How will history remember Outsourced?
When the show debuted, it was (justifiably) ridiculed over its effectively xenophobic pilot that did nothing to hide the lazy stereotypes driving the introduction of its Indian setting. Over time, the show became symbolic of NBC’s recent failures despite the fact that it was drawing consistently better ratings than the show with the most online buzz (which would be Community). And then, after being shuttled to 10:30 behind 30 Rock, it was almost as if the show didn’t even exist anymore, with Perfect Couples and then The Paul Reiser Show taking the brunt of the critical and popular ridicule (although only Reiser really deserved it).
I think it’s pretty clear at this point that Outsourced was sent to die when it was moved to 10:30, and one could even argue that it was sent to die even when it started airing back in September given how quickly NBC seemed to lose interest. When Saturday Night Live trotted out the show as something that Devil enjoyed watching on NBC during last week's episode, I had sort of forgotten that it existed, despite the fact that it’s my quasi-job to pay attention to such things. When NBC moved it to 10:30, people stopped talking about Outsourced entirely — the show’s defenders seemed non-existent, and the show’s detractors stopped worrying about the series being successful and cut down on the rhetoric.
And frankly, the rhetoric was the only thing keeping Outsourced alive, and probably the only reason NBC picked up the show for an entire season. My theory is that NBC decided that the show could draw enough of an audience to be profitable while simultaneously drawing any ire that might be thrown NBC’s way. Who was going to be too critical of an uneven season for The Office when you could make fun of Outsourced instead? And what critic in their right mind wouldn’t celebrate the return of Parks and Recreation when that return also bumps Outsourced to a later timeslot (not that they would be in their right mind if they didn't celebrate to begin with, but that’s neither here nor there)?
My problem with all of this is that it stopped being about the show itself, something that I am as guilt of as anyone else. It was easy to write off Outsourced based on the first thirty seconds that I accidentally watched at the end of my Office/30 Rock recordings, but I never sat down and actually watched a whole episode to see how it developed. Nothing I heard indicated that I was missing out on something spectacular, but the show had twenty-one episodes to develop between now and then, and it deserves a fair shake as much as any other.
Watching the conclusion to “Rajiv Ties the Baraat” reveals that the show has followed the trajectory I expected, evolving from a problematic and unfunny show into a passable yet unoriginal one. It is only natural that, over time, the show’s stereotypes of Indian culture would be replaced by a focus on the characters, who would be allow to emerge out of their pre-existing roles. Plus, the more settled Todd becomes in India, the more he becomes integrated with its culture, and the more the show’s jokes shift to making fun of his stereotypically American behavior rather than his reaction to the stereotypical portrayal of Indian culture.
It reminds me of what happened with a Canadian show, Little Mosque on the Prairie, in that the initial premise of the series suggested an element of religious/cultural conflict but eventually revealed a fairly sympathetic portrayal of the designated Other. While that series began with protests over the presence of a new Mosque, over time it revealed that it wasn’t interested in the conflict so much as it was interested in using the conflict to investigate the reality of Muslims living in small town Canada. Mind you, that show started off in a far more subtle space (it was Canadian, after all), and evolved into a compelling if not particularly spirited comedy series, but something about the shift of perspective evident in this finale reminded me of the show (perhaps because it was written by Vera Santamaria, who used to work on Little Mosque, a fact I learned after making the observation).
The reason Outsourced fails to follow the same trajectory is that it isn’t actually about Indian culture. Yes, the finale features an Indian wedding that seems to be relatively authentic and treated with respect, but the storylines that take place in and around that wedding are just vaguely Indian takes on sitcom clichés. Almost everything is centered around romantic relationships, all of which simply sub in somewhat culturally specific elements into the requisite conflict boxes. For example, the small subplot with Madhuri and Ajeet pursuing a relationship uses their religious differences (a key point of cultural specificity) and suggests that it’s just another layer alongside working together that stands in their way. The show isn’t interested in exploring those religious differences, so their use is a token reference to Indian culture that does nothing but call attention to the show’s disinterest in anything approaching complexity.
Everything else fits comfortably into storylines we’ve seen numerous times before: while there was an implied cultural element in Todd throwing a very American-style bachelor party for Rajiv, the storyline played out just like it would have in an American context had there been no previous discussions of a bachelor party. I appreciate that Todd’s efforts to inject American culture were in some way frowned upon, and consider that a step up from the pilot on a number of levels, but it doesn’t make it any more interesting or funny. While it’s possible that the wedding had intense meaning if you had been following the characters all season, I don’t think that meaning would have made the comedy any more successful, especially given that I kept thinking how the The Simpsons already covered similar ground with so much more verve (and humor) nearly fifteen years ago.
In other words, how can one call Outsourced a success when none of its final storylines felt as though they were driven by specific elements of Indian culture? You could see every one of these storylines in a basic American sitcom, a fact evidenced by the fact that all of these storylines have been done in a basic American sitcom. While the pilot had some incredibly problematic elements in regards to its portrayal of Indian culture, the basic premise had the potential (in theory, at least) to develop into a show that tried to say something about the outsourcing phenomenon.
Of course, the quality of the pilot very quickly quashed any chance of this happening, but now that the show has mostly ironed out its xenophobia its failure becomes a lack of ambition rather than a lack of taste. Outsourced doesn’t try enough to be funny, and isn’t funny enough to get away with not trying, which makes it just like a whole host of other failed comedies to come and go in recent years. And even if history is content to remember it as a symbol of NBC’s failure (especially if it doesn't show up on NBC's schedule during next week's Upfronts), or as a show delivered from Satan himself, I hope history can at least remember that it ended its first season as a boring show instead of a racist one.
If it remembers it at all, of course — remember Kath & Kim?
- I didn’t laugh a whole lot during the episode, but I smiled a bit at the “No Indians were harmed in the filming of this video” from Gupta in the coda — I’ll consider that a wink to the critics of the pilot, even if it was an unintentionally funny line. That seems entirely possible.
- A supervisor of mine who spends a lot of time in China was just talking about the proliferation of Pizza Huts in China recently, so the reference here was a nice (if pointless, and not actually funny) surprise.
- I wrote part of my graduate thesis on Little Mosque on the Prairie, and anyone interested in the premise of the show might consider tracking it down via DVD (or your favorite television retrieval method) — I don’t think the series is particularly hilarious, and it has some issues with repetition as it goes on, but it’s certainly more interesting than Outsourced. I believe either FOX had the rights to make a version of the show a while back, but nothing came of it.
- So, what happened to Pippa Black’s character? Ideally, we would have found someone on staff who had seen the whole show to cover the finale and they might have been able to answer this question, but no such person existed, so I was sort of wondering where she went to.
- Is it culturally insensitive if I wrote this while listening to the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack?
- If the show gets cancelled (which seems likely), for those who have been watching all along, is there any one breakout performance that indicates the person involved has the potential to move onto something bigger? I didn’t see any evidence of that here, but perhaps there were episodes throughout the season that offered such evidence.