We got a trial of Hulu a month ago and while seeing what they offered, I noticed Outsourced. It rang a bell; I have a faint memory of seeing the 2006 movie that inspired it but had no idea there was a tv show (we haven’t had cable for at least 10 years). It was a pleasant surprise – an American tv show set in India, with a mostly Indian cast? Hot damn – that’s some progress right there. Or at least I hoped it was progress because there was an excellent chance that the show would suck.
Except the show does not suck – it’s really, really good. It’s laugh out loud funny and touches upon culture clash without a heavy hand (not too much at least). I finished watching it last night and while I’m disappointed that we’ve only got one season, it’s pretty clear they knew that the show would not be renewed so the finale had a great sense of closure.
My immediate thoughts are: 1) I can’t believe this was a real show on American tv and 2) I can’t believe this was a real show on American tv, Partially because it’s a show with an Indian focus but also because the humor is wicked. Plus it’s an office comedy where most people don’t hate their jobs. There’s no I’m doing this because I have to vibe that pervades most workplace comedies.
There’s a 4 minute trailer out there that I *don’t* recommend watching that does a poor job of encapsulating what the show is about, focussing on the simplest, crudest gags from the pilot. If that trailer was used to market the series, no wonder people were pissed off. And once people start looking for what they want to see, all bets are off.
Since I haven’t watched tv regularly in yearrs, I was blissfully unaware of the criticisms of the show. I suspect many of the critics were pissed off by the trailer or the pilot, which had the cheapest writing of all the episodes. And by cheap, I mean they pushed all the crudest buttons – which sadly does not represent the overall writing of the show.
The big criticism is racism & stereotypes – which I don’t see. For one, we’re talking about a fish out of water story, so the differences are going to be emphasized. Second, it’s an American comedy, which means we will be hit over the head with characters rather than subtlety (example: the difference between the British & US versions of ‘The Office’).
The Indian characters on the show are not stereotypes. They’re not one-dimensional characters nor are they doctors/lawyers/convenience store/motel owners/etc. The wallflower has a much better character arc than Officer Hooks from Police Academy (who was a completely one-dimensional character to boot). Manmeet is totally digs America (like some of my cousins). Gupta – portrayed by the inveterate scene-stealer Parvesh Cheena – is a clueless guy, like many other clueless characters before him.
These are people I recognize from life who are not the stereotypes that white folks have of Indians.
One of the show’s writers, Indian-American Geetika Tandon Lizardi, said it best:
Yet when we highlight cultural differences on the show, we risk being called offensive. One online comment vehemently accused us of racism for the following line: Todd: “I didn’t know you guys celebrated Valentine’s Day.” But ignorance of a foreign culture isn’t racist; it’s just ignorance.
And as for stereotypes: Simple, recognizable characters are the building blocks of all comedies. The templates we build on are universal ones: the shy wallflower, the ruthless boss, the guy with no social skills. We don’t use what I consider to be Indian stereotypes: doctors, engineers, spelling bee champs, Kwik-E-Mart owners. (And for the record, I’m a huge fan of Apu on “The Simpsons.”)
“Outsourced” is not a documentary about call centers. It’s a comedy, which means we tweak and exaggerate to get a laugh. Yet we also have moments of truth that are deftly realized.
When Todd encourages Madhuri, the call center’s wallflower with a beautiful voice, to pursue fame and fortune as a singer, she informs him that she already has her dream job. It’s a moment that rings true to a pragmatic Indian value system. When Todd encourages Rajiv, his Indian assistant manager, to pursue the woman of his dreams in spite of her father’s disapproval, it also rings true. Americans aren’t as hung up on parental approval, and Todd’s encouragement proves to be a positive catalyst in Rajiv’s life.
At the end of the day, the characters in “Outsourced” care about each other and learn from one another. Those who only cite offensive stereotypes are missing the spirit of the show (or perhaps they’ve never actually watched it). What I love most about “Outsourced” is that the humor ultimately comes from a place of affection.
I agree with her. The pilot – like most pilots – is easily the worst episode. And the show spread out its cultural criticisms evenly. Both cultures have positives and negatives. Both have different social pressures to conform. People can learn from both sides – and they did.
The show was not all about the white guy opening the eyes of the brown people – or being an ignorant ass through and through. There were many instances where his suggestions were met with a response that highlighted a cultural difference without judgement. The example above, where Madhuri says that she already has her dream job, is one of many instances like that.
Another that comes to mind was when they discussed sex before marriage; Todd’s disbelief & laughter are a dead-on American response – as is the even response that it’s uncommon in India. It’s a moment of introspection – one of many in the show. It was deftly written and handled as the actors’ expressions revealed their consideration of whether one approach was better or not.
The characters were all developed over the episodes, each with their own arcs. If that didn’t happen, the show would easily be what all the haters believe.
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Todd’s ignorance faded over time – as it would with any decent person with a heart. Despite him sticking his foot in his mouth repeatedly at the beginning, he was already more open to begin with than Charlie, the American manager of another call center (whose character changed the most of all).
My favorite scene was one where Manmeet wanted to create a video to show his life to his long-distance girlfriend in the US. He starts off wanting to borrow Todd’s apartment for filming, since he still lives at home and shares a room with cousins. Todd finally tells him to be himself; it scares Manmeet but he takes the advice. In the end, the long distance girlfriend loved it.
Todd supported his friend, with some advice that’s way more American than Indian. He did it with a comfort and acceptance of what Indian culture is. That’s cool – especially for a guy who started ignorant as all hell. Isn’t that what we’d hope for in real life, that our friends accept & support us?
Some of the racism complaints center around the sense of entitlement the white folks have in the pilot. Well of course – they’re white and it’s what white people do! That sense of entitlement is due to white privilege. It’s how most white Americans would respond. Hats off to the writers for keeping it real – and allowing their characters to learn & grow.
Aside from the deeper aspects of the show, I really liked it because it’s laugh out loud funny (and just like ‘The Office’ from the UK, it takes a couple of episodes to hit it’s stride). There is so much I recognized from life – especially things that I’ve discussed with American friends.
I’ve actually wondered whether someone who knows me stole ideas for the show – that’s how true to life the writing is. Here’s stuff they covered that I recognized & discussed with friends:
- The head wobble (that should’ve been in the trailer but it would’ve gone over most American’s heads).
- Mispronunciation of names, on both sides. Americans mangle Indian names way worse (and yes, I found ‘Manmeet’ funny because 1) it is funny and 2) there are plenty of Indian names that don’t sound good with American pronunciation).
- Trying to explain arranged marriage and realizing that I had blindly accepted something I hadn’t considered deeply enough
- Street food & illness (especially that pallor of death one gets from shitting their brains out repeatedly)
Then I realized that what I recognize is the same stuff lots of other folks recognize as well. I know that’s part of what I enjoy about the show – simply being able to relate. The hilarity is the rest of it. I highly recommend watching the show – just be sure to give it a chance after the pilot episode.
Now – on to Master of None… (and no, I haven’t seen it yet so no spoilers please O.o)