Rizwan Manji Outsourced

It’s been eight years since “Outsourced,” the NBC comedy set in India, made its debut.

When “Outsourced” first premiered on Sept. 23, 2010, it instantly made history because it was the first (and so far only) primetime comedy to have a primarily South Asian American cast. For this week’s Throwback Thursday, we’re revisiting the show and it’s impact, both positive and negative, on South Asian representation.

The half-hour comedy starred Ben Rappaport as Todd Dempsey, an employee of an American novelty company who is the only employee to get sent to India to manage a call center after all of his co-workers are let go. His new workplace is full of Indian folks, each more comical than the next. There was Rizwan Manji‘s shrewd assistant manager Rajiv Gidwani, Sacha Dhawan’s eager-to-please Manmeet, and Parvesh Cheena‘s Gupta, who always demanded to be the center of attention.

“Outsourced” focused as much on Todd adjusting to India — a culture he knows nothing about — as it did on the bevy of characters he met. For an American audience, Todd was their eyes and ears into this new world. For the South-American audience, however, the locals he worked with ended up seeming like caricatures instead of real people.

The show was met with mostly poor reviews, with critics claiming it propelled Indian stereotypes. Deadline asked if the show was being funny or offensive. Sometimes, “Outsourced” blurred those lines. In an attempt to be genuinely funny, the jokes often ended up being highly predictable and about the usual topics. (Those topics being: Cows! Spicy food! Stinky smells! Arranged marriages!).

Yet in the years since its debut, “Outsourced” remains the only television comedy with a deep focus on Indian characters. The good news is that we’ve had a surge in representation recently, especially with South Asians in comedy. Mindy Kaling, Hannah Simone, Kumail Nanjiani, Danny Pudi, Sarayu Blue, Hasan Minhaj, Hari Kondabolu have paved the way either as leads of their own shows or by playing non-conforming supporting roles or by hosting their own talk shows!

But “Outsourced” premiered in 2010 when none of the aforementioned stars had a strong on-screen presence. There was no “The Mindy Project” or “Master of None.” Kaling wrote for and starred in “The Office,” Aziz Ansari in “Parks and Recreation,” and Pudi in “Community.” It’s important to note that these three were also NBC comedies. I point this out because on the surface, “Outsourced” is thematically a workplace comedy that can be compared to former two.

The character of Rajiv Gidwani can be compared to Dwight Schrute or Ron Swanson, Gupta to Ryan Howard or Tom Haverford. Anisha Nagarajan’s shy Madhuri on “Outsourced” can be a personality match for Erin Hannon. But like I said, these comparisons are only on the surface.

A workplace comedy like “Outsourced” had a unique opportunity to showcase the Indian society as a modern, realistic one. Instead, almost every character had the typical accent most Americans think Indians have. I understand the need to adhere to that, to prove with every dialogue spoken that we’re in India, but there’s a way to do it without having the actors fake an accent.

In my interview with Manji, who was outstanding in his performance as Rajiv Gidwani despite all the connotations attached, he said he believed “Outsourced” got more backlash than it deserved. “It was the first of its kind so there were definitely mistakes that happened and learning curves attached. There were way too many jokes about Indian food about making white people’s stomach hurt but in the process of learning, it would’ve corrected itself,” he told me.

It didn’t get a chance to do just that. NBC cancelled the comedy after one season, with the series finale airing in May 2011. In it’s own way and despite a short run, “Outsourced” certainly left an impact in the history of South Asian representation on American TV.

It provided an opportunity for stars like Manji, Cheena, and Dhawan to widen their net. Manji has gone on to star in fan-favorite shows like “The Magicians” and “Schitt’s Creek,” Cheena recurs on critical darling “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” and Dhawan was nominated for a BAFTA award for his performance in “The Boy with the Topknot.”

In fact, “Outsourced” saw a stream of desi faces like Manish Dayal and Sarayu Blue, who now lead their own TV shows in “The Resident” and “I Feel Bad,” respectively. The show blessed us with Manji and Cheena’s great duo, both of whom are certainly gifted comedians, but even that wasn’t enough.

There were some good moments. In an episode focused on Diwali, the entire office tries to sum up what the festival means to Todd, who is embarrassingly clueless. It’s not groundbreaking or anything but the bar isn’t really set high so we’ll take what we can get.

Despite this, the show wasn’t ever going to develop fully even if it lucked into a second season, not unless they got more South Asians in the writers room. Throughout its entire first season run, “Outsourced” credited only a few writers of South Asian descent with one episode each — Vera Santamaria, Amit Bhalla, Geetika Lizardi, and Luvh Rakhe.

If we demand good, accurate representation on-screen, it can only be delivered by equally good and accurate representation off-screen. To write a person of color well, they need to have someone who understands their background and culture. “Outsourced” didn’t give its talented cast of South Asians that privilege.

In the years since its end, “Outsourced” is reflected upon often when we dwell on the rise of South Asian representation. We now have more stars, more writers, more directors, more musicians in the industry who are breaking norms and barriers with their work, including some of the “Outsourced” cast and crew itself. We’ve surpassed the need for an “Outsourced” but still sorely lack a show that focuses as much on South Asian characters. Let’s hope the next one, if there ever is, does a better job.

Until then, let’s fondly remember “Outsourced” as that one ex who you always hoped would improve but just never did.

You can watch all episodes of “Outsourced” on NBC.com.

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