TV vs. Movie: Outsourced

As of late, I’ve been finding myself gravitating toward more TV and less movies.  It’s usually a time issue; having two-hour blocks of time was no problem when I was single, but now that I’ve got a pregnant wife and two bouncing toddlers, it’s a miracle to get two consecutive hours to do anything non-poop related.  So I’ve been on a search for quality sitcoms to enjoy, especially ones I missed because we don’t watch cable.  A few searches brought me around to the cancelled show Outsourced, which ran for just one season on NBC.  I learned from there that the show was based on a movie of the same name, and decided to watch both for a compare-and-contrast.

Why not turn that into an article, I asked myself.  Good idea, I told myself.  Is it bad I do so much inner monologuing, I wondered to myself.  Probably, I said to myself.

Outsourced [the movie]

Getting my wife to watch Outsourced with me was as easy as saying the words “romantic comedy.”  As far as I knew, that’s what it was — the movie cover and description certainly set it up as such.  Yet we were an hour into it with nary a longing glance between any two characters, and my wife turned to me and said, “You lied!  Go get me ice cream.”  Such is the fate of a liar.

Actually, Outsourced is much more of a fish-out-of-water dramedy with a light romantic subplot tacked on toward the end of the film.  It chronicles the journey of Todd (Josh Hamilton), an up-and-coming manager at a novelty company who discovers that his entire department and job has been outsourced to India.  He’s asked to go over there to train his replacement and the new crew, and given the flimsy promise of a new job in the company if he does so.  So before the credits start rolling, Todd is in a very foreign land wondering what the heck he did wrong in his life to get here.

The focus on India was one of the primary reasons I wanted to watch the movie and show, since it’s a country that I’m only lightly familiar with.  By having Todd assume the role of an audience surrogate, we can identify and sympathize with his frustration at being plunked into an environment in which he knows very little.  The people, the customs, the tenuous hold on modern conveniences are all a shock to him, with the only thing in common being the language (and only that sometimes).  Todd takes a pretty predictable journey from wide-eyed culture shock to dismay to a growing love and appreciation for this new locale, but it’s still somewhat enjoyable.

The key story is with Todd’s call center, which is barely a step up from a mud shack at the beginning of the film and lacks such elements like “four walls” and “lack of cows.”  He finds that he has to adapt his management techniques to these people and its culture, all while trying to teach them about America through the lens of novelty items.  One of his employees, a lovely and vivacious lady named Asha, shows promise as both a worker and a romantic partner — but she’s engaged and his time with the call center has a definite end date.

Hamilton is pretty laid back as a lead character, which keeps him from being the stereotypical rude American tromping on other cultures, but also keeps him from being too interesting overall.  He doesn’t get any good lines or hits any strong comedic notes, so don’t expect to laugh at this film so much as smile gently at it and then forget it an hour later.

Outsourced did quite well for itself in the award circuits in 2006-08, but was weakly promoted by the studio and didn’t get much press worldwide.  However, I guess the premise was interesting enough to spark a television show, which brings us to…

Outsourced [the show]

In 2010, NBC aired a remake of Outsourced as a single-camera, non-laugh track sitcom starring Ben Rappaport as Todd.  The series takes the basic idea — Todd is a call center manager who finds his department outsourced to India and he’s asked to go there to lead the new crew — but makes a few changes for the longer-term nature of the show.  For one thing, his assistant manager in the movie is a well-meaning Indian who develops nicely, but in the show it’s a conniving, ambitious second-in-command who desperately wants Todd out of the picture so he can take over.  Another change is putting the call center in the middle of Mumbai, which the show’s set designers recreated with a street that loops around the main building.

There’s still the will-they-or-won’t-they potential romance of Todd and Asha (which isn’t resolved before the series ended), but it’s complicated by the addition of Australian call center manager Tonya.  Todd also makes friends with another American call center manager, Charlie (Diedrich Bader), who steals the show as a shifty hunter who’s as creepy with the ladies as he’s intense with life.

I’d say probably the biggest difference between the movie and show is that the show places a much stronger emphasis on Todd’s call center crew.  In addition to Asha, there’s suave Manmeet, nerdy Gupta, and ultra-meek Madhuri (as well as several other minor characters).  Many episodes revolve around Todd learning about some aspect of Indian culture from them while they learn about American culture.  Some of the plots are directly ripped from moments in the movie, but most of it is new stuff.

So let’s get to the biggest controversy and criticism of the show (and to a lesser extent, the movie): claims of racism.  It’s a charge that I don’t think quite applies, although I can see elements that are certainly off-balance in this area.  Basically, Todd is a little too good and too quick to adapt to India, often mocking it while the show asks us to like him as the lead character.  Indian gods are desecrated for laughs, and there are several wince-worthy moments where an element of life over there is essentially pointed at with the subtext of “Isn’t this weird?  Isn’t it wacky?  Aren’t they goobers?  Thank God they have an American to show them the way!”

What I think the show needed to find was balance between the two cultures that brought out the inherent humor of culture clashes without mocking either side.  However, one season just wasn’t enough to do this, and a couple episodes languish because of it.  On the other hand, I don’t think it’s through-and-through awful, especially because I ended up learning a lot about India and was prompted to do some research on my own because of it.

In terms of entertainment, it’s actually a good series.  Not one of my top ten, but it’s certainly rewatchable, which is more than I can say for the movie.  There’s several really funny moments, such as when Todd introduces a singing fish plaque to the office breakroom or when a paintball war gets out of control, and the character of Gupta is so offbeat that he feels more like a real person than anyone else here.

So what comes out on top?  The movie mostly avoids the controversy of the show, but isn’t a strong enough story on its own to make much of an impact either way.  The series is a lighthearted ensemble comedy that might stumble from time to time, still pumped out the laughs, had good stories, and even concluded on a nice note.

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