Review: NBC’s Outsourced Lives Down to the Anti-Hype

Review: NBC’s Outsourced

September 23rd, 2010

Considering how terrible Outsourced – debuting tonight at 9:30/8:30c on NBC – is, we need to ask ourselves the question: where did this go wrong?

While it awfulness perhaps pushes us to suggest that it was simply a terrible idea from the very beginning, I think there was comedy to be mined here. I think, for example, there is potential in the idea of setting a comedy within an Indian call center which deals with American customers, investigating how the Americanization of their workplace influences their cultural heritage. There’s also theoretical potential in looking at how an outsider struggles to adapt to Indian culture after being shipped there against his will.

Outsourced lives up to none of this potential, however, largely because there is not an ounce of depth within its characters or its narrative. It is, like Mid America Novelties itself, interested in novelty and little else, sacrificing any of the complexities of this situation in favour to getting down to what really matters: feces, broad stereotypes, and cultural imperialism.

If this show had a single interesting character, it is possible that the reviews would consider this a missed opportunity instead of an absolute disaster. It’s an important distinction, really: while there was potential there which created an opportunity, Robert Borden and Ken Kwapis are so ignorant to it that there are no positives to accentuate. Outsourced is effectively the story of Todd Dempsy, whose job as a call center manager is forcibly relocated to India, but it’s hard for it to be Todd’s story when he has zero personality: he has no family, no home, and no friends. Within about two minutes, the pilot uproots him from his life without even a word of how that could affect personal relationships: it would have been so easy to include a girlfriend he has to leave behind, or parents who are concerned for his safety (thus dislocating the cultural insensitivity from Todd himself), or even a close friend who questions his decision. By spending no time on who Todd is, he becomes solely defined by his job, which is a terrible strategy for developing your lead character.

Once the show arrives in India (or, more accurately, a crudely designed studio set and some terrible green screen), the characterization doesn’t improve: none of the employees of the call center assert themselves, all fitting too comfortably into one-word roles (which NBC has been highlighting in their advertising, as if reductive characterization is a selling point). In fact, I can’t remember a single sequence in which the call centre employees interact outside of the context of Todd’s arrival. Without a glimpse into who these people are, the entire episode becomes centered around Todd’s efforts to Americanize them, meaning that the only glimpses we get of Indian culture are when Todd identifies qualities that they will need to eradicate in order to be on the “A Team” (call center employees able to mimic American voices, a notion never problematized by the series).

If this is a workplace comedy, it is a miserable failure: not only are the jokes terrible across the board, juvenile to the point of insult, the lack of characterization for the supporting players breaks the cardinal rule that I thought The Office established pretty clearly. What separates The Office from its British counterpart is its willingness to expand the role of the supporting cast, a decision which has allowed it to last seven seasons. Here, there are the hallmarks of workplace comedy without any of the effort: the show hints at a love triangle where Todd is torn between one of his employees and a fellow import from Australia, but the former is established through a couple of brief glimpses and the latter through objectifying her appearance and relying on the accent to carry the rest. If Todd has been given no sense of character, and if his two potential love interests are strikingly generic, how do they expect us to care about the series’ future?

There is simply nothing to recommend here: there is no breakout character or performer, no particularly humorous line, and no real stab at cultural relevance (although I presume that the delayed topicality of the premise was why NBC picked it up, presuming that monkeys and typewriters were not involved). It says nothing about anything, unless you’ve really been dying to learn that Indian food is spicy and potentially causes Americans to suffer digestive troubles, and while I don’t need my comedy to make some sort of grand political or cultural statement I do need it to say something about itself. If Outsourced had stopped for a few minutes and thought about who its characters were beyond basic stereotypes, and who their lead is beyond an American in India, they might have at least clearly defined their world even if they had no good jokes to populate it with.

Instead, they deliver an excruciating display of comic ineptitude, failing to understand basic principles of comedy, logical conceptions of culture and racial politics, and the audience’s tolerance for sheer novelty.

Cultural Observations

  • Interestingly, Robert Borden was actually a co-creator on George Lopez, the eponymous comic’s sitcom, which raises some serious questions about what happened between then (when the show offered a consistent portrait into a Latin American family) to now (when there is no consistent or complex portrayal of Indian culture here).
  • Ben Rappaport, who plays Todd, is doing his first on-screen acting gig of note with this role, and…well, frankly, it shows. The role is aggressively underwritten, but he does absolutely nothing to change this fact.
  • Since I’d love the series fail as quickly as possible so that Parks and Recreation can return in the post-Office slot as soon as possible, if you’re interested in watching to see how bad it is I suggest waiting until Hulu in the morning – it’s not like it will get better with age or anything.
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13 Comments

Filed under Outsourced

13 responses to “Review: NBC’s Outsourced Lives Down to the Anti-Hype

  1. djones

    I can gather from the fact that the reviews are dumping on essentially every part of the show and not just the racially insensitive elements that it’s probably not likely, but I can’t help but wonder if there’s a chance for a better show to emerge from how bad this one sounds. I recently watched the movie the show is adapted from, and while most of the gags in the pilot sound reproduced from the movie (Manmeet, reciting American movie scenes, diarrhea from Indian food, etc), the point of the film is that the character drops the Idiot American response to Indian culture and learns to work together with his coworkers, and the company itself becomes the ultimate villain.

    It is not a good movie or a well handled character shift, but the central character becomes much more likable once that process starts, and I have to wonder if there’s not a chance that if they move past the “India is gross and not America!” tone in the pilot very quickly they might be able to replicate the way that Cougartown dropped the awful premise and weak execution it had at the start. If they shift towards viewing the company as the antagonist and allow the characters to become a team of actual people working together I can see the way to a better and less racist show. I can’t imagine people tone-deaf enough to produce this in the first place will catch that and make the change, but it really does seem like a waste of what could actually be a really interesting show concept if handled well.

  2. I sat through a screening a couple weeks ago at the Paley Center and, except for one odd duck, the audience was silent throughout but for a polite chuckle here and there. It was almost pathetic when the cast and creators were brought on stage, because it seemed they were the only ones who didn’t realize how horrible it was.
    The subtle racism was too much to bear. The “joke” with the punchline that Detroit was the “city of motorcars and black people” was like some evil throwback to decades gone by where apparently the fact it was mouthed by an Indian character somehow made it funny. The fact that a callcenter “B” team would be made up of lower-caste darker Indians apparently entirely got past the show’s creators.
    May “Outsourced” have a short life.

  3. I loved this review, and I hated this show, but I’m not wild about the disparagement of the British “Office” (even if that was just a throwaway line on your part).

    For a show that only lasted 12 episodes 1 Xmas special, I thought the cast was surprisingly deep: not just David Brent, Tim, and Dawn, but also Keith, Finchy, Neil, Gareth, Jennifer Taylor Clark, Dawn’s fiancée, the intern, the intern’s love interest….

    These characters were all fairly fully realized (Keith is slovenly and lazy, yet with DJ aspirations; Neil is the cool and effective boss David Brent wants to be, yet when he hangs out with Finchy he turns into kind of a dick; Gareth is just bizarre, but in about 9 different ways).

    In short, I don’t think that “supporting cast expansion” is all that different between American and British “Office”; I just think the American version has been around for 6 seasons, whereas the British version only had 12 episodes (plus Xmas).

    • *Re-reads review, confused at where I disparaged The Office UK*

      Ah yes, “separates.” I don’t mean that in a hierarchical measurement of worth – as you say, it is very much in correlation to the amount of time they needed to run. I’m not saying that the UK Office was staffed with ciphers, but rather that they never became heavily featured in the narrative.

      Which was fine, for the record, for a show that is only going to run for 12 episodes – however, Outsourced will need to do more than that, just as The Office US did, in order to run for 22 episodes seasons.

      • Agreed on the point that they never featured heavily in the narrative. And, as mentioned in my original comment, agreed on the entire rest of the review. And welcome to the AV Club!

  4. Elise

    I think that the problem here is that Americans don’t like to have jokes pointed at us. That’s the simple truth. Most people don’t care about racism, but when it’s pointed at them, you better watch out. Maybe now Americans will understand what it’s like to be in the foreigner’s shoes.

    • Phil

      Elise, it’s not that the humor is “pointed at us”; otherwise, shows like The Office wouldn’t be considered hilarious and brilliant. We LOVE jokes pointed at us. We watch them all the time.

      If you ask me what makes this show totally inappropriate, it is this: In a time where outsourcing and offshoring are destroying the careers of millions of Americans for the benefit of the greedy rich, it is highly insensitive to make a sitcom about the situation and expect us to laugh at it.

      Tragedy is not funny. This show should never have been made in the FIRST place.

    • Marina

      I think the show is hilarious, as a foreigner, I get all the jokes(even though I’m not an Hindu), I think is very funny, and enjoyed very much! I don’t mind racial jokes, their are very funny, I love to make fun of myself, my pronunciation and costumes, I think Americans should do the same, they need open up and learn they a not the only ones in this world. I some places in Europe, they call US the land of the walking whales, so wake up people.

  5. Raj

    The whole plot is based on a movie called bangalored.
    While a 2 hr movie is enjoyable to watch, a long sitcom is just difficult to base around this subject and quickly runs out of fresh humor.

  6. nc

    I am not sure why this show is being given such horrible reviews. I watched it and it was enjoyable.

  7. Rehman Amsen

    “””Jolly Vindaloo Day”””, I like this episode very much. I view it with its entertainment value and its fun with culture clash. Most Americans view it politically and gets bitter. The most offensive show is not outsourced, its “Glen Beck”.
    The real outsourcing has many factor to be mad about. First of all its not Indians who started outsourcing, greedy American corporates are responsible for this situation and its a competitive idea of American capitalism.
    Failing American education system takes a big share of this blame. Even though India does not have a well rounded education system and lack fluency in English, their education system is focused on specialization, deep knowledge in their major field of study. While American universities are vague for the first two years. In case of an engineering student the first two years are filled with unrelated subjects, like history and other general education which has nothing to do with their major fixing the damage done by failing school system. So the Indian graduates have more exposure and knowledge in their field because their general education is finished by 12th grade with mandatory math and science throughout. In University they focus only on their major, no history lessons for an engineering student. This enables the Indian engineers to stay more focused at work which is exactly what corporates are looking for. Even though Indians are underpaid than Americans they are lot easy to manage and more efficient. That’s why even in this bad economy, Microsoft, Nike and Intel are importing Indian engineers to Beaverton, Oregon and Seattle, WA under contract to do the job that American workers are not efficient in doing .
    Americans should understand that times have changed, its Global Economy. Asian countries (China & India) have put more emphasis in Math and Science in their schools and colleges, and their graduates are skilled than Americans.
    Speaking fluent English, bathing in racial superiority and feeding on empty psychological words like self esteem, self worth from Dr. Phill will not do any good for corporates like Microsoft, Intel and Nike. You need to learn your subjects at school and college very well and prove that you are worthy for these outsourced jobs.
    Its the American government, American Educational System and American greedy corporates who outsourced your jobs. So why don’t you channel your racial bitterness to do some good in fixing the above.

  8. Pingback: My Review of Outsourced on Nbc

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