Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fall Season Round-Up (Part 1): Outsourced

Ben Rappaport as Todd on NBC's Outsourced.

At the beginning of September, I looked ahead at this current fall TV season, singling out a handful of new shows that had grabbed my attention. As the halfway point of the 2010-2011 television season approaches, it seems only appropriate that I let you know how those expectations worked out for me.  Since I’ve already written at length about AMC’s The Walking Dead and my fellow critic David Churchill has weighed in on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, over the my next few posts,  I’ll be returning to three of those shows: Terriers (FX), which rose admirably to meet my expectations; No Ordinary Family (ABC), which has fallen consistently short of them; and Outsourced (NBC), which far exceeded any limited expectations I might have had. While to my profound disappointment, FX announced yesterday that due to low ratings it was not going to renew Terriers, both No Ordinary Family and Outsourced have already been picked up for second seasons. First up: NBC’s Outsourced.

Outsourced (NBC, Global)

While the 2009 season introduced three of my favourite current sitcoms—Community (NBC), Modern Family (ABC), and the unfortunately-titled-but-somehow-wonderful Couger Town (ABC)—the 2010 season has been an utter disappointment comedy-wise. With one exception, I haven’t added any new sitcoms to my ‘watch’ list this year. And that one exception is Outsourced.  Based on John Jeffcoat’s well-received 2006 indie romantic comedy of the same name and set in Mumbai (but filmed on a lot in L.A.), Outsourced is NBC’s fish-out-of-water/workplace comedy. Ben Rappaport plays Todd, a 25-year-old Kansas City native sent to India to run a call centre for an American novelties company. I confess that I initially tuned into Outsourced with a kind of morbid curiosity. The advance press and promos for the show make it look like a train-wreck: clumsy, unfunny, and probably culturally offensive to boot. Coming to the show with these expectations, I was surprised to find a consistently funny, well-written show, with likeable actors and often touchingly human situations.

While I would be recommending Outsourced in any case, I should admit that the main reason I’m weighing in now is that I’ve been consistently flummoxed by the vitriolic response the show has generated since its premiere. Vague charges of “xenophobia”, “cultural insensitivity” and even “racism” followed it around since NBC’s initial announcement of the series this summer and well into its first few weeks of airing. If you look closely at most of these critiques, however, you’ll discover that most TV critics seem to have watched only the pilot episode, which admittedly is perhaps the weakest episode of the season. (Recall however that it took more than six episodes for Cougar Town to conquer its terrible defining premise and become the show it currently is. If you stopped watching before then, you’re missing one of the most charming sitcoms on current network television.) Though Outsourced does set the stage with some broad characterizations (of both the Indians and non-Indians), with every episode the characters and their relationships grow more and more individual and substantial.

In fact, the true heart of our story is Todd’s crush on the beautiful, charming, and unattainable Asha (Rebecca Hazlewood, from BBC’s Doctors). If you watched only the pilot, you might easily be offended or frustrated by the implication that the first potential love interest Todd’s meets is Tonya, a sexy and flirtatious Australian played by Pippa Black. But by the second episode the real chemistry and rising sexual tension between Todd and Asha moves firmly into the foreground, as does their mutual struggles across differing cultural and interpersonal expectations.

Rebecca Hazelwood as Asha

My first thought, upon hearing of the series, was that if it were to succeed it would have to be more than an ethnic farce, and indeed, it promptly rose to the occasion. Try as I might, I can’t begin to understand the source of the more insidious allegations against the show. These are sitcom characters after all, and while that means that traits and personalities are tweaked to a real degree, the worst I think can be said about their characterizations is that the exaggerated personality traits are unfamiliar. 

Is the mere suggestion that other people, in other places, might actually have different mores in itself insulting? Do the critics genuinely believe that to be respectful of others means to portray every culture as essentially the same? While the show is anything but preachy in its portrayal of diversity, when it does bring the numerous cultural differences to the fore, it does so with unusual subtlety. Consider the way an early episode deals with the inevitable workplace comedy warhorse: the sexual harassment seminar. Todd, with the best of intentions, discovers that, in a Bollywood culture which frowns upon even an on-screen kiss, he inadvertently sexually harasses half his workers simply by screening the American-produced instruction video. 

While there are less understated moments (like when Todd mistakes an idol of Ganesh for one of his company’s novelty items), there’s also the recent Diwali episode (which aired the week prior to the requisite Thanksgiving one) which stands as a perfect example of the show doing what is does well. After having the holiday explained to him, Todd notes enthusiastically that it sounds like “a combination of Christmas, New Years, Fourth of July, and Star Wars”—to which Asha adds with friendly condescension, “Just think of it like Christmas. It’s when families get together and exchange gifts.” Most importantly for a comedy Outsourced is consistently funny. Despite its adherence to many sitcom conventions, it finds a way to tell clever, original stories, and its characters, despite their inevitable excesses, are both human and engaging.

Sandwiched among NBC powerhouse comedy Thursday night comedy line-up of Community, 30 Rock, and The Office, the show has held its own in the ratings, and perhaps become the most enjoyable new sitcom of 2010. If the bad press or the pilot kept you away, tune in again: I guarantee you won’t be disappointed… or offended. (In January 2011, Outsourced will be batting clean-up for NBC’s new three-hour comedy block, airing at 10:30pm EST, right after The Office.)

-- Mark Clamen is a lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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