By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 19, 2010; E04
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."
NBC's Thursday-night comedies are now well-populated with FBPs. The standout performance in "Community" is not so much Joel McHale (or Chevy Chase) but Danny Pudi as Abed Nadir, the socially awkward though most likable member of the show's study group. On the show, we have learned Abed's father is Palestinian; in real life, Pudi is of part-Indian descent. Likewise, Amy Poehler's sitcom "Parks and Recreation" was salvaged in part by the work of Aziz Ansari, who plays Tom Haverford and has an increasingly successful standup comedy career. Ansari was born in South Carolina; his parents immigrated to the United States from Tamil Nadu, India.
This blurring of skin tone and background is, casting directors will argue, a sometimes necessary choice when finding the right actors to fill minority roles in movies and television, and "Outsourced" doesn't rise to the level of an academic debate about the current state of minority portrayals in prime time. The show is so dopey and simple that it will either resonate with an undemanding set of viewers or it won't. By the time anyone gets offended (if they even do), "Outsourced" might well be canceled; more likely, it will get adequate ratings and not be worth the hassle of thinky deconstruction or protest.
Back at the call center, Todd decides to start from scratch with his new team of employees. "I'm not sure what religion you are, but this," he says, brandishing the latest Mid America Novelty catalogue, "is your new bible."
Thus the bewildered workers learn about fake vomit and dog doo, and are encouraged to upsell items like the mounted buck head that sings "Sweet Home Alabama."
An explanation of mistletoe, and the rules of kissing under it, leads Asha (Rebecca Hazlewood, a Shakespearean actress from England, also doing her best Apu) to ask what the purpose would be of marketing a mistletoe belt buckle.
"It means she would have to kiss you . . . down there," Todd sheepishly explains.
"This is how you celebrate the birthday of the son of your God?"
Lines like that somewhat leaven "Outsourced's" insipidness, as if offered as proof by the producers and writers that the real point of the show is to underscore the root cause of the decline of American dominance: our ignorance, not theirs. But that's being way too charitable to the show's true intent.
By the time Gupta, the office nerd, is performing his rendition of the Pussycat Dolls hit "Don't Cha," we know exactly what strange land we've traveled to. It's just another day in Brownsville.
Outsourced: (30 minutes) premieres at 9:30 p.m. Thursday on NBC.