Earlier this year, when the initial promos for NBC’s half-hour comedy, Outsourced, began circulating, I cringed. Rife with racial stereotypes, relying on juvenile humor, I just knew “here there be unfunny.” Having watched the full premiere last night, that opinion has only strengthened. This show left a seriously bad taste in my mouth.
Affable white guy Todd (Ben Rappaport) works for a mail order novelty catalog, and transfers to its call center in India. He’s assigned the company’s “B team,” a ragtag group of misfits who knows just as much about America as he does India. There’s ambitious Rajiv (Rizwan Manji), boyish, ready-to-idolize-the-American, Manmeet (Sacha Dhawan), painfully shy Madhuri (Anisha Nagarajan) and overtly friendly Gupta (Parvesh Cheena, who seems to be channeling Boman Irani).
Cue the obligatory jokes about holy cows, warnings about spicy food that will make you “crap for five days,” and making fun of the weird names. Todd giggles at “Manmeet” and, in the next breath, dubs “Asha” a beautiful name, because it belongs to a pretty girl (Rebecca Hazlewood). At that point, I knew we were in for nothing but trouble. This is a show relying on only the culture clash for its humor, and it just doesn’t work. It’s both obvious and incredibly offensive. “Hey, isn’t it fun to have the socially awkward Indian guy sing the Pussycat Dolls?” Um, no. It’s lame. How about writing something more imaginative? The absence of a laugh track only heightened the resounding thud every time a joke fell flat.
I suppose I should be glad that it’s not the ’80s anymore, where Fisher Stevens of Short Circuit fame and most of the cast of the mini-series Queenie slapped on some shoe polish to pass for Indian, but what’s sad to me is that the broad, stereotypical strokes haven’t vanished. They’re just being played out by actual Indian actors. And I think the world’s gotten a lot smaller since 1986, so India isn’t quite as much an Undiscovered Country to the west anymore. Films that exoticize it as the Other, ala Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, don’t work nearly as well because more people here know Indians.
Then there’s the fact that our country has an incredibly high unemployment rate right now, and a show about call center jobs in India isn’t exactly sensitively timed. There’s enough racial unrest being brewed because of the political brouhaha over the Islamic Center in lower Manhattan; we don’t need to add fuel to the fire by reminding disenfranchised people about their jobs being outsourced to brown people across the ocean. Why don’t you just give viewers paper cuts and pour lemon juice on them, NBC?
I really wanted Outsourced to have an up side. I wanted it to be positive, because it’s a cast of mostly South Asian actors, and I think the network will look at its potential failure as the failure of a brown cast, rather than a failure of its horrific scripts. Remember Margaret Cho‘s All-American Girl? That got axed in 1994. Sixteen years ago. We haven’t had a mainstream comedy featuring primarily Asians since! We’re a much more diverse nation now, with a lot more individual representation on various TV shows (like recent Emmy winner Archie Panjabi on The Good Wife and Lost and Hawaii Five-O‘s Daniel Dae Kim), so the time is right for ethnic comedy. It just has to be good. Unfortunately, Outsourced is not that show. Outsourced has basically been cooked up to make those watching it crap for five days — it’s all over-spiced one-liners, no real substance.