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.
- 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.