Outsourced - "Pilot"

Outsourced debuts tonight on NBC at 9:30 p.m. Eastern.

Almost accidentally, NBC had its best Thursday night lineup in something like two decades last season. Community was the freshman up-and-comer, the new show that was hungry to prove it was more than the sum of its very funny parts. Parks and Recreation was the most-improved show, the one that took a step up from its average first season and became one of the two or three best comedies on TV. The Office was the reigning champ, a show that was off its game for much of the season but still a show that had a game so good that even being slightly off of it made for good TV. And 30 Rock wasn't what it had been, but it was still often riotously funny with some of the most sharply tuned comedy writing on TV. The network, realizing what it had, even if three of these shows struggled in the ratings, kept them on all season and gave them time to grow. It was a great set of comedies in a TV season when comedy unexpectedly had a resurgence after nearly a decade of only sporadic good shows.

Well, that's all over now. Outsourced is a sloppy, largely terrible mess. It also has the potential to be a huge, huge hit because it has absolutely no shame about playing to the lowest-common-denominator. If one of the other three shows it shares the night with did a joke about Indian food giving you the shits, it would be couched in some level of self-aware irony, the show acknowledging that it was stooping to a puerile level, but, hey, sometimes puerile is really funny. Outsourced just says, "Holy shit, dude. If you eat Indian food, you'll probably be on the toilet for, like, a WEEK, and it'll be all runny and stuff? GROSS." Sadly, this has often proved to be a solid way to entice the American public into watching television. The hot rumor for a while was that NBC had picked a terrible show to go after The Office so it could slip Parks and Rec (returning at midseason) the post-Office slot without terribly antagonizing the producers of Community or 30 Rock. In the spirit of The Producers, it's easy to fear NBC may succeed beyond its wildest dreams.

Outsourced's premise traces the life of Todd, a Kansas City-based middle-manager who returns from management training to find that his entire call center has been fired and he's to head to India, where the novelty company he works for has relocated its call center. Once he arrives in India, the show veers wildly between three basic scene types: 1.) India is crazy and everybody there likes CRAZY STUFF, man, and why can't they just be like AMERICANS, right? 2.) Indian office workers are just like American office workers, once you get to know them, although they still have CRAZY ACCENTS, right? 3.) Working as an American in a foreign country means you quickly glom on to whatever other Americans (or Australians) you can find, even though they might be CRUDE PIGS, right? The show executes none of these scenes well. What hurts it even more is that all of these scenes may as well exist in separate shows.

Sure, the scenes feature the same characters and take place in the same office building, but they don't comfortably occupy the same series. Plus, there are a ton of characters, many of whom are simply there to be lazy jokes about how India is wacky. Take, for example, the fact that the show features a character named Manmeet, who wishes to love on some ladies. The show almost takes an interesting direction when Todd tries to tell Manmeet that in America, you can date and even sleep with a girl without really intending to marry her, but then it mostly just falls back on more jokes about how his name is Manmeet. Or the number of scenes in the office building cafeteria, where Todd hangs out with a couple of other call center managers, who mostly seem to be there to have more white people in the cast, including a potential white love interest for Todd (mostly notable because she's Australian and named Pippa, which is a fun name). So when all else fails, the show falls back on good, old-fashioned xenophobia.

Outsourced isn't consciously racist or xenophobic. But it is unintentionally so because of one very simple thing: The show's creator, Robert Borden, seems to hate just about everybody in the cast of characters. There's a late in episode rally to have a heartwarming conclusion, but it doesn't feel earned so much as it feels forced on the show by network notes. Todd's team is full of nitwits, all of whom are so completely unaware of everything about America but also the world around them that they mostly just seem to be there to make blank slate Todd seem more appealing by comparison. Outsourced is full of people that Borden and director Ken Kwapis (whose direction here is often baffling) seem to view as valuable only insofar as the audience can laugh at them. Since most of those people are Indian and since most of the jokes Borden's script makes are about the weirdness of India - the accents, the sacred cows, the food, etc., etc., etc. - it gives the episode an unsettling vibe of hostility toward other cultures. The text here is all, "This fish is sure out of water!" but the subtext is all, "Stop taking our jobs, you damn crazy foreigners."

Outsourced gets points for its cast. In the central role, Ben Rappaport barely registers, but the rest of the ensemble takes underwritten roles and does what it can with them. In particular, it's just nice to have a show on TV that's not as lily-white as most ensemble shows are, even if all of the non-white characters are mostly fodder for jokes here. These are actors who would only be used for one-shot guest roles, mostly consisting of jokes making fun of their nationality and accents, on other shows. The same is true here, insofar as the material they get to play, but at least they get to play it week to week. Similarly, the great, hammy Diedrich Bader is here to play a completely loathsome dude, but he makes the part semi-charming simply by sinking his teeth into it as much as possible.

These are weird times to be an American. The United States is still the number one in the world at just about everything, yet China and India are growing so rapidly that Americans can be forgiven for feeling like the country is increasingly falling behind. Indeed, the story of the 21st century looks to be how these two emergent economies disrupt the last 400 years of European and American dominance - or if said economies slip up somehow, like Japan did 20 years ago. Outsourced, then, had a golden opportunity to channel all of those anxieties and fears into a show with something approaching original insight. It could have been about cultures blending successfully and unsuccessfully. It could have looked at the cost of relocating from the States to another land. But if it had to be a nasty, borderline xenophobic show, couldn't it have at least come up with some better, more original jokes?