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.

Friday, May 06, 2011

India-US Relationship Parallels with Angsty College Non-Romances

I have been amused at the self-righteous outrage in the Indian media over the US supposedly "refraining from drawing a parallel between 9/11 and 26/11". So what did we expect? That the US will say - "yes, yes, you absolutely have the right to go after LeT guys in Pakistan. In fact, allow us to do that for you! How many navy SEALs would you like?"

On one hand, the Indian government, most of the Indian media, and a large chuck of the laregly-lefty intellectual class want India to maintain an arm's length distance from the US. They cheer and support steps like snubbing US firms in the $10bn fighter jet deal. They want us to be pro-Iran. They find nothing wrong with India's protectionist measures against the US.

Which is fine. Not something I agree with, but these positions, stressing independence from the US, are fair ones to take.

But on the other hand, they also want the US to go out of its way in supporting India. They want explicit blessings for our "hot pursuit" dreams (And dreams is what they are. Are we really capable of taking out anyone inside Pakistan? Get real!"). They want the US to increase the number of H1B visas and are opposed to hikes in visa fees. They want the US to carry us into the UN Security Council and execute the nuclear deal according to our wishes.

India's general attitude towards the US reminds me of a species of girls that are all too common in colleges in India and among Indian grad students in the US - the "chaste good friend" species.

You all know the "chaste good friend"! She is very friendly with a couple of guys in college. She proudly says "I find guys easier to be friends with than girls". These guys will fix her ailing laptop, give her rides to class or for some work, help her with her homework, do her share in a group project, and generally be her unofficial handymen. They do all this because they generally have the hots for her.

But remember, she is "chaste"! So when one such guy's feelings come out in the open, she either "thinks of you only as a friend" or "hasn't thought about him THAT way" or "feels this is the time for her to focus on her studies/career" or "doesn't think her parents, whom she respects too much would approve". But but but, "your friendship still means a lot to her, we should stay friends". So the guy continues to be her handyman/driver because they are such good friends! And of course, he is optimistic that some day, she will upgrade their friendship.

That is India's general attitude towards the US. India wants the US to go out of its way because "we are such good friends". But India doesn't want to go that extra mile (or "put out" if you will), because it doesn't think of the US "that" way.

The thing is, America is not a socially awkward grad student with limited prospects. If India won't "put out", America isn't giving India a ride anywhere. America has other options, several girls who will put out. Heck, they even have a dysfunctional relationship with this superhot but schizophrenic chick that they can just visit late at night and do anything they wish, as long as they keep paying for her meals on dates. They don't need to keep carrying the water for India hoping that one night, India might invite them up for a cup of chai.

So Indian media, the next time you feel like outraging about the US not exhorting India to attack Pakistan or raising visa fees or suchlike, remember the "chaste good friend". And calm down.