Will Americans laugh at a sitcom about outsourcing their jobs to India? With our country reeling from the deepest recession and the largest job losses in decades? NBC certainly thinks so. The network just bet big on the premise by picking up the provocatively titled Outsourced as its first new primetime comedy series order for next season. By tackling such a touchy subject, NBC is guaranteed free publicity because of the inevitable controversy over its new comedy series. And that may distinguish it in next fall’s cluttered landscape where more than 90% of new shows fail.
According to NBC’s official description, the set-in-India workplace series “centers on the all-American company Mid America Novelties whose call center has suddenly been outsourced to India and a manager, played by Ben Rappaport, is being transferred to India to run the operation.” Supposedly, the socio-economic aspects of exporting American jobs to India are not expected to be front and center story-wise. Instead, the series is billed as “the Midwest meets the exotic East in a hilarious culture clash”. The sitcom is based on the 2006 romantic comedy by the same name which won the best film award at the 2007 Seattle International Film Festival.
In the movie, a Seattle retail manager Todd Anderson, is told to travel to Gharapuri to train his replacement. Once there, he encounters a bunker-like call center filled with willing novices who are supposed to learn how to sound American. (They mispronounce his name “Toad”.) “Todd just lost his job. Now he has to find his life… Call centre chaos… What really happens at the other end of the line!” were some of the movie tag lines. Todd finds that he must learn about the Indian culture before he can even think of Americanizing his subordinates with help from the new assistant manager who becomes his love interest.
Though the timing of the TV series seems intentional, NBC first developed Outsourced more then 2 years earlier. That series pilot was initially scripted by Seattleites John Jeffcoat (director/co-writer of the film) and George Wing (co-writer). It was brought back almost by accident by TV/film director Ken Kwapis (The Office, He’s Just Not That Into You, License To Wed), who developed that project in its first incarnation. This development season, NBC approached him to helm another pilot, but he urged the execs to revisit Outsourced instead.
This season’s pilot was given a rewrite by LA-based scribe Robert Borden,and Jeffcoat and Wing told the Seattle Times a few days ago that a credit arbitration is currently ongoing. Though NBC’s announcement said only Borden and Kwapis are getting EP credit and the movie’s writers have no producing credit, the pair told the local media they’ll be consulting producers for the new series and are negotiating writing and/or directing involvement on the first season. “George and I always felt that the show shouldn’t be a carbon copy of the movie,” Jeffcoat told the Seattle Times. “There are a lot of changes. The comedy is definitely broader than in the movie, so that’s going to be interesting to see how people respond to it.”
Recession-themed comedies were popular last pilot season and one, ABC’s Hank starring Kelsey Grammer as a Wall Street executive losing his job, made it onto the air — but then lasted only a handful episodes. In that case, it’s safe to say the demise came because the show wasn’t good, but the recession overtones might have been a contributing factor. This year, NBC has another hot comedy pilot that touches upon the economic downturn, This Little Piggy, about adult siblings moving in with their older brother after falling on hard times. But both Hank and Piggy reflect the recession’s impact on American families, while Outsourced goes to the heart of a sensitive economic and social issue. Normally, social issues resonate deeper with people in the more conservative middle and southern regions of the country. But NBC’s upscale workplace comedies which Outsourced will join, like 30 Rock and The Office, tend to draw most from the more liberal coasts.
But outsourcing is actually a subject that touches a nerve even in largely liberal and open-minded Hollywood. Sony Pictures Entertainment recently became the latest studio to ship most of its IT operations to India, resulting in mass layoffs. And the making of subtitles for American DVDs has now been largely outsourced to India as well. On the other hand, each broadcast network still has to depend on American audiences to tune into its TV shows for successful ratings. Because, at least for now, those viewers can’t be outsourced.