When I first heard about Outsourced, I was determined to dislike it. The show’s premise, about a manager of an American novelties business who gets sent to India to run the company’s call center, seemed like it could only be a platform for cultural stereotyping, potty humor and cheap laughs at its best, and racism at its worst. The show’s pilot did little to dispel this notion, with its requisite “Indian food gives you diarrhea” and “Indians are prudes” jokes.
But as I watched the second episode, and then the third and the fourth and fifth, the show began to develop into something more charming than crass. It centers around Todd Dempsy (played by Ben Rappaport), a Kansas City native who, on his first day as manager, finds that his entire department has been fired and that he will be shipped to India. He approaches his new position with some skepticism, but on the whole seems to embrace his new colleagues: Rajiv, his bumbling, ambitious assistant manager, the woman-hungry Manmeet, who quickly becomes his closest ally, Gupta, the loquacious office bore, Asha, the voice of reason who eventually becomes Todd’s love interest and Madhuri, a very shy, soft-spoken employee. There is also the stereotypical boorish American, Charlie, who ships peanut butter in from America to avoid the curries served in the cafeteria, and the Australian hottie Tonya, who provides a flirtatious foil to the more reserved Asha.
While the show doesn’t shy away from using cultural differences as fodder for humor, it manages to do so in a less obvious way. During the most recent episode, as Manmeet and Todd recap the events from last night’s Halloween party, they become confused by the different “bases” in the U.S. and India. When Manmeet explains that in India, second base is marriage, a baffled Todd asks, “Well, what’s third base and home?” Manmeet promptly replies, “Well, I don’t know – cricket only has two bases.” The joke shows a better understanding of Indian culture than I had initially expected.
The show makes more fun of Todd (and certainly more so of Charlie) than it does of Indian customs. It highlights the ridiculousness of most tchotchkes, as Todd invariably struggles to explain why Americans need a talking rubber fish or a screaming deer head. Of course there are the jokes about a cow walking in the streets and the Indian head bobble, but these are funny mostly because they’re true. As an Indian who grew up in Maryland and has been to the country a handful of times, I can say that the cows are bizarre, no matter how you shake it.
Outsourced comes at a time when South Asians are making an increased presence in American pop culture. Think Slumdog Millionaire, M.I.A. and the popular 2003 novel Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. South Asians are also popping up all ovet primetime television (and especially NBC’s Thursday night comedy block): Mindy Kaling on The Office, Aziz Ansari on Parks and Recreation, Danny Pudi on Community, Maulik Pancholy on 30 Rock. The Good Wife’s Archie Panjabi won an Emmy this year for her role as a fierce private investigator, Aasif Mandvi has been a correspondent on The Daily Show for years and Lost’s Naveen Andrews was voted as one of People magazine’s Most Beautiful People in 2006.
This show is an extension of this new interest in South Asian culture, and presents a fairly balanced critique of Indian values and American excess. Like NBC’s other comedies (30 Rock, Parks and Recreation and most recently, Community), it seems to have taken a little while to hit its stride, but the network ordered a full season in mid-October. If it can continue to straddle the cultural divide in clever, winning ways, Outsourced could become NBC’s next hit.