch with this in mind, and the episode will mean even more to me now. I’m just …amazed at the level of care and love that everyone puts into this show, and into these characters, these experiences.  And I think we would all love to go to that church!

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THE UGLINESS AND CATHARSIS OF GRIEF

Jade: Before we continue…this is the part of the interview where I started to cry, so I’m just going to go ahead and ask. How many tissues did you go through watching this?

Lizzie: For an interview that was more general than anything, I was surprised at how emotional EVERYONE got, and everyone absolutely includes me. Austin made me cry, and Mary made me cry, and Peter made me cry and John made me cry, and it was such a testament to what this show is and how much I’ve felt it’s allowed me to express my own grief, and let out some of my own feelings.

So, that was me avoiding the question, because yeah …I cried a lot.

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Jade: I know Mary Steenburgen touched on the way that Peter Gallagher made it easier for them to emotionally channel the sorrow of losing Mitch, because he was so lovable to have around. However, I also have to think that part of the reason this show felt so real and so honest is because of, not only the connection to Austin’s own story with his father, but the experience that Peter and Mary had with losing loved ones who died of similar diseases that impacted their ability to communicate. All the actors are talented enough that I think they would have done a fantastic job regardless, but I think that helped them bring their own emotional honesty to their performances and their reactions to the other characters and to the plot.

Lizzie: We’ve touched on this subject before, and it’s such a weird thing to explain to others. I’ve suffered loss, and you’ve suffered loss, and yet our significant others haven’t, not in the same way, and I have never felt like the comfort provided was any less because mine didn’t *exactly* get it. And yet, when it comes to transmitting this …when it comes to making those of us who have felt it relate to the minutia, to the day to the day, to the changing emotions, it makes such a big difference that the actors would pull from personal experiences and bring that to the role. I, of course, don’t want to underscore the importance of the writing, as it all revolves around that, but I think there’s a level of feeling lost and overwhelmed and immensely sad that you just …don’t get until you do get it, and I felt that realness in their performance, which, in turn, dictated my reactions.

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Jade: Jane Levy really hit the nail on the head when she said that the show is special in part because it is a fantasy in giving Zoey the ability to communicate with someone who couldn’t communicate on their own. Everyone may not know what it’s like to lose someone to that kind of degenerative illness, but I think most people can know what it feels like to long to have one more minute to talk to someone they’ve loved and lost. It’s a fantasy that we can share, even if it’s not entirely in the same way.

Lizzie: I agree, and though I think we’ve all experienced different moments of loss, the idea of one more second, one more word, is something that, in general, we all relate to. Even the person who has lived a charmed life can probably relate to one instant where they wish they’d had a chance to say more, so this is as universal an experience as we can possibly get, and that makes the show connect to everyone on some level.

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Jade: I don’t know about you, but I really related to Austin’s admission of his selfishness in framing the final scene between Zoey and Mitch in the finale, in saying part of him wished he didn’t have to remember the awfulness of his dad’s last moments. As much as you want to be there with your loved one at the end, it’s hard to carry that memory. The last dance with Zoey and Mitch, which demonstrated his own protectiveness in not wanting to have Zoey carry that memory – and his reminder that he would always be with her – had to be the most beautiful scene in the show.

Lizzie: I had to rewatch this part of the panel, because I admit I cried through it the first time I watched it. Very rarely has something a TV showrunner said hit me as hard as this, because when I have bad moments, I remember just that, the final moments with my dad, and I don’t remember them in a good way. That’s always an easy spiral to fall into, and I 100% understand Austin’s feelings, and just …his inability to get through this conversation without tearing up. I couldn’t get through the scene, either, and I don’t anticipate that changing anytime soon.

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Jade: I know when we watched the panel, you were particularly blown away by the discussion of Fight Song. I know I was fascinated by Mandy’s discussion of the technical aspects, but I really want to open this up for you to talk about what really struck you about this answer.

Lizzie: It was just …so real. The part that specially hit me was the discussion of doing it without subtitles, and how that came about, because I felt that was the thing that made the moment feel so …well, huge. It wasn’t dumbed down, and it wasn’t broken down in pieces so we could understand the experience, because the reality is we cannot even come close to understanding the experience, and so that moment was for us to feel like we were on the outside, that moment belonged to people who rarely get a moment in entertainment, and that’s immensely powerful.

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Jade: “American Pie” was an incredible feat, and I think it really demonstrates how much everyone is on the same page in connecting to the characters and the story that they all understood why they were singing their individual lines without Austin needing to spell it out for them. However, my favorite line of the entire interview may have come from Jane’s final answer, when she said that the series was an exercise in how to say goodbye to someone. As much as we love the music and the humor and the romance, if there’s one sentence that sums up the entire show, it has to be that. The series is an exercise is how to say goodbye – in all of the beauty and its ugliness that comes with that, in the terrible relentlessness of grief and the need to find a way to keep living in the aftermath of grief, and in what we carry on with us from the people that we love. It really is the perfect summation of the show, don’t you think?

Lizzie: It really is, and I think it will continue to be. Because saying goodbye doesn’t even end when the person is gone, and grief, as we talked about before isn’t linear, or pretty, or kind. So, the fact that the creators and actors are aware of what this show is, what the message was, and what the message will continue to be, gives me hope that this will indeed end up being – even more than it already was – the show that will, in some ways, mirror my own experience with grief, even if it doesn’t mirror the circumstances. And really, isn’t that what we want out of entertainment? 

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is available on streaming now on Hulu and through the NBC app.

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