What Went Wrong With Outsourced

By Guest Contributor Monique Jones, cross-posted from moniqueblog

Before I get to the huge review of “Charlie Curries a Favor from Todd”, I figure I should have a post where I analyze Outsourced as a whole, particularly becasue the show has been cancelled. Will NBC listen to what I have to say and use my suggestions as valid input on what to do or not do in their next culture shock office sitcom? No. In fact, I’d be shocked to pieces if someone from NBC even knows I, and Moniqueblog, exist. But at least my opinions will be here for the record.

I’ll tackle this in four parts, starting from the broadest to smallest of issues: 1) How the premise of the show was tackled, 2)How the characters were developed (with a subset on the sartorial choices the characters made, as the clothes also tell a bigger story-and perhaps one of the most egregious mistakes-of where the show veered the wrong way), 3) How relationships were handled, and 4) The character of Todd: how his characterization could’ve been saved mid-season. Let’s jump in, shall we?

Part One: The premise of the show

I’ll start the analysis by quoting  the official synopsis of the show from NBC:

“Outsourced” is NBC’s new workplace comedy series centered around a catalog-based company, Mid America Novelties, that sells American novelty goods including whoopee cushions, foam fingers and wallets made of bacon, and whose call center has suddenly been outsourced to India.

After recently completing Mid America Novelties’ manager training program, Todd Dempsy (Ben Rappaport, off-Broadway’s “The Gingerbread House”) learns that the call center is being outsourced to India, and he is asked to move there to be the manager. Having never ventured out of the country, he is unprepared for the culture shock. Overwhelmed, Todd discovers that his new staff needs a crash course in all things American if they are to understand the U.S. product line and ramp up sales from halfway around the world.

The sales team Todd inherits includes Gupta (Parvesh Cheena, “Help Me Help You”), a socially awkward employee; Manmeet (Sacha Dhawan, BBC’s Five Days II), a young romantic who is enamored with America; Asha (Rebecca Hazlewood, BBC’s Doctors), a smart, striking woman who finds herself intrigued by Todd; Rajiv (Rizwan Manji, “Privileged”) the assistant manager who wants Todd’s job; and Madhuri (Anisha Nagarajan, Broadway’s “Bombay Dreams”), a wallflower who suffers from extreme shyness.

Todd also discovers other transplants working in his office building, including an American expatriate, Charlie Davies (Diedrich Bader, The Drew Carey Show), who runs the All-American Hunter call center, and Tonya (Pippa Black, Neighbours), a beautiful Australian who runs the call center for Koala Air.

On paper, this show seems not only like a sure bet, but an easy task. How can a show about an American transplanted in India not be good? The culture clash alone would be entertaining. So it would seem.

However, just like how some conversations between Todd and his Indian workers might have become convoluted from a language barrier, something got lost in translation when the show went from the pitch phase to the pilot/filming phase. Several elements rubbed the majority of people (and critics) the wrong way:

  1. Todd and other Western characters had an air of entitlement, while the Indian characters were secondary in an Indian/American comedy; the Western characters were the foreigners needing to learn about Indian society, but the native Indians were treated as sidekicks, or worse, like children needing to be educated in the Western ways.
  2. India was treated as a backwater country, whereas America was held on a slightly higher pedestal. Possibly, this is because many of the writers might be more familiar with America, and also, it be a tone that’s a carry-over from the film version of Outsourced. But still, it’s highly insulting to a country that has the tenth largest economy by nominal gross domestic product (GDP), fourth largest economy by purchasing power parity, has become a newly industrialized country and is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, boasting such industries as automobiles, software, biotechnology, aeronautics, and other scientific areas,  aside from their fast-growing IT and business process outsourcing fields.In Mumbai alone (the place where I believe the tv show Outsourced is set), there are fast-paced IT, engineering, healthcare and  financial career fields. Mumbai is also the financial center of India due to being the location of both of the country’s major stock exchanges. Mumbai is also the home of Bollywood, so acting opportunities are also big. Many major ad agencies are also located in Mumbai. Sure, India has a very large group of people who are unskilled and still faces the upward challenges of eliminating poverty, illiteracy, and less-than-favorable public health conditions, but India is not as backwards and out-of-touch with Western society as Outsourced makes it out to be.
  3. The humor of the show–particularly the pilot–was crude to both countries involved. The humor made Americans look like self-absorbed idiots and the Indians look like simple-minded country folk. Neither of which is true. The joke that Indians no nothing of Western culture is null and void in the first place–does India not have India’s Got Talent, a show that is a spin-off of the original Britain’s Got Talent? Do they not have Indian Idol, a version of (again) the original British show Pop Idol? (Keep in mind America also borrowed the models for those two shows for America’s Got Talent and American Idol.) And what about the huge market they have for American television shows and films? The idea that the Indian characters in Outsourced have never seen an American movie is almost impossible to imagine. The reverse is also true for America. On the whole, we are intellectually and culturally-stimulated people, too–do we not have the Bollywood-esque Broadway show Bombay Dreams as well as a growing market for Bollywood films? And did we not have American made films like The Namesake? Each culture has their own set of jokes and idiosyncrasies, sure; not every expat knows everything to expect from a foreign culture. But that doesn’t mean that two countries’ popular cultures can’t overlap at any point. And lets not pretend that America doesn’t consume their fair share of Indian cuisine. For Todd not to have eaten an Indian dish or snack ever is almost preposterous in today’s society. The same holds true for the Indian characters on the show; there are McDonald’s restaurants in India.

There might be a few more issues in the pilot and the show as a whole, but these are the biggest ones I can think of. Am I holding the cast at fault? No. In all of the reviews I’ve done thus far, I haven’t held the cast at any fault because they aren’t the ones to be blamed. The main problems were created below the surface, during the show’s initial planning and writing stages. Here’s how the people behind the show could have fixed said issues, though:

  1. Make sure to eliminate any part of the Western characters that would give the characters that odious air of entitlement. One of way of fixing this, aside from doing through characterization of Todd and co., would be to have more Indian writers on staff. Out of the 17 writers hired to work on Outsourced, a very small number are actually Indian. I think hiring more Indian writers would have helped even out some of the script problems. Also, the writers needed to make sure they were well-versed enough in Indian culture to make jokes about it. I’m not saying some weren’t well-versed, but if we’re speaking in generalities, the whole writing unit should have had not only the standard show bible, but an Indian bible–a book put together by the producing staff and head writer(s) that outlined both major and little-known facts about Indian culture, a list of contacts on Indian culture for research, and various movies, television shows, food items, and other forms of pop-culture in India. Also, if it could’ve been worked in the budget, the entire team should have gone to India as a research trip, similar to how Disney would pay for its team of animators to go to faraway locales to sketch, sight-see, and do background research in order to bring the local flavor back to their animated films such as  The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Paris, France), Mulan (China), and The Lion King (Kenya, Africa), to name a few. Pixar and Dreamworks also did this for Ratatouille (France) and The Prince of Egypt (Egypt, Africa), respectively. Also, Dreamworks head Jeffery Katzenberg utilized the minds of the top biblical scholars, Arab-American leaders, and Christian, Muslim, and Jewish theologians in order to create the best possible (and least-offensive) movie, since the film, much like Outsourced, had the potential to alienate several cultures, ethnic groups, and religions.
  2. Understand India fully. I touched on this with the suggestion of an Indian bible already. This is where such a book would come in handy for writers, as would that trip. In order to write about a certain group of people and their country, you have to have immersed yourself in it for quite a long time. In order for the show to really be both hilarious and hard-hitting, the writers could have not only used the lighthearted parts of India, such as Holi, but also the dark parts, such as the high poverty rate, the illiteracy, and the health issues. Other parts of Indian society, such as the latent colorism, the residual caste society, and the argument over arranged marriages could have been talked about, or, in the case of the arranged marriage issue, talked about more often and in much greater detail. Perhaps the writers were saving some of their Indian knowledge for later seasons, but if the show was to be a success, they should have put some of their heavy guns in the first season. Similarly, the same type of treatment could have been done for America, particularly Kansas, where Todd is from. While the lighter side of America was always talked about on the show, the darker issues could have made its way into the show as well. Issues like racism and discrimination against people from the Middle East and India due to the fear of terrorism, the theatricality and “horse-race” quality of our political system, race relations issues, our own healthcare issues, fear-mongering, etc. If the show seriously dealt with both sides of both countries, Outsourced could have been a very well-written, possibly controversial, but very successful dark comedy. Also, placing the show in a more believable setting than a soundstage (or perhaps, just a more believable soundstage) could have helped immensely.
  3. With the above research suggestions completed, the humor would have come naturally. There’s a bevy of things in both countries to choose from that would make compelling television. Such a rich bounty of harvestable material should have provided scores of ideas. And, coupled with the right amount of knowledge, the jokes could have had some substance other than something as simple as Jingle Jugs.

Again, some of the tone of the show, might be from the film, but where the film stops, the tv show could have picked-up and become even better than the film.

Clueless was a film, and the television show was, in many cases, much better and zanier than the film (which, if we’re being honest, was already fantastic, except for the squicky stepbrother-loving part. I know they’re not related, but it still grosses me out!) M.A.S.H. was a film, and whereas the film was a gritty take on life as a medical officer in Korea, M.A.S.H. the television show was serious, funny, tinged in Vietnam-era sensibilities (so much so that I thought it was about Vietnam) and engrossing that it became much more popular than the film ever was. Hogan’s Heroes was based on Stalag 17, a classic Billy Wilder film based on a play about American soldiers in a German POW camp, but the show, also showing a more contemporary sensibility than its film counterpart (though not as much as M.A.S.H.), became much more popular than the film because of the humor involved.

In short, stuff could’ve been done to make the easy premise work and develop the show into a hard, scathing, slightly satirical, funny comedy, the comedy I think it was supposed to be, instead of the slightly-unfocused, soft-hitting show it turned out to be.

This is the first in a multi-post series, which will continue at moniqueblog

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Written by:

  • Disappointed

    My husband and I loved the show, the actors were very entertaining.  We are going to miss it, much better than watching reality shows that are not even real and everyone is fighting with each other and being incredibly mean to each other.  And everyone wants to know why children keep bullying each other, just watch reality TV our children are, isn’t that Great!

  • Guest 1

    How about the fact that the US economy is in a serious depression right now and watching a show about non-Americans working for an American business is probably VERY painful for many Americans (of all races) who have been laid off due to outsourcing to watch?

    • Guest 2

      That was my first thought when I originally saw the premise of the show. I worked for a company that outsourced all of its operations to India and I can’t imagine any of my former co-workers watching this show because, as you said, it would have been to painful to watch even if it was meant to be a comedy. This show might have been successful in the early 00s, but it was definitely bad timing for the present day.

  • http://www.womanist-musings.com/ womanistmusings

    Honestly I am one of those few people I suppose who watched the show.  I really, really liked it warts, faults and all and I think it is because I went into Oursourced with very low expectations.  I know that the media has issues with accurate portrayals of westerners of colour and so it was hardly a surprise to me that when it came to dealing with an entirely different country and culture that it would fall short of accuracy and even a rich setting.  I guess you could say that I liked it in spite of  everything.

  • Xeginy

    Ew, I did NOT like Outsourced. You are spot on with the Western entitlement; that was very obvious in the (1) episode I was able to watch. Very good breakdown of the show, I’m looking forward to the rest.

  • http://twitter.com/meepmeepmeep Alex Kim

    Todd and the other White characters were managers, so of course they wielded authority over their respective employees. Charlie did invoke some of the ugly American stereotype, so his sometimes patronizing treatment of the nationals makes sense. The sense of entitlement of the guy who has wonderbread shipped to him in order to not eat the local food would certainly not look justified to any sensible viewer.Todd’s attempts to spread American culture to his coworkers aren’t always portrayed as positive. It makes sense that, to suggest appropriate upsells on American novelties, the employees had to receive a crash course on American popular culture. But when Todd tries to give Rajiv an American bachelor party, everything backfires.And I think Outsourced had plenty of texture which hinted at the darker parts of India and the legacy of British colonialism. It might not have directly commented on them, but the elements were there. The code word “wheatish complexion” appeared in the bio data of some of Asha’s suitors. Madhuri and the Sikh’s recognized that others might have issues with their relationship because of the differences in religion.  Indians, while ignorant about a lot of American culture, seem to be familiar with elements of British culture and hold them in high esteem, like when Manmeet pretends to be a British racecar driver. I must admit I did find the show to portray India’s religious makeup to be too homogenous, save for the Sikh and the lone line about how Asha’s suitors indicated their religion in their resume. India has a huge Muslim population and you wouldn’t be able to tell by watching Outsourced.I was worried by the potentially gross oversight of how Todd began the season being a typically Midwesterner/Southerner by touching the people he talked to without anyone saying anything. But Todd’s ignorance about Indian culture ended up nearly costing him his job and after resolving the issue, Todd adapted to Indian customs for the rest of the season.Ok… I guess I haven’t been saying anything in particular, but I’m really curious as to what you think of the occasional conflicts with the tech support people. I know the scrappy underdog motif felt a bit too much an American teen movie, but Todd definitely did not seem any more entitled than the tech support suits.

  • Pingback: On a lighter note: OUTSOURCED was cancelled | Political Jesus()