Playing Indian: What Outsourced Says About the American Economy

On a recent episode of NBC’s Outsourced, Todd, the clueless American who runs the call center for a US-based novelty company in Mumbai, is trying to understand what the Hindu celebration of Diwali is all about.  He asks one of his employees which magical element is featured during Diwali:  “Uh, laughing cow? Crouching tiger? Flying monkey?”  Manmeet replies:  “There does happen to be a flying monkey. But I feel like that guess came from a bad place.”

A lot of the jokes on Outsourced come from a bad place.  TV critics over the last four months have argued that the show is racist, grounded in cheap gags like Americans eating Indian street food that gives them diarrhea. Others argue that Outsourced is too abject to be funny, given how many American jobs have been lost to outsourcing.  As one forum participant quipped, “What’s next?  A comedy about foreclosure?”  Finally, there are many who complain that the show is simply not funny—evidence, according to these critics, of how far NBC has fallen since the glory days of “Must See TV,” when Friends and Seinfeld dominated Thursday night in the battle for network supremacy.

The critics are mostly right:  Outsourced does play on a series of base and ethnically problematic gags, from having cows wander through set, to a pudgy character named Gupta who becomes addicted to a tobacco-like chew called “Paan,” to an employee who confounds her boss with her enigmatic head bob, to a beautiful Indian woman call center worker (played by the ravishing Rebecca Hazlewood from a steamy night time soap opera that ran on BBC, Bad Girls) who is torn between an arranged marriage and her Anglo American boss.  The Indians are frequently perplexed and/or offended by the American novelties they are selling—everything from fake vomit and Green Bay Packer Cheese Head Hats to red, white, and blue condoms and men’s belts with mistletoe attached to the buckle.  Likewise the Anglos are “fish out of water,” as they try to adapt to Indian holidays, Indian food, monsoons, power outages, Mumbai traffic, and Indian rules surrounding courtship and marriage.

What most of the critics have overlooked, however, is that Outsourced is more of a satire about the global workplace than it is a show about India.  The dialogue that pertains to economic issues is frequently biting and funny, and the overall message is two fold. Outsourced is critical of the economic situation that lured the call center from Kansas to Mumbai, but it also argues that the call center offers its Indian employees, and, especially, its women employees, genuine opportunities for social and economic advancement.

The criticism of the US economy comes out the most strongly in the character of Todd Dempsey (Ben Rappaport) the call center manager, who agrees to move to India in large part because he needs to pay off $40,000 in college debt.  As one reviewer pointed out, $40,000 doesn’t seem like quite enough debt to move the plot forward.  On the other hand, Todd’s plight calls attention to the situation of the typical college graduate who walks away from college with a debt burden of $24,000.  During this current climate of high unemployment, how many college students might be willing to take the kind of deal that Todd has taken in order to pay back their student loans?

Todd is also a loser in the eyes of his American family.  During one episode in which he Skypes with his mom, dad, and brother, Todd’s brother brags about the sales records he is breaking in the US at his own company, and the fact that he can buy their parents a first class trip around the world.  In order to compete Todd lies about his achievements in India, but his parents still are not impressed.  In the context of these vignettes, it is easy to feel a bit more sympathy for Todd, who betrays a certain clear-eyed acceptance about the irony of his position.  In episode 107 he quips:  “I came to India to sell Americans novelties made in China and that’s what I’m going to do.”

Going back home to the US is not necessarily the right answer for Todd and his ilk.  In a recent Thanksgiving episode, “Temporary Monsanity,” in which the Americans try to teach the Indians about the sales hysteria in the US on the day after Thanksgiving (Black Friday), the Indian call center deputy director offers his workers an incentive:  “If anyone can break the sales record they can have full health insurance for themselves and their family.”  The workers cheer, and then one of them pipes up:  “They don’t even have that in the US!”  Indeed, we don’t.

During this Thanksgiving episode Outsourced also showed a remarkable self-consciousness about the colonialism at the heart of its premise.  Throughout the episode, parallels between Native American Indians and east Indians were frequently played up.  In one example, one of the Indian workers tries to explain Thanksgiving to his co-worker: “It’s quite simple really . . . the Pilgrims came to a land that was not their own and subjugated the Indians so that the white man could run their call center . . . I mean country.”  The Indians on Outsourced are subjugated by the white man, even though they occasionally use their Indian wiles to “get over” on their Anglo bosses.

At the same time Outsourced raises the possibility that call center work is making a tangible difference in the lives of its Indian workers.  One of the women workers, Madhuri, explains that she went from being a source of shame for her family, because she wasn’t married, to being the primary bread winner.  In the case of the alluring Asha, we see that her attraction to her boss, Todd, might give her a reason to resist the pressure she feels to pick a husband from an arranged marriage website and get on with that part of her life.  This portrayal may have some relationship to the real life experience of Indian women;  a report by San Diego State researcher, Doreen J. Mattingly, shows that in many cases call center jobs have been socially and economically beneficial for Indian women.

Is Outsourced a good show?  At the end of the day I am less interested in whether or not the show is good or bad.  But I am interested in the fact that the show has provoked a lot of discourse about outsourcing, globalization, and the US economy.  In dozens of fan websites, blogs, and reviews of Outsourced, ordinary viewers discuss the pros and cons—and mostly the cons—of outsourcing.  I am also intrigued by the fact that the show has provided work for a handful of actors with East Asian ancestry.  As xenophobic as the show can be, it is providing actual jobs for East Asian Americans in Hollywood.  The actress who plays the demure Madhuri, Anisha Nagarajan, grew up in the Fox Chapel suburbs of Pittsburgh.  She learned to tie a Sari from her grandmother when she spent a year at an Indian boarding school when she was 15.  Likewise one of the show’s Indian American writers, Amit Bhalla, grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

In this sense Outsourced calls to mind a lowbrow workplace comedy that featured an all-ethnic cast from the early 1950s:  the African American comedy Amos ‘n’ Andy.  The show was cancelled in 1952, after two seasons, when the NAACP pressured the show’s sponsor, Blatz Beer, with the charge of racism.  My hope is that Outsourced will continue to move in the direction of becoming a satire on racism and globalization, rather than a show that perpetuates some of the most pernicious stereotypes of Indians.

On the other hand, if some of the jokes on the show continue to come from a “bad place,” I can take some comfort in the fact that this Thursday night comedy is getting us to talk, in serious terms, about the “bad place” that so many of us are in, economically.  Outsourcing isn’t funny.  But maybe, just maybe, if Outsourced becomes more so it will provide us with a better vocabulary for making sense of these troubled times.

Kathy M. Newman

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4 Responses to Playing Indian: What Outsourced Says About the American Economy

  1. Ivana Krajcinovic says:

    Newman is right to note that Outsourced is provoking sorely needed discussion about the globalization of the workplace. What strikes me about this show is how relaxed all the workers are. Numerous studies cite high levels of stress among call center workers due to things like excessive surveillance by supervisors, constant monitoring of aggressive production goals and lots of overtime. Call centers may very well turn out to be the sweatshops of the 21st century. Hopefully Outsourced will start showing the strain of selling cheese heads 12 hours a day with someone constantly looking over your shoulder. Then I’ll sit back and wait for the episode where they organize.

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  2. Mythili Pavich says:

    John Jeffcoat’s film, “Outsourced” is good, funny, and the characters are not caricatures and are pretty convincing. I can’t say the same about the sitcom. Jeffcoat’s choice to use a company that sells novelty products was brilliant. It allows for cross-cultural confusions, humor, and is also a critique on the kind of products we consume. The television show doesn’t do anything new. Anyone who is aware of the outsourced industry recognizes that the sitcom (produced four years after the film) is more than a tad dated. Call centers have been around for over a decade, so while what we see might represent how these centers functioned in the early years, this isn’t the environment today. The show’s producers are lazy and are doing nothing more than piggybacking on the film.
    The biggest differences between sitcoms and films is that in the latter, protagonists are not uni dimensional and they evolve/transform. On the other hand, sitcoms thrive on flat characters, and the shows are popular because you love the characters as they are (example: characters in “Office”) and not because you expect them to “find themselves.” If the character of Todd does reach that point of recognition as he did in the film, the sitcom is over.
    Lets not conflate satire with humor. In satires, the vices and shortcomings of the lead characters serve the purpose of providing social commentary, and they don’t change. With the exception of the characterization of the three Americans what comment do you think the sitcom makes with its Indian characters? The show will go on as long its audience continues to find the stereotypical representations of Americans and Indians funny.
    With regard to the comment that the sitcom is providing acting opportunities for Americans of East Indian origin, it is ridiculous that shows need to be set in the country of immigrants for Americans to get a break in Hollywood or television. What is unfortunate is that this pattern does exist but only for particular ethnic populations.
    Yes, call centers do provide job opportunities like any other industry. Overlooked here, is that these centers operate on U.S. timezones, so, people work graveyard shifts. Do we want to have a conversation about the health problems that arise because of these shifts?
    Women working in India is also not a recent phenomenon. Many women opted to take call center jobs only after companies provided transport, because most of these centers are located in the outskirts of the city.
    If the show does generate a discussion about outsourcing, I hope that Euro-Americans who complain that their jobs have been “taken away” by non-western workers remember a basic fact – American companies chose to take their jobs to a different shore.

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  3. Gene says:

    While working in Vietnam the local staff used to complain that the western managers were paid more then they— often 10x what they were getting — for what seemed like the same work. Of course they were getting 5-10x the pay of Vietnamese who were working for local companies in the same position.

    I assured them that as soon as senior management thought that the local staff were trained to an adequate skill level, the westerners would all be fired and they would have our jobs, but at the same pay they currently enjoyed, not the western salaries to which they aspired. And so it was.

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  4. Kristy McCue says:

    First, let me say that I have never watched this show and in fact had never even heard of it before this article. I currently work in Management in a call center that thankfully does not outsource. We have had many opportunities and frankly the pricing can be enticing. I am pleased and proud that our company has made the decision that price is not everything. That being said, I have zero faith in Hollywood’s ability to meaning material to their viewers about anything, let alone something that has negatively affected so many in this country. Even if that were the intent, why couch it in a sitcom? And I certainly have no expectation that Hollywood can produce any positive change in the economy or in the lives of Americans. I would be much happier if our elected representatives were having meaningful discussion about this than seeing Hollywood laughter writers try to make us laugh our way into apathy about it. I do appreciate your article about it. In this case; however, perhaps you give Hollywood more credit than is due.

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