Why 'Outsourced' Hasn't Raised More of an Outcry

NBC Show Walks Fine Line, Actually Displays Some Cultural Nuance and Education

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Bill Imada
Bill Imada
When I first learned about "Outsourced," a new comedy from NBC with a large South Asian cast, I worried about every aspect of the show. My mind raced with thoughts about how I should address this prime-time program. Should I condemn it? Ridicule it? Start a movement against it?

My experience has taught me that most American TV shows that cast or showcase Asian actors are disastrous. And even if the public loves and applauds it, there has to be some drawbacks.

I imagined this show to be riddled with demeaning stereotypes and jokes about Indians and other South Asians. I also assumed that the show would focus solely on the premise that Americans were the only people on the entire planet who could resolve an international issue, conflict or business challenge. Or even worse, having Americans cast as the saviors of the developing world. What I found in "Outsourced" was something I really didn't expect. Even my contemporaries have found "Outsourced" to be different in its approach to comedy and in its portrayal of South Asians.

"'Outsourced' features an unprecedented number of Asian actors in a television series," says Karen Narasaki, president and executive director of the Asian American Justice Center, a national civil rights and advocacy group that serves as a leading voice for Asian Americans. "It is also unique because of the large number of Asian-American writers it employs."

"Outsourced," which airs Thursday nights on NBC and its affiliates across the country, is actually a decent comedy. The writing is above average and the storyline is interesting and entertaining. And some of the culturally tested humor can be attributed to the fact that NBC made a conscious effort to find writers who are familiar with American and Indian culture.

"Outsourced" focuses on a novelty goods company that eliminates its sales and telemarketing operation in the U.S. in favor of an overseas option in India; hence the name, "Outsourced." Fast forward to a scene in India and there you'll find a somewhat dated telemarketing operation that employs Indians of various backgrounds. The telemarketing operation is co-managed by an Indian and an American expatriate (non-Asian) from Kansas. While Asians do have prominent roles in the series, some Asian-American leaders believe NBC missed an opportunity to cast an Asian-American in a lead role.

"It would have been more ground breaking and refreshing if [NBC] had an Indian American as the star -- someone who had to go to India but has no knowledge of the culture or language," states Guy Aoki, founding president of Media Access Network for Asian Americans (MANAA). Aoki believes that casting an Asian-American actor as the "Outsourced" lead character would have forced viewers to put aside their preconceived notions about Asian Americans, who are often viewed as perpetual foreigners because of the way they look. According to Aoki, "It would send the message that we can't assume that someone with an Indian face is a foreigner and not as American as anyone else. Maybe [NBC] could introduce a character like that in the future."

But even Aoki agrees that the program has merit.

"'Outsourced' is positive in that it tackles the issue of outsourcing jobs head-on," notes Aoki, who has taken on the networks and studios for not portraying real-world issues and challenges. "I was surprised that people would watch a series about Indians at call centers because there is so much resentment about American jobs going to India."

In the previews promoting the show, the audience is subjected to Indian names (i.e., Manmeet) that may sound odd to the average American, as well as meeting Indian telemarketers who have acquired regional American accents. And to make matters even more interesting, the company offers adult-themed novelty items for sale, including plastic vomit and a belt that dangles mistletoe just below the waistline. Other scenes offer American viewers a glimpse of what they might encounter in India, such as cows that wander aimlessly through the streets (and office courtyards) and are revered by segments of the population. Or a scene that covers what some Indians might consider is every day American cuisine: burgers, burgers and burgers.

While the scripts and show's content aren't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, I like the show. And, while there are a number of stereotypes focusing on ethnicity, religious beliefs and cultural identity, the program's writers, director and producers took care in using their scripts to entertain and educate viewers about how an almost universal lack of cultural awareness and understanding can lead to confusion, miscommunication and distrust between co-workers and managers of different nationalities, socio-economic status, languages and beliefs.

Narasaki and Aoki both agree that the characters and the script do help to humanize Indians and Americans in some thoughtful ways.

"In a humorous way, while 'Outsourced' points out cultural differences' it also helps to show the common human aspirations and fears held by all," says Narasaki. "And by showing some of the issues, concerns and realities that Indians and Americans both face, there are opportunities for everyone to gain greater empathy and understanding."

Aoki wants to see more TV programs that change perceptions and attitudes towards Asians and Asian Americans. "Maybe when we pick up the phone and speak to someone in India in the future, we won't see them as a monolithic group of people, but individuals with interests, concerns and experiences that are common to our own."

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