When I first heard about NBC’s plan for “Outsourced,” a comedy about an American who gets transferred to run a calling center in India, I had high hopes both for what “Outsourced” represented and for what it might accomplish, even within the bounds of a half-hour comedy. As an Indian-American, “Outsourced” was an indication that the Indian minority in the United States was finally entering mainstream mass media. I also believed that “Outsourced” might help reveal more about India to American viewers, especially important in light of India’s growing clout in the world economy.
However, after the pilot episode, I was shocked at the level of insensitivity, stereotype reinforcement and outright racism that was weaved into the pilot. Worst of all, the show wasn’t even all that funny; though it had its moments, its attempts at humor generally came off as crass and out of touch.
The pilot did have some promise from the beginning. Todd, the (white) main character of the series, walks into his Kansas City call center office, only to discover that all the employees have been laid off and that his boss is transferring him to run his novelty company’s new call center in India.
But when a (presumably jilted) former employee throws a brick through the office’s window, it quickly sets up an “us vs. them” mentality, right before we are finally introduced to the Indian call center workers. The audience doesn’t seem to be encouraged to connect to the Indian characters. Instead, they are the “other,” the people on the other end of the phone who, by the way, took away your neighbor’s job at a good ol’ fashioned American call center.
After Todd hits the call center in Mumbai, the stereotypes begin to flow thick and fast in place of any actual humor. NBC mocks, in no particular order, Sikh turbans, Hindu reverence for the cow (which struck me as particularly insensitive), perceived shyness of Asian women, Indian food and even the characters’ names. One highly idiotic joke was around the name of one character, Manmeet, whose name Todd willfully mispronounces as “man meat.”
To a certain degree, I can tolerate the stereotyping as an actual device; in a show about an American transplanted to India, it’s almost a guarantee that some of it will occur. What really made me believe that “Outsourced” is a racist piece of garbage is the extreme cultural disconnect employed by the writers.
The plot of the pilot is centered on Todd’s attempts to teach his Indian co-workers about American culture, with the implication that they need to learn about this superior culture in order to sell ridiculous novelty items. Here is the real missed opportunity of “Outsourced:” the Indians learn about American culture, but there is never an opportunity for Todd to really learn much about Indian culture himself. The Indian characters must learn about America to fit in, but the Americans (including another man who runs a similar call center) can and must continue to exist in their own cultural bubble, without trying or needing to experience the country in which they reside.
Indeed, the pilot misses a golden opportunity to see an Indian’s view of America, for the viewers of the show to gain a greater understanding of their own culture by seeing it from an outsider’s perspective. When Todd is breaking out the novelties that our Indian crew is supposed to be selling, Manmeet asks an elementary question: “Why do Americans need these things?” When Todd responds, “We don’t,” another character asks: “Then what is the purpose?”
Todd answers, “There is no purpose. In America, you can do whatever you want!” Rather than truly give a little cultural introspection, Todd betrays a belief in the superiority of American culture; rather than wonder about why we need and purchase unnecessary crap, the answer is that we have the freedom to buy a boatload of it, so why the hell not?
“Outsourced” represented a chance for Americans to take a look at their culture from the outside in and gain new perspective while being entertained with comedy at the same time. Instead, all it does is reinforce the stereotypes that many Americans have come to hold, widen Americans’ sense of cultural superiority and make jokes at the expense of a demographic that is too small in the United States to make a real impact in the ratings.