Last pilot season NBC made a crazy move. It green-lighted an unlikely new sitcom set in a Mumbai call center. “Outsourced” was the hippest thing to happen to South Asians in the United States since Madonna discovered henna. As a writer, I was thrilled to hear about the show, not only because I’m an American of Indian descent but because I recently lived in Mumbai, helping my husband run a call center. Let’s face it, if my agent couldn’t get me an interview on this one, I might as well move back to Mumbai.
As it was, I got a dream job. “Outsourced” debuted to solid reviews from the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. With no big-name stars to draw viewers, it still ranked as high as No. 2 among the network’s scripted programs last fall. Even after a mid-season move to 10:30 p.m., “Outsourced” remains one of the most DVR’d prime time shows.
In my time on the writing staff, I’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for the show, especially from members of the South Asian community. Positive comments on Twitter after the show airs heavily outnumber critical ones, and according to the New York Times, even an audience of call center workers in India loved the show.
What’s odd, then, is the level of vitriol directed at us by some reviewers. They’ve called it “insulting and condescending,” filled with “offensive stereotypes” and based on “obvious cultural ignorance” on the part of the writers. New fans of the show seem to feel the need to post and tweet apologies for liking it: “I’m sorry but I really love ‘Outsourced’ ” or “I think ‘Outsourced’ is hilarious. Don’t hate me.”
Based on their bylines, most of the offended parties are not from the Indian community. Perhaps they don’t realize that we have five South Asian writers on the show telling stories that often come straight from our personal experiences. Or perhaps they don’t believe Indians should make fun of themselves.
An early episode featuring the “Indian head bobble” came from my non-Indian husband’s confusion in communicating with his call center staff. A sequence about Todd, the American boss, and his difficulties boarding an Indian train was inspired by a story another Indian writer shared about his grandmother, who spent a lifetime struggling to push her way onto crowded Indian trains, then employed the same tactics on her first visit to America, elbowing whole families to secure her spot on the monorail at Disneyland.
These stories made us laugh in the writers’ room. Yet when we highlight cultural differences on the show, we risk being called offensive. One online comment vehemently accused us of racism for the following line: Todd: “I didn’t know you guys celebrated Valentine’s Day.” But ignorance of a foreign culture isn’t racist; it’s just ignorance.
And as for stereotypes: Simple, recognizable characters are the building blocks of all comedies. The templates we build on are universal ones: the shy wallflower, the ruthless boss, the guy with no social skills. We don’t use what I consider to be Indian stereotypes: doctors, engineers, spelling bee champs, Kwik-E-Mart owners. (And for the record, I’m a huge fan of Apu on “The Simpsons.”)
“Outsourced” is not a documentary about call centers. It’s a comedy, which means we tweak and exaggerate to get a laugh. Yet we also have moments of truth that are deftly realized.
When Todd encourages Madhuri, the call center’s wallflower with a beautiful voice, to pursue fame and fortune as a singer, she informs him that she already has her dream job. It’s a moment that rings true to a pragmatic Indian value system. When Todd encourages Rajiv, his Indian assistant manager, to pursue the woman of his dreams in spite of her father’s disapproval, it also rings true. Americans aren’t as hung up on parental approval, and Todd’s encouragement proves to be a positive catalyst in Rajiv’s life.
At the end of the day, the characters in “Outsourced” care about each other and learn from one another. Those who only cite offensive stereotypes are missing the spirit of the show (or perhaps they’ve never actually watched it). What I love most about “Outsourced” is that the humor ultimately comes from a place of affection.
It’s pilot season again, which means TV execs are once more making decisions about which shows to green-light and which to cancel. My greatest concern is that “Outsourced” is being judged superficially — on the color of its skin, so to speak, instead of the content of its characters.
“Outsourced” has the potential to celebrate our cultural quirks, to build bridges between communities and perhaps, most important, to prove that there is a viable alternative to the “one brown face in a white ensemble” model of “diversity.”
As the Hollywood Reporter put it, “It’s still hard to believe that the network took a chance on it; the public should do the same.”
Watch the show. Give it a chance. And don’t feel guilty if you like what you see.
Geetika Tandon Lizardi has written for film, stage and television.