Monday, October 04, 2010
My take on OUTSOURCED
OUTSOURCED has received a lot of bad reviews. Crass. One-dimensional. Stereotypical. TV critics have hated it. I didn’t. I sure didn’t like it but I’ve seen worse (this year even). So here’s my review coming at it from a writer’s perspective (not that anyone asked). And hopefully it will be taken as constructive.
Disclaimer: I was not in on the development process nor do I know any of the writers. So when I point out what I believe are flaws I don’t know who’s to blame. Maybe some of the points I make the writers are saying, “Yes! We told NBC the same thing!” Or the same subject matter in the hands of different writers would produce a far better product. I dunno.
First off, what is this show REALLY about? Yes, the premise is simple: American gets assigned to run a boiler room in Mumbai. Fish out of water. Culture class. But this show explores that only on a very surface level. Sacred cow jokes. If you’re going to do a show about two very diverse cultures colliding there is great comedy to be found in the reality of the situation. There is also conflict and genuine emotion.
The premise itself is so tired that it seems you have to work extra hard to make it fresh. OUTSOURCED has that potential. There’s never been a U.S. sitcom set in India. You have a goldmine of possibilities. Last year in HANK when they put the rich erudite Kelsey Grammer in the ‘burbs there wasn’t a joke you could do that hasn’t already been done on the twelve previous shows just like it. OUTSOURCED has the chance to be unique. Seize it.
The characters in OUTSOURCED all work for a company that takes orders for goofy novelty items. And once people call they try to sell them additional items like fake vomit. That's their goal, to turn orders into larger orders. And callers resent them because they’re Indian. Kind of a stretch. Made up company with trumped up goals.
What Americans resent is calling a local country and then being routed to the other side of the planet where the person they're talking to has no frame of reference for what you want. My daughter Annie suggested, what if they were On-Star operators? They're dealing with streets and towns and unpronounceable names and everything is a struggle. They're asked to make restaurant recommendations, give short-cuts, etc. And the drivers using this service are usually stressed out or crazed already. Makes more sense than people order whoopie cushions and the company makes its money by convincing them to also purchase joy buzzers.
So what's it like for the poor Indian operator when he's resented for absolutely no fault of his own? He's just a perfectly nice person. How does that mess with his mind? How does that play havoc with his confidence? How does that translate when he gets off work? How does it effect his relationships? How does that character react? Does he keep it inside and blow up later? Does he have a meltdown on the phone? What is the burn out rate of these people? And when people are fried they often react in irrational but hilarious ways.
On the one hand you’re asking these Indian employees to embrace U.S. culture when folks from the U.S. treat them poorly. So instead of an Indian girl who’s s on-the-nose super shy, what about one who has always been fascinated by America but now doesn’t know what to think? Are we this great country or a land full of shitheads? And how much comic mileage can you get out of shyness? What are you going to do with her week eight?
This may seem like a trivial note but the set is wrong. It looks completely bogus. We’ve seen SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. We know what one of these places really looks like. Check out real pictures of MASH units and compare them to the sets on the show. It may not seem important but subliminally it is. I believe the set of Dunder Mifflin is exactly what one of those office set-ups look like. Why do a workplace comedy and not make it look right? Especially when the audience knows the difference? And why make the set generic? You’re in a unique setting. Take advantage of that.
Ben Rappaport, as the American in charge is very likeable but has nothing to play. What makes him funny? He’s your lead for Cristsakes! He doesn’t seem to really be upset that he’s there. The workers seem okay with him. He can’t get beef. That’s his big issue. And even that is bogus because one of the characters says there are hotels that do serve beef. It sure helps if there’s some conflict. It sure helps if he really WANTS something.
What if he hates being there? What if he’s never been out of Kansas and it’s a complete culture shock? What if there’s something he desperately wants but it takes money and the best job available is here so he’s going to just gut it out? What if he’s trying to maintain a long-distance relationship? Or what if he’s still responsible for his elderly parents and has to manage their lives from 6,000 miles away? What if he’s allergic to curry? What if he’s vying for a vice-presidency job so he volunteers for this suicide mission in order to turn the place around and really impress the higher-ups? I dunno. Those are just off the top of my head. With some real thought maybe you could come up with something even better or fresher. But nice guy, not particularly funny, accepting his situation is not compelling and not giving you much to work with.
The first episode was a premise pilot so let’s look beyond that to week two. That’s the first glimpse into the kind of stories OUTSOURCED will be telling. (you can watch this episode on NBC.COM if you haven’t seen it and would like to although warning: spoiler alert.)
This was the story: Todd (Ben Rappaport) has to fire one of the employees because sales are down. First off, we’ve seen this story a thousand times. Second – it’s schmuck bait. We KNOW no one is ultimately going to get fired. Plus, we don’t know these characters well enough to even care. And if you didn't see the pilot you didn't know that sales were to come after taking orders. It appeared that this was a boiler room where these people called out. So that was confusing.
It starts with Todd dealing with some total over-the-top mugging Indian guy who I suppose is his co-manager or something. He’s just a cartoon and not very funny. Shameless mugging and zero threat to the employees. Why is he even there? The topic they discuss is BBQ food. Natch. Later, Todd ichats with his boss who does a ridiculous blue screen simulation of being on a rollercoaster. Why? Is this supposed to make him memorable? I mean, seriously, what the fuck was that about? Do you have to stretch that far to make the boss funny?
In between Todd does one-on-one employee reviews. That way he flat out tells us what each of these characters’ quirks are. There’s not a better, more artful way to establish their characters? How about through actions that inform us of who they are? And the scenes were not funny. A big subplot was Todd not understanding a head bobble gesture that one character has. Sorry but that’s pretty weenie. And it became a runner through the whole show. There was a minor complication involving a worker who thinks he’s being fired but is not. So at the end of the show he tells everyone off only to learn that he’ll still be working with them. He smiles sheepishly and says something like “Well, you’ll all be talking about me at lunch”. That’s it? That’s the big payoff?
The main story ends with Todd getting the guy who’s just hustling women on the phone to call and dump them all and along the way sell them ridiculous novelties. Huh? When a guy dumps you THAT’S when you’re most motivated to buy dribble glasses from him? Makes no sense. Not remotely real. Not particularly funny. Todd just stands around. Sales go up as a result. Super convenient. No one fired. Just the on-the-nose predictable way to tell a tired story.
As for the tone, it’s tepid. And here again, this could be the network terrified to be too politically incorrect, this could be a knee jerk reaction to research testing, but the stuff is mild. Or maybe this writing staff just doesn’t have the comic chops. Maybe these are the best jokes they can write.
Or maybe this was just a bad episode and next week’s will be hilarious as they try to find their groove. But again, the premise, the characters, and the show’s set-up work against them.
I ask the writers and producers to be tougher on yourselves. Discard stories you’ve seen before. Just throw them out. Do a show about an American being in India without a single beef joke. Do research and present situations we haven’t seen before. Find stories you couldn’t do on any other show. When you have a joke take five minutes and see if you can top it. And then take five minutes and top that. Take chances. Be outrageous once in a while. Be audacious.
Otherwise, what's the point? The studio could save lots of money and just outsource the writing.