Almost since it landed a coveted spot on NBC’s Thursday-night lineup, Outsourced has been contending with the question: Is it racist? The show, in which American Todd Dempsy is sent to India to oversee his company's call center, premiered last night, finally opening the question up to wider debate. Outsourced's pilot contains a number of uncomfortable jokes — the familiar, infuriating gags about Indian names and Indian-food-induced trips to the bathroom — but, on close inspection, is far more critical of America and Americans than it is of India and Indians. The problem is, the show doesn't have the courage of its America-critiquing convictions: Every time it veers toward being an incisive commentary on American insularity and superficiality, it panics, jumping to jokes on the level of, "What's with the dot on the head?" And then just as quickly boomeranging away, for fear of being labeled racist. Around and around it goes, missing its target all the while. (For this, we lost Parks & Recreation? Which you can, at least, get a dose of here.)
To get at what we mean, let’s dissect a joke. Todd, newly arrived in India, is showing the staff at the call center some of the company's product. (The company, Mid-American Novelties, is a purveyor of fake vomit, blood, and other fine gag gifts.) He puts on a Green Bay Packers cheesehead and the staff starts to giggle. He reacts, all sweet condescension, “Let’s not make fun of each other’s head gear. You guys have some pretty crazy looking hats yourself
” as the camera cuts to a hulking Sikh who storms out of the room, provoking Todd to amend, “Mostly on the women though,” as the camera cuts to a woman in a hijab. What is the joke here? That Indians wear funny hats? That Americans wear funny hats? That Americans and Indians are oblivious to the fact that their respective hats are funny to each other? As executed, the joke seems to be straining for the third, but it contains a fundamental, problematic imbalance: a cheesehead is a ridiculous item. A hijab and a Sikh's turban are not. There is no reciprocity in headgear here, whatever Todd may think. There is just an American being insensitive.
But, in fact, it’s easy to imagine an American who could wring a laugh out of this line: Michael Scott. The Office's boss man’s stock and trade is the insensitive, politically incorrect remark. But the difference between Michael and Outsourced’s Todd is that Michael is openly recognized as an impolitic boor. When Michael says something inappropriate, it’s clear the writers know it’s inappropriate. It's safe to laugh at a boob. (Especially if you're the kind of sensitive, progressive person who does giggle at other culture's hats but would never ever admit as much.) But unlike Michael, Todd’s not supposed to be an impolitic boor. He’s supposed to be our point of identification, our American, our relatively open-minded white guy. He’s supposed to be our Jim Halpert. When he opens his mouth and says something inappropriate, there is no acknowledgment from the writers that it’s intended to be inappropriate, and it falls flat.
Another example: When Todd meets Manmeet he laughs, “Man meat? Your name is Man meat? It must be hard to chat on the Internet with a name like Man meat.” This is pure Michael: an extremely rude, awkward, and inappropriate thing to say to anybody. To laugh at it, we have to be laughing at Todd. But the writers of Outsourced keep insisting that we laugh with him — and in this case, that means finding Indian names “funny.” We can only grimace.
Why can’t the show acknowledge Todd’s got a little Michael Scott in him? Rather than letting all those jokes fall flat — and worse, fall racist — why not just give us a hint that Todd, mostly a well-meaning, non-annoying guy, has his blind spots? Here we rub up against something uncomfortable: the show’s implicit assumption that Todd is the only viable point of identification. If the sole American white man is acknowledged in the pilot to be the occasional dolt, what will viewers do? Will we lose interest in the show? It can't succeed if we’re asked to identify, off the bat, with the Indian cast members right?
If Todd is more unpleasant than the show lets on, so is America. In Outsourced, America is a hollow place, inhabited by jerks. The Americans we meet other than Todd are a downsizer, a xenophobe obsessed with how much Indian food makes him crap, and two voices on the phone: one who screams, “Am I calling freaking India to get a mug that says America is No. 1?” and another buying Confederate shot glasses. If the show reduces India to a land of curry, people in funny hats, and "a real life version of Frogger," it reduces America to the Bad News Bears, Glengarry Glen Ross, and the song "Don't You Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me," the three things Todd chooses to teach the staff so that they can "understand" America.
But the show is as unwilling to own its position on America as it is to own Todd's buffoonery. At one point in the episode Todd delivers a speech that’s played as a goofy yet rousing defense of the United States, when it should be played with a wink and a sneer: “In America, you can do whatever you want. You can be the president. Or a scientist. Or you could even invent novelties, like this
Maybe no one needs this [Todd pulls out plaque with breasts in a bikini top on it], but in America, no one can stop you from making it. This is the definition of freedom. [He turns the plaque on, and the breasts start to move]. This is Jingle Jugs." So, in America, freedom is the right to make and sell useless crap to an unpleasant citizenry that doesn’t need it? This is a speech that, with the right delivery (like say Bill Murray in Stripes, or Michael Scott again) could be inspiring and mocking, but Todd and his nice guy, baby face don't do mocking (or knowing), and all we're left with is empty bombast.
Outsourced has much more critical things to say about America and Americans than it does about India. (Though we hope its America focus doesn’t mean that, when it comes to India, the show is stuck at the level of curry jokes). But in the pilot, it pulls its punches. For the show to be funny, less uncomfortable, and all around better it will have to be less concerned about alienating its American audiences — we actually don’t have a problem identifying with Indian people if they're well-drawn characters. Stop being so patronizing. — and more openly skewer its real targets: the white guy and the country he comes from.