2010 Fall TV Prevew
"Outsourced": An unfunny step back toward the Kwik-E-Mart
Sunday, September 19, 2010
The people who made "Outsourced," NBC's new Thursday-night sitcom that's set in one of those customer call centers in India, were thinking what many of us have been thinking: Who is this? Where am I calling? (And, depending on your economic upset level: Where did our jobs go? Where did America go?)
"Where am I calling? Is this India?" a catalogue shopper demands of poor Manmeet (Sacha Dawan), one of the show's characters. "Am I calling freakin' India to get a mug that says, 'America's Number 1!?' "
"No," Manmeet lies, trying to salvage the sale. "We're in Detroit. The city of motors and black people!"
You might feel a similarly frustrating disconnect, as I did, while watching as "Outsourced" (based on a 2006 indie film of the same name) so quickly abandons its relevant and even topically vital premise for a bunch of lame jokes about sacred cows and curry-related bouts of diarrhea. I know it's futile to expect something more tonally sophisticated than poop jokes from a prime-time sitcom, and I don't want to be a total dourpuss here. I have nothing against ethnic satire that precisely upends our stereotypes and misconceptions. But "Outsourced," as an idea, deserved better.
Ben Rappaport is Todd Dempsy, who returns from a management-training seminar to find that the entire call center at Mid America Novelties has been laid off. "Right-sized," an executive explains to Todd, using that dreaded word. The work of answering phones and taking orders from customers has been outsourced to India, like so much else in commerce. Twenty-something Todd is given a choice: relocate from Kansas City to India to oversee the new workers or lose his job. Faced with $40,000 in student loans, Todd heads to the teeming subcontinent.
Once he gets to India ("It's like Frogger, but with real people," he observes on his first, frantic cab ride through the streets), the people Todd encounters are no more or less funny than your doofus cousin trying to do his ethnically insensitive impression of his primary-care physician.
Any of us, including the American and English cast members of Indian descent who star in "Outsourced," can do a cheap take on what we think is an Indian accent; in more amateur attempts, it winds up sounding a bit like Latka Gravas, the ambiguously ethnic fellow played by Andy Kaufman on "Taxi." (Indeed, Latka was originally based on a bit Kaufman called "Foreign Man.")
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When doing that accent we become a knockoff version of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Kwik-E-Mart proprietor from "The Simpsons" (who is voiced by Hank Azaria, by the way, who is from Queens, descended from Greek Jews). The real joke about Apu was that he holds a PhD from the Calcutta Technical Institute; managing the Kwik-E-Mart and selling Bart and Homer their Squishie drinks and cases of Duff beer seemed to Apu a higher calling.
There you have a nearly complete story of Hollywood's interpretation of the American relationship to very broadly brushed Indian culture -- convenience stores and the IT department. Millions of more open-minded Americans know better.
Yet 20 years of Apu have not been completely without value. From the Apu jokes, coinciding with an increasingly global economy, sprang forth a multicultural (though not specifically cultural) array of Indians and South Asians, certain Africans, indistinctly indigenous Americans and even Middle Easterners -- characters that scriptwriters have come to rely on when they want, for want of a more sensitive label, a Funny Brown Person (FBP). Out of that ethnically regressive sensibility, we got the enjoyably post-racial "Harold and Kumar" movies, as well as such talents as Mindy Kaling, a co-star (as Kelly Kapoor), writer and producer on "The Office."