There’s a moment in The Focus Group where now in name only pseudo-“SNL” executive producer Ricky (Evan Handler) makes a crack about Matt (Matthew Perry) not being able to write ninety minutes of television a week by himself. Infamously, “Studio 60” creator and mostly sole scripter Aaron Sorkin wrote forty-five minutes of television a week with “The West Wing,” depending on if you believe Sorkin, the WGA, or the writers’ room. But it’s a knowing comment.
Unfortunately, it turns out Sorkin doesn’t get the point he’s just made in the show—he hasn’t written enough this week. Focus Group has an interesting first act and then a pat third act and they skip through the second act. The first act introduces the stakes—focus group data is out, causing consternation for Perry, Bradley Whitford, and Ayda Field (Perry because the data says he’s not patriotic enough because 9/11, Whitford because he doesn’t want Perry obsessing, and Field because her single sketch the week before didn’t do well). Meanwhile, Sarah Paulson, D.L Hughley, and Nate Corddry team up to work on the “Weekend Update” or whatever it’s called on “Studio 60.”
Handler gives Hughley shit for being the first Black anchor too, which is a flex for the script. It goes out of its way to make Handler the prick and his sidekick, Carlos Jacott, a swell-ish guy. Jacott’s quiet and getting out these zingers. It’s a great bit of character work in the script and does a lot to establish the characters, who ought to be the show’s villains but are instead peculiar regular guest stars.
The stuff with Paulson, Hughley, and Corddry quickly gets political—she doesn’t want to make fun of small-town Missouri because they’re poor—Sorkin’s trying to create his ideal Christian with Paulson’s character and it’s amazing Paulson can pull it off. She’s got her maybe best moment so far in the series in the episode too.
Far less successfully executed is Whitford being mad at Amanda Peet for making a cocaine joke at him. And then the way too maudlin for episode three finish. Whitford’s really not a strong enough lead for the show. Co-lead. Whatever. He’s way too uncomfortable interacting with everyone besides Perry, Peet, and maybe Steven Weber. The stuff with the show cast just isn’t working.
Speaking of Weber—some great moments for Peet and Steven Weber, whose relationship is the least forced, most singular thing in the show so far.