Vantage point

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Why Outsourced Failed

In an expected move, NBC has canceled Outsourced, thus ending the experiment with a sitcom based in India. The show debuted at 9:30 on Thursday nights, which means it got the strongest lead-in* an NBC sitcom could get - The Office. The early ratings were decent, and the show got picked up for an entire season. However, after a promising start in ratings, the viewership declined, and by the end of the season, it was obvious that the show wouldn't survive. Let's see why Outsourced failed.

Like all Indians, I tuned in to watch the early episodes, and like most Indians, I was underwhelmed. Despite the heavy dose of cliches (jokes about cows, traffic, arranged marriage, diarrhea, pronouncing Manmeet as man-Meat), I didn't really find the show offensive like several commentators did. I just found it lazy. This was an opinion shared by my non-Indian friends as well.

As an Indian, I also found it a bit jarring that all the Indian characters on the show, played by Indian immigrants from UK or US, had horrible accents. Except for Rizwan Manji's Rajiv Gidwani, all other actors sounded like poor imitations of Apu from The Simpsons. The worst by far was Rebecca Hazlewood, who played Asha. After a few episodes, she seemed to have stopped even trying to sound Indian, and everything she said was in a mild British accent. But these are minor points. The biggest problem was writing.

After a few episodes, I still continued to watch the show (mainly because it aired between two shows I usually watch). And I was pleased to see that the show improved. The improvement wasn't vast, but the jokes were at least going beyond the cliches. Some of the characters, especially Rajiv and Charlie, were actually starting to seem funny. I know others like Gupta, but I always hated that character. Very badly written and clumsily portrayed, I thought.

As the season went on, the show became watchable. Not something you would heartily recommend to your friends, but not something you'd necessarily hate either. The scope of jokes and humorous situations widened, and in fact trained guns more on the white folks than the Indians. The India-centric jokes were also funnier and not cliched - like the huge line of people (including an actual grandma) applying for a call center job, the scenes involving haggling with shopkeepers, and so on.

Throughout Fall, ratings stayed decent. Then came the Christmas break. And when the Spring schedule started, NBC pushed Outsourced to 1030 PM, giving the 9:30 slot instead to Parks & Recreation's 2nd season. Personally, I welcomed the decision. I think Parks&Rec is one of the best comedies on TV right now, light years ahead of Outsourced or any other comedy on network TV. But this demotion meant that Outsourced would get a smaller captive audience to begin with.

And that's when ratings faltered. It meant that the show didn't have enough dedicated fans who would tune in to watch it no matter when it was aired. Its respectable Fall ratings had more to do with The Office lead-in than any inherent fan base.

Through the spring, the episodes were decent. I didn't watch most of them when they aired, but caught it later on Hulu or ONDemand. And it's losing viewers like me that eventually spelled doom for Outsourced.

Even though I thought the show improved vastly compared to its first 3 episodes, I found nothing in the show that really grabbed me. The plots for the most part were just rehashed from standard sitcom fare - misunderstandings, silly pranks, will-they-wont-they romance, and so on. There isn't a single episode that stands out as really good.

But the biggest problem with the show, that I think made its cancellation inevitable - the lukewarm lead character/actor. Todd Dempsy, the American executive forced to go to India just did not strike a chord with me or anyone else. He was just a unidimensional bemused/amused smiler who didn't really speak to the audience. Ask any Outsourced viewer who their favorite character is, and all of them will say Gupta or Manmeet or Charlie or Madhuri. I don't think anyone would say Todd. Ben Rappaport didn't do a great job portraying him either. I don't think he had the range. In contrast, the Todd from the movie from which the sitcom was spun off was portrayed very well by Josh Hamilton.

Most sitcoms, especially on NBC, need the lead character to do most of the heavy lifting at least in the first season. 30Rock would've been nowhere without Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin. Parks&Rec was carried by Amy Poehler in the first season, as was The Office by Steve Carell. And even Community, with a much stronger ensemble cast, needed Joel McHale's Jeff Winger to resonate with the audience first. With Outsourced, Todd had nothing for you. I cannot think of a single hilarious scene carried by Rappaport, although i can think of many with Manji and Bader.

Another problem was, I don't think the creators or writers knew exactly what they were setting out to create. In marketing lingo, the positioning of Outsourced was very muddled. Was it going to be a fairly formulaic, easy-to-laugh-at, simple sitcom with fairly predictable plots and arcs, but in a different setting (e.g., The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men)? In which case, it would get panned by reviewers but have a large, mostly "simple" audience who prefer their sitcoms straightforward. Or was it going to be an intelligent and bold show, subversive, charting new territory hoping to find a niche but loyal audience (e.g., Community, Parks&Rec, Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia)? In which case its ratings would never go through the roof, but good reviews and a loyal following from the coveted educated demographic would keep it on air.

Outsourced fell somewhere between the two. It was heavy on formula for sure. But it also used things from Indian culture as the premise, which made the LCD audience think too much. It had some slapstick humor, but did not go all the way with it. It introduced some complex humor based on Indian realities, but did not jump into it either. It ended up being neither here nor there. So as the season came to a close, it didn't have the masses-who-love-easy-laughs on its side. And it didn't have the reviewers or the niche intelligent audience base on its side.

And it was canceled. Not because the premise was bad. But because the execution was not up to par.

* - Lead-in is an advantage a show gets from TV viewers' inertia. Research shows that more than half the viewers don't switch the channel after a show. So if a new show airs after a very popular show, it gets a larger captive audience to start with.