Thursday, October 14, 2010

"'Outsourced' - An Appealing New Comedy (That Probably Won't Last)"

This is not a review. No nuts and bolts deconstruction of a new comedy series, intricately chronicling its strengths and weaknesses. As far as handicapping its commercial potential, I’m a fan of Outsourced – I’ve watched its first three airings. But I have a feeling it’s not going to last.

Even though I was a professional sitcom writer for quite a while, when I watch a new comedy series, I do not respond to it as a professional. Instead, I evaluate it with my fingertips. I react to it with my pores, or maybe it’s my cells, it’s one of those two. And my final determination – up or down – is based almost exclusively on the vibration the show sends out, and how it generally makes me feel.

Why do I do it that way? I don’t know. Maybe because, having been involved in it for so long, I’m aware that all TV comedies are manufactured contrivances, and I don’t expect them not to be.

This one’s clever, this one’s sex infused, this one’s touchy-feely, with an adequate injection of comedy – a spoonful of laughter makes the saccharine go down. This one’s “My job is killing me.” This one’s “My family’s making me crazy.” This one’s “I can’t get a date.” This one’s the “Battle of the Sexes.”

Every show is about something, even Seinfeld, though it’s reputed not to have been. In the end, what that “something” is does not really matter.

Do I need it to make me laugh? Sure, I suppose. But it depends on how they do it, and the degree that I’m aware of their effort. As a rule, the harder a show tries to make me laugh, the less they succeed in doing so. I watch those shows and feel tired at the end. It’s like watching people carrying a piano. I just want to say, “Will you put it down already? You’re exhausting me.”

Going in, Outsourced has some built-in problems attracting an audience. The cast is unfamiliar – no big-name stars to draw people in. The majority of the cast is of an ethnicity not associated with mainstream America. The arena – where the show takes place, and the job they do there – is unusual. And then, there’s the title.

As a title, Outsourced in no way rivals the celebratory aura of Cheers. Not every show title needs to evoke glasses clinking in a place where everybody knows your name. But, in the current climate especially, Outsourced is a tough title to get people revved up about.

“Hey, honey, let’s sit down as a family and watch a show that reminds us that I don’t have a job anymore.”

That could be a deal breaker right there.

Here’s Outsourced’s concept: A man is given the choice between losing his job, or relocating to India to manage a “call center”, where local employees take orders from American customers for goofy novelty items, like talking teddy bears and fake vomit.

“Fish out of water.” Done that, and done that. A tenderfoot emigrates to the Old West – Best of the West. A liberal journalist marries a Marine – Major Dad. There’s nothing new about this. Except, this time, it’s India.

I watched the Outsourced pilot and I liked how it felt. It wasn’t pushing too hard. It wasn’t forcing the issue. It didn’t feel that real. That bothered me a little. Especially because I’ve had personal experience with such “call centers.”

I once wrote about how a lovely woman named Rita from Bangalore was extremely helpful solving my AOL internet problem. Almost the first thing I asked after she finished helping me was, “What time is it there?”

It turns out the time difference between Bangalore and Los Angeles is twelve-and-a-half hours. Even if was Bangalore-New York, the difference is nine hours, which realistically requires Outsourced’s employees to regularly work through the night. As the lovely Rita succinctly put it: “I have to be up when you’re up.”

Outsourced ignores the time difference. They didn’t have to. In Taxi, it was clear the drivers worked all night, and our awareness of that informed the tone of the entire series. Working “opposite to normal” hours, Taxi’s characters were a little bit off-kilter.

That’s all that bothered me – ignoring the time difference. On the other hand, I was intrigued by the new locale. I liked the unfamiliar, Indian faces, and wardrobe. I liked the “Shy Girl.” She was beautiful, and, other than, perhaps, Georgette on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I recall no other time when shyness was a character’s dominant attribute. And it fits, because, unlike in America where shyness requires therapy, here, it’s a natural consequence of a female’s position in the culture.

In the second episode, the “Shy Girl” introduces us to the indigenous “Head Bobble”, a gesture apparently adopted by Indians, when being politely evasive. I never heard of that before, it caught me totally off-guard. I also enjoyed watching her demonstrate the gesture. Though intended to reflect neither agreement nor disagreement, the move itself was a little sexy.

Overall, I enjoyed the freshness of the arena, people who looked differently than people I am used to seeing in sitcoms behaving in ways that appeared to be more Indian than American. I was intrigued by the uniqueness.

This part’s a little weird, and I can’t explain it. I just know that it’s true. Even though the creator of a series rarely writes every word of every script, somehow – and as I said I can’t explain it – the series ends up permeated by the touch, taste and sensibility of that particular writer.

It’s like this indescribable sense that you get. You watch – or at least I watch – a show, and I subconsciously pick up this vibe: The person behind this show is thoughtful. The person behind this show is mean. The person behind this show is a “sitcom war” veteran, hardened by battles he can never win. The person behind this show is playful and generous and genuinely eager to please.

This could be crazy talk. But somehow, in the spaces between the jokes and tomfoolery, you just pick something up.

There’s an infusing sweetness surrounding Outsourced that I can only attribute to the people behind the show. No cheap shots. No one’s thrown under a bus for a laugh. The characters struggle but they don’t whine, or act overly aggressive. That goes for the writing style as well. They don’t push the comedy in your face.

It’s entirely appropriate for a sitcom based is India to be presented this way. It’s not “New Yorkers fighting over a cab” comedy. It’s more yoga comedy. Unforced and not intense. It leaves room to relax and breathe. The people who made the show up must, at least to some extent, be like that themselves. Otherwise, they’d be unable to pull it off.

I like Outsourced, and though I don’t know them, I feel a kinship with the people behind it.

That’s why I hope it succeeds.


Rory Wohl said...

Earl, you and Ken Levine have some history, are both Emmy award-winning writers, both have worked on some of the seminal shows in American television and are generally who I turn to to tell me what to like on TV.

Now, I have a problem. Ken's not crazy about Outsourced while you generally liked it.

How am I supposed to reconcile these differing opinions? Could the two of you reach some middle ground? Don't make me decide for myself!

Neal said...

I read both those posts too Rory, and I thought it was interesting how, in terms of structure and comedy, they said essentially the same thing, but Ken's feeling was he didn't like it so found the humour was weak, but Earl did, so it was 'gentle'.

Probably says something about how you react to comedy if you're predisposed to liking the vehicle delivering it.

I can't get the show where I am, so I'm going to assume they're both right.

sophomorecritic said...

I am nowhere near as famous or widely read either Earl or Ken but I am an Outsourced fan and have grown to like it more with each episode.

I chose to respond to the concerns of you, Earl, and Ken in my latest blog entry

Outsource Call Center said...

Interesting post! I really enjoyed reading it. Outsourcing the lead process increases the company’s sales and revenues while cost is reduced. Thanks for sharing. Looking forward for your next post.