A Cambodian metalhead, an Onlyfans influencer, a Benedictine monk, a transgender poet, and a tech bro are selected to test a mysterious new product. But the reclusive billionaire behind the product has more than just consumer demographics in mind — he’s trying to recreate his deceased mentor by using the product to capture a unique personality trait from each tester.
Focus Group is a half-hour ensemble hybrid of comedy, science fiction, and drama (in that order) about a diverse group selected to test a mysterious new product for $50,000. But nothing — not the product, not the testers, and certainly not the shadowy tech company behind the project — are what they seem.
The focus group includes a variety of different ages, races, genders, classes, and lifestyles. Unbeknownst to the testers, this diversity wasn’t random or designed to identify consumer groups — it was curated by Usefull’s reclusive founder, Gabor Sump, for a very specific purpose revealed later in the season.
Gabor’s mentor (and first lover) was an eccentric Polish computer scientist named Dr. Zgrzybacz. Though he’s dead and largely forgotten by history, the Doctor was a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence. Using ‘traces’ of the Doctor recovered from an old sock, Gabor combed through his DNA and identified five rare genetic traits that composed the man’s personality. He then purchased data from 23andMe and identified the only people with those traits in the Bay Area.
The product being tested is secretly a complex device christened Miir, designed to capture and digitally recreate personality traits by observing an individual, conducting a series of increasingly complicated tests, and writing an AI algorithm using the results as source code. Once the Doctor’s five unique traits are isolated and captured, Gabor plans to combine them and raise his mentor from the dead through the sinister magic of AI.
Those traits include: curiosity, embodied by a gay Benedictine monk named Brother Tom; enthusiasm, embodied by an energetic gymfluencer named Virtue; observation, embodied by a transgender open mic poet named Miami; ‘not-giving-a-fuck-ness,’ embodied by an angsty Cambodian metalhead named Rat; and ‘Trait X,’ embodied by a bored sex therapist named Willow — the only trait Gabor doesn’t fully understand and the only tester who doesn’t want to participate in the focus group.
Like Miir, Focus Group prompts its audience with a series of escalating tests. Early episodes explore how the product testers project insecurities onto an inanimate object, the mystery drawing out curiosity, imagination, and frustration. We ask: What power does an object have to change or reveal someone’s personality?
As Gabor’s plan is slowly revealed to viewers and uncovered by product testers, larger, more esoteric questions bob to the surface. We ask: Do you own your personality? Can it be stolen or sold? How much should a personality cost? And: What are the consequences of trying to copy someone's soul, breathe life into a computer, or raise someone from the dead?
Rat is an angsty Oakland metalhead who fled Cambodia as a child, and because his father didn’t file the paperwork, a drug arrest threatens deportation if he doesn’t find money for a lawyer by the end of the month. After drinking hard at a punk bar, he finds an odd brass object in his apartment with no clue how it got there, along with a note instructing him to visit the headquarters of Usefull — a mysterious tech company founded by reclusive billionaire Gabor Sump — to receive $50,000.
At Usefull the next day, Rat gathers with a group who all found the object in their homes. As Usefull employee Christian explains, they’ve been selected to test a new product, and if they keep it in their homes for a month, they’ll get the money. When Rat senses danger and storms out, Christian chases him down and offers the money in exchange for a mystery box that will unlock after 24 hours.
The other product testers include: Brother Tom, a gay Benedictine monk who came out after having twins and divorcing his wife; Miami, a painfully single open mic poet in the final stages of her gender transition; Brent and Willow, a wannabe tech bro and his crunchy therapist wife whose love is fading into annoyance; and Virtue and Lily, a vain, bickering pair of middling fitness and Onlyfans influencers who aspire to greater fame.
On day one, we learn more about the testers as they engage with the product. Virtue and Lily need the money because they can’t pay for their expensive lifestyle with free swag, Miami because she’s run out of funds before completing her gender affirmation procedures, and Brother Tom because he’s given his savings to the church but still needs to pay alimony. Only Brent is in it for the love of the game (or the love of Gabor), dragging Willow along. Rat’s mystery box opens, revealing a strange, green creature that he doesn’t know what to do with.
On day two, Christian’s employee expresses doubt in the program and Christian reveals they’re carrying out the vision of Gabor’s deceased mentor, Dr. Zgrzybacz. Christian conducts site visits and finds Brother Tom creating a shrine to the object, Brent trying to gaslight Willow, Virtue and Lily ignoring the product to focus on their unstable relationship, and Miami getting paranoid. Miami visits Brother Tom and they team up to find the truth about the product.
On day three, the product has doubled in size overnight. As the testers deal with their confusion, the product starts to vibrate. We see a Usefull control room where technicians initiate growth and vibration sequences.
At the end of the pilot, Gabor watches the testers via feeds captured by the product while Christian delivers psychological profiles of the testers, hinting that one of them is disturbing. Meanwhile, Rat performs at a punk venue, covering Freak on a Leash with the creature as his vocalist — a rare moment of pleasure, partnership, and promise in Rat’s life.
Though Focus Group touches on several themes, a central question drives and shapes the story: How much is your privacy worth?
Every character in Focus Group asks themself this, first when their home is invaded by a foreign object and later when they discover the object is watching, recording, and toying with them.Every character has a great need — personal, relational, or financial — that may or may not outweigh the intrusion of surveillance.
We all know we’re being surveilled and ask ourselves how comfortable we are with that fact. Focus Group explodes this question by ratcheting up the stakes — instead of hiding your shopping habits by using a VPN, the characters hide their foundational personality traits by smashing a million dollar piece of technology with a hammer.
In each episode, the testers uncover more about the product, and with this knowledge, they’re required to sacrifice more privacy. When they reach their limit, Usefull steps in and offers more. For example, $50,000 covers Miami’s facial feminization surgery, but when she learns the product is recording her and leaves the program, Usefull offers to get her chapbook published by her favorite poetry press. When she discovers the product is building an AI engine using her personality, Usefull offers what she really wants — a baby.
The people running the focus group also face questions of privacy as they implement an extractive program under false pretenses. Through their eyes, we explore the psyches of the state and corporate entities listening to you right now.
Artificial intelligence has been everywhere this year. First DALL-E, then ChatGPT, now hundreds of op-eds on the dangers or merits of AI. What used to feel like a distant ethical dilemma for scientists and philosophers is now one we all face, and as AI touches increasingly unexpected corners of our lives, it will only become less escapable.
It’s widely known that the government and corporations monitor and manipulate populations, from young Muslim men pushed into terror to new homeowners pushed into buying bidets. Until recently, the bulk of our data has gone unexamined thanks to a lack of capacity. But with engines that comb data at the speed of light with powers of interpretation close to a human’s, AI is revolutionizing the surveillance sector.
Many people have written about the risks of AI — even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein broached the subject — but there’s a lack of stories exploring AI in relation to surveillance. Let’s be honest — if we don’t write these stories now, it’s only a matter of time before AI write them on its own.
Focus Group takes place in the Bay Area, the beating heart of technological innovation. We see the diverse corners of the Bay as we move from Usefull’s converted cathedral headquarters in the bustling Union Square plaza of downtown San Francisco to the grimy punk bars frequented by Rat. The product testers live all over, from the wealthy Alameda County suburb of Pleasanton to the to sleepy Marin County town of Mill Valley; from a peaceful Berkeley monastery to old Oakland apartments threatened by gentrification.
Focus Group uses contrast to demonstrate the vast inequities that exist in the Bay Area, California, and the United States. While Gabor eats ortolan and lives in a brutalist Hillsborough mansion that overlooks the San Fransico Bay, his employees split rooms in punk houses and eat exclusively ramen.
As Focus Group shows us the most intimate details of the product testers' lives, the bulk of the show takes place in living spaces. The apartments and houses are extensions of the characters and reflect their diversity — large versus small, messy versus tidy, and homey versus generic. These living spaces illustrate their residents' priorities, aesthetic sensibilities, and interests. Production design is of utmost importance to this series.
Rat (39), an angsty Oakland metalhead who fled Cambodia as a child, and because his father didn’t file the paperwork, a drug arrest threatens deportation if he doesn’t find money for a lawyer by the end of the month. He opts out of the focus group, instead choosing a ‘mystery box’ that contains a green creature. He starts a band with the creature that leaves him with enough money to hire a lawyer and enough nurturing to overcome his rage.
Brother Tom (59), a monk who came out of the closet after having twins, divorcing his wife, and joining the Benedictine order. The twins are now eight and the wife is now suing him for renouncing his earthly possessions, including alimony money. A chronically curious and joyful man, he treats the product like a spiritual and epistemological puzzle, but as someone who fears uncertainty, he’s worried he’ll solve the puzzle too late, like he did his sexuality.
Miami (31), a sharply observant and painfully single open mic poet in the final stages of her gender transition. The focus group came at just the right time — she’s run out of money before completing gender affirmation procedures, in particular facial feminization surgery. Still struggling to adjust to new hormone balances, she’s taken aback by newfound strong maternal urges, misplacing them to some degree onto the product.
Brent (30) and Willow (30). Brent is a dorky wannabe tech bro who emulates Silicon Valley stereotypes wherever possible, though he can’t figure out how to code. The focus group is a thrilling prospect, bringing that much closer to Sump, who he idolizes. Willow is Brent’s college sweetheart who he married young — an emotionally intelligent and crunchy sex therapist who feels stagnant in her relationship, increasingly annoyed by Brent’s quirks, and sexually curious. She reluctantly agrees to participate in the focus group, hoping she’ll be able to parlay the favor into at least a devil’s threesome.
Virtue (26) and Lily (24). Virtue is a vain second generation Mauritian-American bodybuilder gymfluencer with a grindset attitude, always looking for the next side hustle. Lily is his vain girlfriend, an Instagram influencer with a thriving Onlyfans account who lost an arm in a teenage drunk scootering accident. They treat the product as a way to grow their audiences between arguments over who’s hotter, who’s got more followers, and whether or not Lily should be showing so much skin online.
Gabor Sump (48), the eccentric billionaire founder of Usefull. Having made his fortune during the first big tech boom, he’s been rich for so long he doesn’t know how to be normal — blood infusions, stingray caviar, and round-the-clock security are the norm. He’s obsessed with artificial intelligence and thwarting death, employing a Machiavellian attitude without any care for ‘normies.’
Christian (37), a manicured asexual blond man with a mysterious past who wears exclusively flowy gray linen. He’s Gabor’s loyal right-hand-man at Usefull and runs the focus group an his team of trendy young internswith clinical removal, though as the experiment progresses he begins to question the process as well as Gabor’s motivations and sanity.
The Creature (?), a mammal about the size of a teddy bear and covered in mossy green fur with short legs, long arms, stubby claws, and a bobbling head with wide yellow eyes. First appearing from Rat’s mystery box, The Creature is a permutation of Miir that uses biomechanical ‘designer pets’ to temper extreme personalities as it surveils them, emulating their personality as it’s captured.
In the eighties, visioneer Gabor Sump met esteemed Polish technologist Doctor Mikolaj Zgrzybacz, who taught him the power and promise of artificial intelligence. After the Doctor’s untimely death, Gabor drew upon his teachings to invent a revolutionary piece of technology — a vending machine that accepts credit cards. By the early nineties, the company had grown into an all-purpose financial services group. Gabor sold the company and spent nearly twenty years out of the spotlight before returning with Usefull, a new company that claims it will carry mankind into the future with a suite of products that employ Doctor Zgrzybacz's unique philosophy.
Codenamed Miir, the product in question is Gabor's first attempt to carry out the Docto’s vision. It’s shaped like two bowling pins fused end-to-end with concentric grooves cut in the middle, about four inches tall and a foot long, nine pounds, and coated in brass.
To capture and digitally recreate the personality traits of its users, Miir conducts a series of increasingly complicated tests, starting by doubling in size overnight and vibrating. The way product testers respond to a test determines the next test — oozing liquid, emitting a bright light or a loud noise — and contributes code to the AI algorithm it’s slowly building.
Unbeknownst to the testers, the product contains cameras and complicated sensors that tracks every aspect of their lives. This data is sent to a control room where technicians initiate challenge sequences and monitor the health and safety of testers — at least at first. This data is also beamed directly to Gabor, who watches the progress obsessively via iPad in his home.
The tone of Focus Group starts out relatively fun with a fair amount of pop culture and approachable social commentary, but as the plot progresses and the stakes rise, the show becomes darker and more dramatic. Focus Group is a dark comedy in the vein of Triangle of Sadness, The White Lotus, and Search Party. Its blend of technology and philosophy has similarities to Ex Machina and Devs.
Gradual exposition is key to Focus Group’s success. In order to truly reveal the characters, they’ll need to think of the product first as an intrusion, then as an opportunity, and finally as a threat — a progression that will occur as they find more bread crumbs of truth about the nature of the focus group and Gabor’s ultimate mission. To get the pacing right, build tension, establish stakes, and create realistic, textured characters, this problem-solving needs to occur over the course of multiple episodes.
Like The White Lotus, the show is intended to be an anthology series that retains the same theme, tone, and emotional core while refreshing each season with a new product from Usefull and a new cohort of product testers.
In season two and beyond, the focus group may be testing a medication that makes you more entrepreneurial, an entire ‘smart home’ that caters to your every whim, or an app that motivates you with jealousy. The focus group for each of these products operates under false pretenses, extracting something new from the testers — it could be political motivations, dreams, spending habits, or any intangible element of the human mind. The central cohesion will be a diverse group of characters who are forced to ask themselves how much their privacy is worth.