‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’: John Clarence Stewart on Balancing Joy Amid the Show’s Heavier Themes

“It was healing in this really odd, fun way,” the actor said of his recent performance of “What Does the Fox Say?”

Photo by: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC/Lionsgate

It’s been eight years since the song “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)” was released, and it took roughly eight years to get it out of our heads. But then came last week’s episode of “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.” Thanks to a glitch in Zoey’s (Jane Levy) power, Simon (John Clarence Stewart) brought it to life once again and it may live on another eight years. And for that, Stewart has just one sentiment: “You know what…sorry not sorry?”

Of course, Stewart can say that a little more flippantly because he had actually never heard of the 2013 viral Ylvis hit until learning he had to perform it. “I looked it up and I was like, ‘That looks like a weird song. Sorry for whoever has to sing that one.’ And sure enough, it’s me!” Stewart told TheWrap, chuckling. But in the end, he was more than happy to perform the insane number, as it allowed him to tap into his own inner child without holding back.

“I needed it. I didn’t even know I needed it, to do that in the midst of COVID, while shooting our season,” Stewart notes. “It was healing in this really odd, fun way.”

“What Does the Fox Say?” marked the second number this season in which Stewart really got to cut loose — the first being with a performance of Lizzo’s hit “Juice” — and though it’s an unrelenting earworm, there’s no denying it was absolutely fun to watch (no matter how confused Zoey was by the song choice). And really, that’s mostly because we were seeing true joy from Stewart as he danced and “ring ding dinged” through it.

“The majority of the songs I do on the show, I think a lot of the songs are more emotional, and to have these opportunities to sing like ‘Juice’ and to sing ‘What Does the Fox Say?’ which is just joyful and exuberant and exciting, it’s really refreshing,” Stewart says. “And I find that it’s one of the beautiful things about our show, which is that a number like that in the framework of an episode, really does something to the palette of the viewer. It allows the space for the emotional and more heavy-hitting things.”

Indeed, though “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” is one of the few shows that has returned and not incorporated the COVID-19 pandemic into its story, in its first two seasons, the show has tackled no small number of issues: loss, grief, systemic racism in the workplace and, now, postpartum depression. And each one has been handled with the appropriate tact and grace.

According to Stewart, that’s a result of a consistent, conscious effort from everyone on set. Particularly when it came to “Zoey’s Extraordinary Reckoning,” in which Simon directly confronts systemic racism at SPRQPoint, hard conversations were had to make sure the story was handled right.

“There were tweaks all the way up until the actual moments that we were shooting scenes,” Stewart reveals. “I think that so much of that credit, in my opinion, goes to Austin [Winsberg, ‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’ creator and showrunner]. Because, there was this way that he had to listen — well, he chose to listen, I can’t say he had to listen. He chose to listen. He chose to hold space for all of our perspectives and points of view.”

Stewart recalls having various conversations with his co-stars and with Zora Bikangaga, who wrote the episode, in which they worked out together how the episode needed to flow. Some of those conversations were kept private, but at the end of the day, there was simply a desire to tell a truthful story.

In that process, one thing became very important: the white characters had to have moments where they truly got it wrong.

“We wanted to make sure that the white characters weren’t softened. We wanted to make sure that Zoey — and Jane was very on about this as well — made mistakes,” Stewart says. “That we didn’t shy away from our titular character making mistakes and learning.”

It became a balancing act, with everyone involved — from the writers to the actors to the editors that pieced the episode together — wanting to keep things honest but also wanting it to be a learning moment for the characters, without demonizing them. (And yes, Stewart says we will likely see that conversation continue to play out on a larger scale in Zoey and Simon’s relationship as the season continues).

But that balancing act is applied to more than just the issue of race and racism; it’s applied as needed, as is the concept of open conversation. According to Stewart, open and honest conversation was a huge factor in playing out the love triangle between Simon, Zoey and Max (Skylar Astin).

“I remember [Skylar and I] sitting down and having a conversation and being like, ‘Hey, I think that there may be a world where they try to construct us as two princes that are fighting for the damsel, or something like that,’” Stewart recalls. “And we were both like, ‘Yeah, we don’t want to do that.’”

Both actors were deeply intentional about avoiding any toxic masculinity, whether it was in interacting with Zoey or with each other. “We realized the power of story, that we could either codify a narrative of what men look like in relationships and romance, or we can introduce something new,” Stewart says definitively. “We can codify archetypes of manhood that are more aspirational.”

As a result, Simon and Max have maintained a solid friendship this season, even as Zoey has dated both of them. It’s always been up to her, and they’ve respected her choices. This week, we even got to see them sing “Tearin’ Up My Heart” alongside Mo just before enjoying an impromptu spa night together. (For what it’s worth, more spa nights like this on television in general, please).

For every serious moment in “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” there’s a lighthearted one soon after, and none ever feel out of place. It’s the kind of balance we could use a bit more of.


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