I love Thursday nights. Sadly, it is because almost every show that I regularly follow is on on Thursday nights - Bones, 30 Rock, The Office, Community, and Project Runway. I watch enough TV on Thursday nights to almost last me a week (Aside from How I Met Your Mother on Mondays. I love that too). So I was interested to see a new television show this season in my NBC Thursday night line-up that, on the surface, seemed very out of the ordinary for American television - Outsourced.
In Outsourced Todd, a mid-level manager for an American novelty outfitter, finds out that his job has been outsourced to India and he must go and train the new workers and his future replacement if he ever wants to move up high enough in the company that he can return to America and the safety of corporate headquarters. The premise for the show wasn't new to me. I had seen Outsourced the movie several years prior. However, the more I watch Outsourced the television show, the more I can see the subtle differences between its depiction of the friction between Indian culture and American culture and the culture clash in the movie version.
Anita, from Feminist Frequency, once told me that she liked the television show Farscape because the main character, John Crichton, an American astronaut, magically tumbles through the galaxy into an unknown world and instead of going by the tried and true formula of white-men-are-the-best-at-everything and letting John show the aliens how to run their section of the universe, John Crichton quickly realizes that he knows nothing. Everyday is a learning experience and every episode let the different characters rotate who would "know best" - not just letting Daddy John take the credit all the time for continuously saving the day.
The same idea is true of Outsourced the movie. Movie Todd finds himself in the middle of nowhere India (specifically, Gharapuri) trying to navigate local customs. He unknowingly offends most of the Indians he meets - including a particularly memorable sequence where he discovers why Indians think it is dirty to eat with you left hand. However, like many journeys, Movie Todd comes to learn more about himself as he learns more about the customs and traditions of India. Over the course of the movie he finds himself more estranged from the person he was and, vicariously, America; since the person that he was also sold gaudy American trinkets.
Instead of the sticks, TV Todd is stuck in the middle of Mumbai, a bustling metropolis. He too is middle management for an American novelties corporation. However, unlike Movie Todd who learns about himself through experiencing India, TV Todd is constantly correcting and instructing the people that work for him about American culture. Changing the journey that Movie Todd went through into more of a story of how white-men-are-the-best-at-everything and American culture is the best culture.
The shift from focusing on Indian culture in the movie to American culture and customs in the television show sounds small, but is actually quite profound. For instance, in Outsourced the movie Todd accidentally walks into the middle of the annual Holi celebration without knowing what it is.
At the end of this scene Purohit, Movie Todd's replacement manager, discusses how much he loved Holi as a child. While Movie Todd reminisces about how much he loved Halloween as a child. However, the emphasis in this scene is on the celebration of Holi, not an insistence that Movie Todd expose Purohit and his other workers to American customs like Halloween.
TV Todd has no problem prioritizing American customs over Indian ones. In the "Balloween" episode TV Todd throws a traditional American Halloween party. In it all the Indian characters are ridiculed in one way or another - Manmeet, the wannabe ladies man, dresses as a chick magnet, but is too afraid to talk to the hot Australian girl who finds his costume appealing. Gupta dresses as a "respectable US businessman" not realizing that he's dressed as a pimp. Asha comes dressed as Cleopatra only to be scolded for revealing too much skin when she's in the process of arraigning her marriage. Holi is never mentioned. And all the characters on the show embrace Halloween as if it was the latest and greatest thing. They even choose to dress up as American icons like Michael Jackson and Native Americans.
Not to say that Outsourced the television show is completely without its moments of hope. For instance, at the Halloween party Rajiv, the TV manager-in-training, dresses up as TV Todd and momentarily gets to mock him and, vicariously, Americans: "Is this safe to eat? Where's football? Where can I get that toilet paper with the lotion in it?" Thus, for a split second, we, the audience, are able to see what Indians find strange about our culture.
In the episode "Truly, Madly, Pradeeply" several of the characters, including fellow American, Charlie, become momentarily addicted to paan - an Indian version of chewing tobacco. This exchange also seemed less about the domination of American culture over Indian culture. I was happy to see a little but of screen time devoted to a non-American custom even if the storyline involved one of the other white American characters on the show. But these moments are fleeting. The paan aspect of the episode was a subplot and the Rajiv mockery of TV Todd was even shorter.
This is not to say that Outsourced the movie isn't without its problems as well. In both the film and the television show there is an attraction between Todd and the character of Asha. In both cases Asha is in the process of an arraigned marriage. Both versions of Todd still fall for Asha and pursue her to different degrees. It is as if because Asha's marriage is going to be arraigned by her parents that it does not carry the same weight as a "love match" marriage (the term used in the movie for a non-arraigned marriage). Therefore making her still single in the eyes of her lovelorn American boss Todd.
It will be interesting to see in the coming months if Outsourced the television show is able to gain speed and expand its moments of cultural sensitivity. As a viewer, the most interesting interactions to me are the ones that are completely foreign - the paan subplot for instance - and the ones that are the least interesting are the the cliched moments that I've seen over and over again in media. For instance, when the truly pathetic character of Tonya, a white Australian call center manager, throws herself at TV Todd in lewd and uninteresting ways. I can only hope that the television show continues to develop away from tried and true formulas and shows us something interesting. After all, it is a television show starring mostly an Indian/Indian-American cast on prime time network television. It is already revolutionary on paper. Now let's see it become revolutionary in content.
Outsourced the television show airs on NBC on Thursdays at 9:30pm.
Outsourced the movie is available to stream on Netflix.