Over the course of a handful of months, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist creator Austin Winsberg experienced a creative and emotional roller-coaster ride of highs and lows, beginning with the cancellation of the adored but oft-ratings-challenged NBC musical dramedy that drew many of its storylines from his family’s very personal experiences with his father’s rare condition, progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), to its revival by Roku for the holiday-themed TV movie Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas, which was made at a lightning-quick pace, deftly wrapping up the series’ lingering storylines while subtly leaving the door open for future installments.
Now, a year after it began, Winsberg’s roller-coaster ride scaled up to another high point: The movie has been nominated for two Emmys, for outstanding television movie and outstanding choreography for scripted programming. Winsberg joined THR to reflect on how Zoey‘s extraordinary comeback success came together, the way the deeply personal nature of the story impacted him, and some notions brimming in the back of his brain should he be called on to revisit the Clarke family and friends.
Tell me about how you went from holding out a little bit of hope for a reprieve, even as you mourned the loss of the show, to getting excited and creatively energized all over again to put the movie together.
Well, it doesn’t take a lot for me to get excited about Zoey. The show in and of itself embodied so many of the things that I wanted to write about, produce and be a part of — all of the comedy and emotion and family stuff that’s based on my own family, and the musical component of the show. It was really hard for me to accept when it went away that it was actually over. I knew that we had a lot of fan support and people who were pushing for us.
When Roku came to us and said, “We want do this as a movie,” for me, it was just a daunting but wonderful opportunity to continue to tell the story. We had left season two on a cliffhanger, and a lot of storylines up in the air, so it did feel like we were really lacking in resolution. Even though a movie wasn’t the first thing that I thought of, once I realized that we could use it to continue, evolve and hopefully close out some of those storylines, it just felt like a really great opportunity.
And as you say, the inspiration for this show — your father’s experience with PSP — is very personal to you. Tell me about putting a bow on this endeavor that had sprung from something important to you, and learning in the process that that door may yet crack open again.
The family element of it, for me, was always the heart of the show and the way in. The vast majority of the stories we told involving the family on the show were things that happened in my life, happened with my dad, happened certainly in the aftermath of his passing and the way that my whole family approached the grieving process. Roku came to us and said, “We want do a Christmas movie, and we need it in four months. We want it to be stand-alone so that people who’ve never seen the show before can watch it and appreciate it as its own thing, but also be satisfying enough for the fans so that they can feel like there is some sort of resolution here.” It was a really thin needle to thread.
The first thing that I went to was thinking about what Christmas meant to my family, specifically [what] that first Christmas was like without my dad. My dad’s birthday was Christmas Day. Even though my family was Jewish, we always would open presents on Christmas morning. There was a lot of tradition and family stuff that went on on that day, and it was a very weird time that first year, because it felt weird celebrating without him. But could we honor him? And what does it mean? And can you move on? It just felt like there were a lot of questions there and complications from that first year that I thought I could tap into and have that feel true to the story of the show.
Did you feel that everybody, if they were already bringing their A game to the show, doubled down and brought an A+ game to this capstone?
The show was really hard to produce. We had eight days per episode, and we’re doing four or five, six, sometimes nine musical numbers an episode. People are working the whole time, because even when they’re not shooting, they’re in dance rehearsals, they’re in the recording booth, they’re learning the songs. It’s like theater camp almost every week as we’re doing the show. When you’re in the thick of it, when you’re in the work of it, it can become very intense sometimes. Once everybody stepped out of that world and it was like, “Wait — this is it,” everybody came back with this real new appreciation and desire to make it as good as we can. It all felt very comfortable. We’re still on all our existing sets. Mandy Moore, of course, was doing all the choreography. It was just now we were able to do it where it’s like, “Let’s do the best work that we can in the limited time that we have to do it and really appreciate it as we’re doing it.”
The show was routinely on everybody’s “best of” lists, but to get both the enthusiastic fan response and the Emmy nominations for this maybe-closing chapter must have been something special.
Yeah. The fan response has, from day one, always been surprising and unexpected and awesome. When the movie came out, [we got the] same response that we got from the series, [but] maybe magnified a bit. There was a lot of appreciation and gratitude, and people felt like it [was of] a piece with the show, but also answered some questions. Things that I would’ve wanted to do in season three, we were able to do in the movie. It’s kind of overwhelming when you get so much of that positive feedback, but I certainly welcome that over the other way around.
And then with the Emmys, I started hearing rumors that it could be a possibility, but I was feeling hopeful in years past where it didn’t happen, so it wasn’t on my radar as much — or I didn’t want to get my hopes up as much. And then when I actually saw it happen on the morning of, it was really surprising and gratifying and a full-circle moment. This thing got canceled, and we worked our hearts out to make this best movie we could in the short time we had, and then to get recognized for it was kind of surreal and awesome at the same time.
Given that response, it seems like it’s going to be pretty hard for Roku to say no to more.
I mean, you would think! Even before the movie came out, I was talking to them about other movies we could do. We could do things around different holidays. I said, “There are great love songs for Valentine’s Day; there are great spooky songs for Halloween.” I’ve talked to them about a trajectory to a Max-and-Zoey journey that could play out over a trilogy of movies. We’ve all been open to the possibility of it, but have not heard anything beyond that at this point. So I don’t know exactly what the requirements are or what they’re looking for at Roku, how much they’re trying to expand their content and programming. I can’t speak to what their plan is. I do know that I’ve definitely floated the idea by them many times.
What did it mean to you to have gotten to that endpoint, to reap these accolades and put a period, at least for now, at the end of the sentence of the whole Zoey experience?
That’s a good question. You’re going to make me a little emotional thinking about it. Zoey’s is, like I said, so personal to me. I’d worked so many years in the industry trying to get something going and especially to get something going that I really cared about, that meant something to me. So to have the opportunity to do a show that embodied so many things that I love, and also that meant so much to me and could not be more personal — I mean, we’re talking about my dying father and what that was like.
I’m incredibly proud of all the work that we did and grateful that I got the opportunity to do it. And I don’t know if another opportunity will come along that will check all those boxes again; I don’t know if emotionally I can handle something that necessarily checks all those boxes every single time! That might be too high a bar. I just feel like, even though part of it is bittersweet if it is the end, if we didn’t get to fully tell every story we thought we wanted to tell, we definitely got to tell a lot of stories that meant something to me and meant something to other people.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.