Some things we learn about the people of India from Outsourced:
They have funny names like “Manmeet.”
Their food, mostly “yellow and green stuff,” is weird, bad for digestion, and completely foreign to anyone from Kansas City.
They don’t understand the simplest of jokes, like the hilarity inherent in a fake mounted deer head that sings “Sweet Home Alabama.”
In its series premiere, airing 23 September, Outsourced never rises above this level of discourse. It’s not a satire of current corporate practices. Neither does it have much to say about the politics of outsourcing jobs to India or other sites of “cheap labor.” The show goes to great lengths to explain that its protagonist, American Todd Dempsy (Ben Rappaport), has no role in his company’s decision to send jobs abroad. And he can’t quit in protest, since he has too much debt in student loans to do so. His conscience is squeaky clean. You can go on thinking he’s cute and guiltless.
As the series begins, Todd, fresh out of a management training program, has transferred to India to set up a new call center there for Mid America Novelties. He’s been told that his employees are “B-team.” They didn’t study in the U.S. They don’t know American customs and can’t speak with American accents. Todd is tasked with turning the rag-tag bunch into up-selling machines. This is the central duality of the show: half fish-out-of-water tale about Todd, half underdogs-come-from-behind-to-triumph story about his staff.
The problem is that neither plot has a sound foundation. For the first, it’s hard to identify with Todd because he’s not very likable. When he sees the traffic in Mumbai and calls it “insane, like ‘Frogger’ but with real people,” Todd seems not only dim but also insensitive, at best. (Has he really never seen bad traffic before? Does he seriously not consider the callousness of comparing people to the digital pixels in “Frogger?”) Because we have seen traffic before, it is easy to feel more sophisticated than Todd, and even the thought of investing an entire season waiting for him to catch up is exhausting.
It is equally not charming when Todd, puzzled as to why his staff doesn’t know what a Wisconsin cheese-head is, immediately compares the novelty hat to a Sikh’s turban, pointing out that both cultures have “strange” headgear. He manages to be surprised about his staff’s lack of knowledge in a way that makes him look like the dumb one.
That dumbness only seems exacerbated when the first episode hints at a love triangle (since every sitcom requires one). Two beautiful women catch Todd’s eye: Indian Asha (Rebecca Hazlewood), who works in his call center, and Australian Tonya (Pippa Black), who oversees another call center in the same building. One supposes that these two will be pitted against each other, the familiar versus the exotic. (This ignores many cultural differences between the United States and Australia. What matters is that Tonya is blond, right? That makes her practically American.) One hopes that both women will recognize that Todd is no prize.
While Todd’s romantic interest in an employee might complicate the series’ second plot, where the underdogs triumph, the other staff members looking like cardboard cutouts make it downright feeble. In the premiere episode we meet a series of types: the quiet one (Anisha Nagarajan), the one who talks too much (Parvesh Cheena), the corporate weasel (Rizwan Manji), the one who’s fascinated by American dating customs (Sacha Dhawan). They may as well be the pixels from “Frogger.”
Most disappointingly, NBC has positioned Outsourced as a companion to the much stronger comedies in its Thursday lineup. This decision may have to do with the fact that executive producer Ken Kwapis has produced and directed many episodes of The Office. Indeed, Outsourced bears some similarities to The Office: They’re set in offices, for instance, Todd has a certain Jim Halpert flavor, and Manji’s character might recall Dwight’s scheming.
Really, though, Outsourced is the opposite of The Office. The other NBC shows are effective in part because they don’t rely on an obviously trendy high concept (granted, The Office is not an original concept at all, but Ricky Gervais’). Even though he’s not immersed in a foreign culture, Jim in The Office plays straight man to a collection of bizarre, illogical personalities, including a clueless boss. In Outsourced, Todd is the clueless boss. We’re supposed to like him for his Jim Halpert-like good looks, but really he’s the Michael Scott here, without Steve Carell’s skills as a performer. This leaves Todd looking uncomplicated and unappealing.