Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images North America
(Top L-R) Actors Diedrich Bader, Parvesh Cheena, Anisha Nagarajan, Rizwan Manji, Pippa Black, (Bottom L-R) executive producers Ken Kwapis, Robert Borden, actors Ben Rappaport, Rebecca Hazlewood, and Sacha Dhawan speak onstage during the "Outsourced" session panel at the summer Television Critics Association press tour on Friday.
As I've written about before, the challenge of the panels where new shows are presented to the Television Critics Association is getting past the usual questions and usual answers to reach a point where something is actually happening.
From the minute NBC announced the new comedy Outsourced and released its trailer, the potential for disaster was fairly obvious. The feature film the series is based on was released in 2006; as a source of comedy, outsourcing a call center to India is an idea four years older than it was at the time of the movie — and it feels it. Moreover, network television is not notorious for its ability to create nuanced portrayals of people of color, and the trailer consists largely of accent humor: isn't it funny when a guy with an Indian accent sings the Pussycat Dolls? Don't Indian people have funny names?
Watching the preliminary version of the pilot, it was hard to separate how much of what felt tiresome about it was the result of overdosing on racial stereotyping (which is plentiful) and how much was a simple failure to be funny.
When the Outsourced panel began, just after lunch on Friday, this was the first question: "If someone were to hypothetically say that this show traffics in a very large number of Indian stereotypes, would that person be right or wrong?"
Producer Robert Borden (who's written for David Letterman and for The Drew Carey Show, among other projects) got the scent in the wind and muttered, "Wow, that's a good lunch." He then thought for a moment and said, "I would say wrong. I think where we approach this is certainly not a mean-spirited place, and a lot of us have a life experience that’s relevant, and a third of the writing staff is Indian. So we’re not going to be wallowing in that kind of stuff that you’re insinuating, but we are going to have a lot of fun with characters who behave like relatable characters in a workplace comedy."
After being pressed on whether something might not be mean-spirited but might still be trafficking in stereotypes, Borden said, "No, I don’t think we’ll be indulging in stereotyping. We’ll be coming at it through character and relatable characters. You mean, for example, Parvesh — hello — his character is modeled after that guy that everyone works with that will not stop talking to you. If you talk to them in the break room, they’re going to follow you out and talk to you on the floor, so you can’t get rid of the person. That’s neither American nor Indian. So that’s how we’re approaching the show."
It's fair to say that the character Borden referenced — Parvesh Cheena's office weirdo — could be the office weirdo on lots of shows, and does not have to be Indian. That particular character is not an Indian stereotype, but a general workplace comedy stock character.
On the other hand, other characters include: an angry-looking wordless guy who stomps around in a turban glaring, a woman in a sari who speaks so softly that she can't be heard, a kid whose name is "Manmeet" (a name played for giggles) who gets wide-eyed and excited at the thought of sexually available American women, and an officious assistant manager who stares coldly to control the employees and stubbornly fails to understand American pop-culture references.
There are jokes about funny names, funny accents, sexual repression, and the fact that Indian food gives you diarrhea. Furthermore, the business having its call center outsourced is a novelty company, and the writers of this particular script like nothing better than hearing a character say the name of a juvenile novelty item in an Indian accent ("farting garden gnome," "fake dog poo," and so forth).
Producer Ken Kwapis took on the same issue later, from a slightly different angle. Kwapis has an odd resume, where he's been involved in primarily good television (The Office, Malcolm In The Middle, and Freaks And Geeks, among others) and bad movies (He's Just Not That Into You, License To Wed, and even 1997's The Beautician And The Beast, starring Fran Drescher). Kwapis made the point that the culture clashes go both ways — Todd, the American hero of the piece, misunderstands India as much as the Indian workers misunderstand America.
It's true, but it misses the point, I think, because to my eye, the culture-clash jokes are not symmetrical. When the Indian workers don't know something about America — for instance, what The Bad News Bears is, or why people kiss under the mistletoe, or the fact that in America, you can date without getting married (would Manmeet really not know this?) — it plays as cute-rube humor. But when Todd learns something about India — what the food is like, for instance, or that cows sometimes roam outside the office — it plays as fish-out-of-water humor where it's the water that's weird, and not the fish. More like Kate Capshaw learning that the guys she's visiting with Indiana Jones serve monkey brains for dinner.
My sense is that the producers are right that it's not consciously mean-spirited to any degree. And the cast was careful to make the entirely fair point several times that they (and their families and friends) are just glad to see a show hiring a large group of Indian actors at all. And it is indeed a good thing that a chunk of the writing staff is Indian.
Pilots are tricky things to evaluate; preliminary pilots are even trickier. They're replacing the actress playing the role of Pretty Blonde Aussie, so they'll be reshooting part of the pilot before air anyway. Things can change. And if you go back and look at pilots, the characters are always more one-dimensional at that point when they're introduced than they become later, so if your show is prone to making people appear cartoonish, it's never going to be worse than in the pilot.
In the end, it may be more likely that the producers can successfully address the cultural clunkiness of Outsourced than it is that they can successfully address the fact that it's not that funny. Any critic will tell you that where comedy is concerned, being funny will cover a multitude of potential concerns over stereotypes. If the jokes in the show had been really, really funny, the first question might have been about that instead.