Wow there are plenty of Asians on TV this week. Aside from Korean dramas.
Outsourced is a new sitcom on NBC that has an American, Todd, going to India to manage a call center there for a company that sells useless junk. There he meets a bunch of characters, from awkward outcast Gupta; sophisticate and modern Asha; young and hip Manmeet; timid Madhuri who speaks with a barely-audible voice; ambitious and darkly humorous assistant manager Rajiv; and a couple of other non-Asians – managers Charlie and Tonya.
So – I once again present another discussive post on whether this series could be potentially disastrous or potentially hilarious. I will try to not point out Indian culture too much since I am not familiar with it.
Some leniency should be given to this series for the sole reason that I have only seen one episode. And in this one episode, I understand that it needs to quickly set up the plot and tone for the entire series. As a completely new show, I am curious as to how this comedy is going to go. I honestly can’t see beyond one season at this point, since it doesn’t seem to have the sharp witticisms of the shows that air before it.
To recap, Todd returns to his office in Kansas City after undergoing management training, only to find it completely empty save for his boss. The company, Mid American Novelties, outsourced all the workers (telemarketers) to India. If Todd wants his job, he has to go to the India office and train the call center there. Cue fake CGI and we’re in India.
He meets Rajiv, who is the assistant manager that promises to support Todd in every way he can, because Todd’s successes are his successes, and Todd’s failures are his successes too. Once Todd returns to the States, Rajiv will take his job. Todd meets a whole bunch of people on his first day, and during lunch makes friends with the seemingly condescending Charlie, a manager for another company’s call center. Charlie warns Todd about the food and shares his peanut butter and jelly sandwich; he gets all his foods delivered. (Already, I don’t like him because he is the kind that refuses to immerse himself in the culture – but I don’t think I’m supposed to like him either.) Todd also meets Aussie Tonya, who manages another call center, and she takes a liking to him immediately.
Todd’s redeeming point is that he wants to get to know India and his workers better. He refuses to think that he is above them just because he is American. He gets put on the spot though by Asha when they question the products they are selling. All of the “novelties” are complete junk, so why are they trying to sell them? Todd turns it around on them and tells them that it’s because in America, they can – they can sell these things for no reason whatsoever. He shows them some of the products and gives them tips on selling, and off they go!
The first call made to the call center isn’t too successful, but Todd believes that they can do it. Rajiv wants to fire Madhuri because it will instill a hardworking ethic in the rest of the team, but Todd refuses to. However, she is the only one who hasn’t made a sale by the end of the day. When she finally accepts the call, her low voice is barely registered over the phone, and so, prodded by the customer’s continuous “HELLO!?!?!?!’s” she musters the courage to… whisper. But at least the customer can hear her whisper. (The camera even zooms in so closely to her as though mimicking the audience’s natural lean towards the TV as we strain to hear what she’s saying. At least, I did that.) She makes the sale, and everyone cheers.
The episode ends with Todd joining his employees for lunch, instead of sitting with Charlie, and he eats Indian curry.
Outsourced reminds me of The Office except in India and with more caricature-like characters. Todd is like the strait-laced Jim; Rajiv is a comic version of Dwight, always trying to usurp Jim/Todd; Madhuri and Asha combined makes Pam; Gupta is like Kevin; Manmeet is like Ryan but more outgoing. However, The Office just has to poke fun at the characters’ differing personalities because in the end, they’re pretty much all white (except for Stanley and Oscar). In Outsourced, Todd being the only white person in the room offers plenty of cultural clashes and misunderstandings.
Those opportunities for misunderstandings to become punchlines were wasted in the first episode. For example, when Todd is driven through India he calls it a “game of Frogger…but with real people.” In regards to the cow outside their office, Rajiv quickly says that it is not for Todd to eat, and Todd says right off that he will respect their religion and culture. When it came to eating Indian food, Charlie warned Todd that he would have diarrhea for five days.
The lines weren’t funny. Not like I was offended or anything – they just…weren’t funny. The show was trying too hard to prove that India was an exotic place and that Americans are aware of themselves being potentially offensive to another culture, and so they preempt that by stating their open-mindedness. These jokes elicited no emotion from me. Instead, the moment that got me feeling all awkward was during the scene between Asha and Todd as she asked him about the meaning of a mistletoe. (There’s definite chemistry between the two that could develop, so to see them talk about kissing in the first episode had me going “WHOA TOO FAST!” Story wise.)
Cheap jokes aside, and cheap stereotypes of everyone (both American and Indian), this show has potential if it can make fun of itself. The uselessness of the items they are selling was brought up and poked fun at, but I would like to see them go further. Todd, being an excellent salesperson, says the beauty of America is that they have the freedom to make useless things and people just buy them. I kind of want to see Todd become disenchanted with America for the same reason. Who really needs all that junk? (But I’m not saying that India is going to be the “richer” culture because it doesn’t produce useless things. I hope the show does not say that either. However, if it says that Indian culture is “richer” because of its cultural values versus American ones….ehhh OK fine, I’d accept that, albeit hesitantly, because I do not think an American show has to bash its own American values just to be meaningful.)
The other thing I would like to see is an interracial romance. I know Grey’s Anatomy has one already between actors Sandra Oh and Kevin McKidd. However, I want to see an interracial romance in a comedy show. There is potential between Asha and Todd, and the triangle completed with the Australian “hot girl” Tonya. (I kind of wish something would happen between Madhuri and Todd because she’s so cute.) Currently, Asha is being portrayed as the Indian female who is more “Western” than all her other co-workers; she also looks jealous at seeing Tonya be chummy with Todd. (Not to be stereotypical, but I want to see if Asha will have greater three-dimensionality in that she may have a traditional home, but a modern mind. Wouldn’t it be interesting if she ends up being quite the flirt? Total juxtaposition right there with the traditionally dressed Madhuri.) Right now, it looks like the show is angling for a Todd-Tonya hookup in the short run, and a Todd-Asha in the long run.
I also want to see more grays in the other characters. Madhuri is being cast as the timid, obedient wife, but her character has potential; Rajiv had said that she was of a lower caste and therefore could be fired. I want to see that explored. Manmeet is hot-blooded, but hugely innocent; there is nothing new to him since he’s “that character” who has a wide-eyed wonder of America and wants to emulate it in every way possible. On the other hand, Gupta is the character that I think crosses over cultures the most because there’s always “that guy” who is so awkward and talks too much, and you just want to avoid him.
What’s interesting to me is that all of a sudden there’s a primetime comedy show on national television with a majority of Asians filling out the cast. That hasn’t happened in years. It’s definitely making plenty of inroads for other Asian Americans in the future, but it also carries a lot of responsibility. It cannot be left as a comedy show where we can poke fun at curry food, accents, and cultural differences; it has to be aware that right now, it’s reinforcing stereotypes (the ignorant American and the traditional India) that is not going to help the current cultural situation. After all, so many people’s jobs have been outsourced to India; do we want Americans to hate these people or not?! With the first episode, I’m left feeling disgruntled about the portrayal of Indians and Americans rather than entertained. But it’s just one episode; the first episode of any drama is always looked at more critically because it sets the ball rolling.
I think that the show would work if the cultural education comes as a side story to the main one – and that is of everyone learning about each other on a human level. To know why Madhuri is being shunned based on her caste is the cultural lesson; to know Madhuri the person is more interesting. After all – I really wanna know why her voice is so low, and why her personality is the way it is. It might be because of her culture or social status, or it might not.