‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’ Team Talks Tackling Systemic Racism in Tech

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Zoey’s Extraordinary Reckoning,” the mid-season finale of “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” Season 2.

When “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” returns with the second half of its second season on March 28, audiences are not just going to be dissecting the titular character’s love life or the heart songs of the week. After starting a conversation about racism within the tech industry in the thoughtful and timely mid-season finale episode entitled “Zoey’s Extraordinary Reckoning,” they will also have one eye on how that conversation continues and what changes occur because of it.

“We started the writers’ room in late June, about three weeks after the global protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, and everything was pretty insane at that time but it was pretty impossible not to talk about it,” writer Zora Bikangaga tells Variety. “We were talking about the various reckonings that were happening in tech, entertainment, corporate America, and we felt like a reckoning was due within the world of our show, but how could we personalize that and make it relationship-based [especially] through the lens of a white woman who is learning empathy through her superpower?”

Within the episode, which picked up where the previous one (“Zoey’s Extraordinary Trip”) left off, Simon (John Clarence Stewart) dealt with fallout from his public statement that Sprq Point, the company at which he works, has a diversity problem.

It began with complaints that the facial recognition functionality of Sprq Point products were failing to recognize Black and brown faces at extremely high rates, an error that was brought to market due to blind spots of those working there. The company has only one member of management who is BIPOC and no BIPOC board members, which Simon pointed out publicly. After doing so, he was asked to retract his statement, and he struggled with whether or not he should.

Through on-screen discussions with characters including Zoey (Jane Levy) and Mo (Alex Newell), the episode not only covered the pros and cons of Simon sticking to his principles, but also explored just how isolated he had felt at the company, while also revealing how he has amputated parts of who he is in order to move through predominantly white spaces. That latter discussion was one that “hit really hit the nerve” for Stewart because it is one he has had in his own life.

“After George Floyd and all of these Black bodies have been killed, all of these people were reaching out to me as if this was happening to other people and not as something that I am affected by or concerned with,” Stewart says. “What life have I been living that white people around me are OK seeing me as John apart from my Blackness? What parts of me have I amputated? And to extend that metaphor, what comes with things that are amputated are phantom pains — the pain of the things I’ve given up in these spaces and the responsibility to reclaim that.”

“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” comes from a white showrunner (Austin Winsberg), who saw the value in opening up the space for Black and brown stories to be told, as well as voices to be heard. Bikangaga penned the episode, which he calls the most personal thing he has ever written professionally. (Specifically, he shares, “As a Black person, with my white friends, these conversations I’ve had are reflected in the conversation that Zoey and Mo have.”) Anya Adams directed the episode and Luther Brown was brought in to choreograph the musical numbers alongside series choreographer Mandy Moore.

Within the story, it wasn’t just Simon who ended up speaking out about feeling marginalized at Sprq Point. After Zoey witnessed Tobin (Kapil Talwalkar) brush off being called “Slumdog” by a colleague in reality but saw how truly such a comment hurt him via his heart song, she encouraged him to speak out. Having Tobin speak about being a first-generation American was another area for Bikangaga to draw upon his own personal experience for the story: He is first-generation African, with his parents hailing from Uganda.

“I drew on a lot of experience for Tobin and I relate a lot to Tobin,” Bikangaga says. “There are ways that first-gens differentiate ourselves to assimilate, to differentiate and to say we’re ‘the model minority.’ And all that does is condone and reinforce an environment of racism. And so, a lot of non-Black people of color have been stepping up to call that out. And I felt we had to acknowledge that because, as a person of color, if I watch the show I’m always going to be thinking about it.”

It was also important to keep Zoey in these on-screen conversations, not just because she is the titular character, but also because “we thought it would be more of an opportunity to show her blind spots and experience a reckoning in her own friendships and relationships through this event that happens at work,” Bikangaga says.

In fact, as important as Stewart felt Simon’s journey was in the episode, he says one the most important scenes to him was when Zoey was in a space “with no other Black or brown people present and to hold another white voice accountable and call him out on blind spots of the things that she just learned.” He explains: “That’s the work. Without that, we don’t have an episode [but also] we don’t have progress. Without that, what did [you] learn?”

“Most times, we think of people who are egregious and the wounds they cause and we feel a sense of superiority that at least we’re not them. I think you see that in the Town Hall scene. But this beautiful journey that Zora and Austin and everyone was really intentional about was of Zoey moving through the space and actively learning what it looks like to be an ally in progress,” he continues.

Balancing all of these perspectives made collaboration integral to the crafting of this episode. Bikangaga and Stewart — who have never met in person since Bikangaga only just joined the show in its second season, when it was operating under strict social distancing guidelines amid the COVID-19 pandemic — connected over Zoom in order to talk “about our collective experiences it and blending it into Simon and letting him embody that,” Bikangaga says.

Additionally, conversations that were being had in the writers’ room ended up in the script. Bikangaga explains: It was, “‘Well, why would Mo say this?’ ‘Well, Mo would say this because that’s what I would say in this moment when white people ask me to do things — take on their emotional labor. So how would you respond to that?’”

While both Bikangaga and Stewart are glad to have this moment and this platform to speak about such important issues, both also acknowledge the weight of such a responsibility.

“It’s a double-edged sword. I get to tell a story and be so incredibly honest and draw upon my own experience, but also, to open that up to collaboration and input,” Bikangaga says. “Everyone had strong feelings [about the story], so the level of scrutiny this story was under was a lot.”

As an actor, Stewart adds that there were times when he’d finish a scene, “go back to the green room and shed some tears and process a bit.”

“It’s labor. The idea that tackling systemic racism in the workplace and relationships and personal dynamics, any narrative that it’s easy-breezy is a lie, in my opinion. These are issues that affect everybody on some level and bring up a lot of different things. That said, we’re still diving into these traumatic spaces in a space that is very white, and that costs,” he says.

By the end of the episode, things are moving toward positive improvement, though. Simon didn’t have to retract his statement; Tobin shared his own story on social media, which started its own hashtag movement and allowed employees in other branches to speak out too; Zoey learned how to be a better ally, and Sprq Point CEO Danny Michael Davis (Noah Weisberg) committed to a plan to increase inclusion within the company.

Going forward, it will come down to holding Danny Michael Davis and the company accountable, which in turn means making sure “this can’t just be a capsule episode,” Stewart says.

Stewart has already been doing his homework by reaching out to Black friends who work in Silicon Valley to hear what it actually looks like when a reckoning happens in the space. He also admits “it is of the utmost importance to speak up where Simon is concerned to make sure that, as they bring things to the table, that they’re specific.”

Bikangaga promises that this storyline is “definitely not going to be forgotten” in the back-half of the season.

“As a Black person and a Black writer on this show, it’s something that I think is important — how difficult it is to change a culture and create space for people to have a seat at the table,” he says. “We felt like there is an aspirational element to it — it is an aspirational show — but we were really careful to think about actual ways, in real time, a company like this can make change to create a culture help to alleviate a culture of racism and what steps they need to take to go forward. Companies are going to make mistakes, people are going to make mistakes, and I think that could be interesting to portray on our show [but] I choose hope in this situation. I choose to hope it is going to get better.”

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