Remember all of the rambling I did in my summer TV show reviews about how there are right and wrong ways to introduce characters?
I’ll point you in the direction of NBC’s “Outsourced” for how a poor character introduction can do irreparable damage to a show which probably would have been horrible either way.
In our opening scene, we meet Todd Dempsy (Ben Rappaport), fresh out of the management training program at Mid America Novelties. He arrives in the company’s Kansas City offices and finds them evacuated, all the employees laid off and the call centers moved to India. His boss tells him that not only does he still have his job, but he’s being bumped up to vice president. The only catch? He has to go to India to do his job.
Now, Todd is 25 years old with $40,000 in student loans (not that much, but whatever). We never hear mention of any person ties — family, friends, girlfriend — he has in the area. He’s discovered that every single person in his department *but* him is suddenly out of work and he’s being sent to a foreign country. And his reaction is to make a horrified and disgusted face as if this were the worst thing he could ever be forced to do in the history of the universe. He begins to make a grand and determined stand that he’d rather be unemployed than take an executive position in India, but finally, still grimacing and now resigned, he accepts this horrible fate.
Leaving aside how smarmy and unlikable Rappaport is in this moment — he never recovers — it’s a choice that sets up everything to follow from “Outsourced.”
On one imaginary hand, you could have a show about a young American worker who’s so grateful to have a job and so intrigued by the idea of moving to a foreign country that he embarks to India determined to eagerly experience a foreign country and having a professional adventure while he’s still young enough to enjoy it. Maybe he doesn’t love everything he discovers there, but he’s constantly having his expectations challenged and he knows that when he returns to the States in a few years, he’ll have the sort of stories and experiences you can’t pay for. Some weeks he could laugh at the Indians. Some weeks they could laugh at him. Occasionally the writers would have to do a bit of research to learn something about the country they were setting their show in. I would watch this show.
Or you could have “Outsourced,” where a sour-faced American initially reacts to India with repulsion and travels abroad to discover that every stereotype that he harbored about Indian culture in his sheltered, insular upbringing was exactly correct, that Indians are, indeed, a strange and weird people with food that gives normal people (white people) diarrhea.
This character introduction is not why “Outsourced” is the fall’s worst new show, but it’s a tiny piece at the tip of the iceberg of why “Outsourced” is the fall’s worst new show.
More after the break…
So Todd heads off to India, which isn’t really India. It’s really a cheap set in Burbank which will provide no illusion of being in India, which may be the kindest thing the production designers ever did. Nobody watching “Outsourced” is going to be fooled for a second into thinking this is actually what India looks like and so maybe they won’t be fooled into thinking it’s how Indian culture operates.
The workplace environment that Todd finds himself in is straight out of “The Office,” but although the pilot is directed by regular “Office” helmer Ken Kwapis, without that show’s documentary-style conceit, it has no aesthetic at all and just looks cheap.
But anyway, it’s actually the characters and workplace situations that are bad knock-offs of “The Office.” Todd is a less-charming Jim, obviously, but he’s definitely got an Indian Dwight, an Indian Ryan, an Indian Kevin and one or two other characters who might as well have “Office” alter egos. He doesn’t have a randomly British or American Kelly, but that would be too inside baseball. But if you’re doing “The Office, Tandoori Style,” why not just have the guts to embrace how derivative you’re being?
Todd has put no effort at all into learning about the place he’s going and the culture he’s coming to work in, but the oddest part of the story is that almost none of the jokes are on him and his own stupidity. I mean, he’s the foreigner in this story. He’s the one who doesn’t understand the way things work. But instead, “Outsourced” mines most of its humor from the idea that it’s really funny when people with Indian accents attempt to give their interpretations of outdated American pop culture. Todd is attempting to help them pass for Americans by encouraging them to sing four-year-old pop songs, rap 23-year-old hits (NBC has some sort of max-use deal on the rights to “It’s Tricky”) and perform scenes from 18-year-old movies and yet the joke isn’t about his lameness and his dated references, but about how ridiculous it sounds when a foreigner sings a Pussycat Dolls song.
And how comical is it that Indians don’t understand fake vomit and Green Bay Packers Cheeseheads! HA! Those people must be derided for their failure to understand such important peaces of American culture. Plus, it’s extra funny when Todd compares wearing a Cheesehead to the headgear that his different Indian employees are wearing for religious reasons. HA!
Meanwhile, Todd then interacts with Indian culture and makes fun of that as well. I mean, there’s a guy whose name sounds like Man Meat. Ha! There are cows in the street. Ha! Indians LOVE cows! Ha! And their streets are really crowded with people who can’t drive! Ha! Oh, and don’t forget about the food with its intestinal distress.
Todd “learns” about the dangers of Indian food from fellow American ex-pat Charlie (Diedrich Bader), whose sole purpose is to embody so many Ugly American stereotypes that he makes Todd look progressive. Also providing a friendly white face is Tonya (Pippa Black), an Aussie who’s there to provide a less racially challenging alternative to Rebecca Hazlewood’s Asha, one of Todd’s employees.
What’s astounding about “Outsourced” isn’t its racism — it would be xenophobia, anyway — but its laziness. A pilot is where you’re supposed to put your best foot forward, right? So why would you want to do a pilot which, over 22 minutes, fails to get a punchline from any aspect of Indian culture that isn’t a well-established stereotype? Probably American audiences should be insulted that this is all that Kwapis and showrunner Robert Borden think that you’re capable of laughing at.
Then there’s the question of whether American audiences should be offended by the idea of a show that finds humor in outsourcing when job-loss is a less-than-amusing fact of life for millions of people whose actual jobs have been sent to foreign countries. Well, bad comedy is *always* offensive, but I think that people offended offended that “Outsourced” pokes fun at job loss should keep this in mind: The majority of the characters in the show are supposed to be Indian natives, but I think every single role is being played by actors of Indian descent who are actually American or British citizens. How you like them apples? No? Oh well.
As Sepinwall has already pointed out, NBC’s various comedies have actually done a remarkably admirable job of employing South Asian actors and not just in token parts. Maulik Pancholy is a “30 Rock” scene-stealer. Aziz Ansari is one of the core stars of “Parks & Recreation.” Danny Pudi is perhaps the purest embodiment of Dan Harmon’s voice on “Community.” Vik Sahay is a walking defier of countless stereotypes on “Chuck.” And as writer, producer and co-star on “The Office,” Mindy Kaling has developed into a true creative force.
I really couldn’t tell if any of the Indian stars of “Outsourced” were funny or talented, because they’re all stuck in what is effectively a lame minstrel show. I don’t blame any of them. Best case scenario is that “Outsourced” lasts exactly long enough for a few of them to get a showcase and then is cancelled so that they can go get work elsewhere.
Even leaving aside its usurping of a time slot that the partisan critic in me wishes was held by “Parks & Recreation,” “Outsourced” is a black eye on what remains a superlative night for comedy. I don’t mind NBC holding “Parks & Rec” til midseason to boost the fortunes of a new comedy. As much as I love “P&R,” its ratings are low and the network owes it to advertisers to try to use “The Office” as a launching pad while it still has a little clout. I just wish NBC weren’t waiting that launching pad on something this pitiful.
“Outsourced” will premiere at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 23 on NBC.