Because of my aforementioned fondness for inflicting terrible things on myself, I watched a bunch of Outsourced so I could say dreadful things about it with authority in yesterday’s post about The Infidel. The show is, in fact, not good. It doesn’t do nearly enough to undermine the stereotypes it sets up as the basis of its humor. Rajiv is a tremendous creep in a way that totally undermines the fact that he’s right about Todd’s cultural imperialism. Charlie is the worst Ron Swanson knockoff ever, a veritable inverse of the Swanson pyramid of greatness. And Tonya has essentially no personality other than forwardness.
But even though all of those things would send me screaming for the hills or a cleansing dose of Deadwood, they’re not actually the thing that freaks me out most about this justly-canceled show. I’m, perhaps sort of cornily, invested in the idea that American culture can be great; that it can play a critically important role in showcasing the best of the America and exploring what it means when, as all too often happens, we abjectly fail to live up to it; and that there’s an audience for the good stuff (which can range from the conventional, well-executed, to the wildly experimental), even in an age of niche entertainment.
Outsourced is everything I’m pushing back against. It’s not just that the show is set in a call center where the employees sell the lowest of the low-brow artifacts of American culture, and the Americans they encounter on the phone tend to be frat boys and people who are excited by bird-feeders with deliberately stupid misspellings, although that doesn’t help. The bits of culture Todd ends up explaining to his workers are things like Cheesehead-dom. It’s not that rooting for the Packers is not a noble past-time, but there’s something really depressing about the prospect that the collected ephemera of a novelty catalogue is what passes for cultural diplomacy.
Then, there’s the function that Todd and Charlie play outside the office. Charlie’s socially offensive, awkward, and racist in an unintegrated way that suggests the writers just threw together a group of traits rather than trying to produce a coherent worldview. He harasses Indian women, offends his coworkers, and the only effort he makes to interact with Indians is when he plays laser tag with Manmeet and Gupta. When he recites America’s accomplishments, he throws in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue. Todd is marginally better at trying to learn about Indian culture, but he’s exporting things like knowledge of Hugh Hefner’s regular wardrobe, and falls for a new hire who drops Slinky references and makes “Smooth Operator” jokes. Jerry, Todd’s boss, gets Todd and Rajiv arrested for cow tipping, a joke that’s impressive in its cheapness and obviousness.
In other words, Outsourced is invested in the idea that we come together over the flimsiest, dopiest things in American popular culture, not the best. Maybe that’s true. Maybe the most popular things America produces are the most ridiculous. Maybe our export of David Hasselhoff to Germany is our legacy. But I kind of believe we do better than that. Even if we do produce a lot of junk along the way.