In 1994 when ABC premiered the first—and to date only—Asian American sitcom “All American Girl,” it was greeted hopefully by Asian Americans who weren’t Korean and with nit-picking disdain by those who were. The former group felt that while the show wasn’t perfect, it was a sign of progress that a major network would create a series with a predominantly Asian American cast and make them palatable to white audiences. The latter wanted it to be a documentary on Korean life and pointed to the erroneous ornaments at the dinner table and wrong-looking rice yet called the accent of Margaret Cho’s mom “racist” (wouldn’t an immigrant speak with one? Her Dad didn’t so wouldn’t that balance things out? Some called it “unrealistic.” Aye yi yi!).
In July when NBC invited groups of Asian Americans to see a pre-screening of the pilot of “Outsourced” (about Todd, a white American who goes to India to run a call center selling silly American novelties), IW Group’s Bill Imada brought four of his executives who were raised in the northern, southern, western, and eastern parts of India and they all liked the initial episode. So I thought this time, the reaction to the latest Asian comedy would be more welcomed by the community it depicted. Uh, until the reviews came in.
Salon.com’s Riddhi Shah, who grew up in India, complained that the accents were wrong. In addition, he wrote, “Don’t assume that all of India looks like a cheap Indian restaurant or a market from the Arabian nights. Mumbai is India’s financial capital. It has tall buildings, residential towers and wide roads like any other big city. Promise.”
Reacting to the inevitable “cows are sacred, we don’t eat meat” jokes, Shah recommended, “Buy an Indian cookbook. Count the number of recipes that list a non-vegetarian ingredient. Surprised? I thought you would be. No, Indians are not all vegetarians. Yes, we do eat a lot of meat. And we’re pretty darn good at cooking it.”
Referring to Manmeet, the handsome Indian worker who grew up believing he had to marry the first woman he went out with, Shah asserted, “Talk to an actual young call center worker in India. I think you’ll find that 20-somethings in a big Indian city are quite similar to their counterparts elsewhere in the world. They date, and sometimes, they even have sex before marriage (gasp!). They’re unlikely to think that America is ‘wonderful’ because they can relationship-hop endlessly without having to get married.”
Shah felt the writers got the caste system all wrong as well. “Ask the above men and women for their views on India’s ancient caste system. They will probably tell you that a person’s caste doesn’t affect his romantic dealings or workplace politics. If you followed Indian newspapers (which I strongly recommend you do), you’d find that caste is a problem in India’s rural hinterland. Most of urban India has gotten past it. Why, then, are you determined to insert ugly jokes about caste in a show that really has no place for it?”
Television Without Pity’s Mindy Monez called the show racist for making fun of Indian names like Manmeet and promoting the notion that Indian food gives you diarrhea. And as for the “A-team” call center pros who were able to sound like Midwesterners upon request: “Not only are Indians taking your jobs, America, they’re being trained as evil ‘grits’-pronouncing, job-stealing, robot super soldiers who can impersonate you at a moment’s notice! Be very afraid!” Oh please. If Indian employees could nail American accents that well, we wouldn’t yell at them when we can’t get through their thick accents. Get a life. It was just done for laughs.
Willa Paskin of New York Magazine complained about a scene where Todd “puts on a Green Bay Packers cheesehead and the staff starts to giggle. He reacts, all sweet condescension, ‘Let’s not make fun of each other’s head gear. You guys have some pretty crazy looking hats yourself…’ as the camera cuts to a hulking Sikh (ugh) who storms out of the room, provoking Todd to amend, ‘Mostly on the women though,’ as the camera cuts to a woman in a hijab. What is the joke here? That Indians wear funny hats? That Americans wear funny hats? That Americans and Indians are oblivious to the fact that their respective hats are funny to each other? As executed, the joke seems to be straining for the third, but it contains a fundamental, problematic imbalance: a cheese head is a ridiculous item. A hijab and a Sikh’s turban are not. There is no reciprocity in headgear here, whatever Todd may think. There is just an American being insensitive.”
Wrong again. Calm down. The point of the scene was Todd’s desperately trying to build camaraderie with his new employees and blows it by managing to insult both women and the sternest-looking guy in the room. End of story.
Other critics concluded the producers pulled their punches and the result was a sitcom that was too safe and not funny enough. Pfft! Given the criticism they get for trying to delve into differences between American and Indian culture, can you blame them?
All in all, I’m rather indifferent to this show. I’m one of those people who rolls his eyes every time he picks up the phone to call customer service for something that’s not working and realizes he has to suffer through someone who’s difficult to understand and who usually won’t be able to answer a simple yes or no question without giving me a long-winded response which still won’t answer it, requiring me to (groan) ask the question again.
Of course, as audiences relate to the individual Indian characters, they won’t think of Indian people as an amorphous blob taking over American jobs but may consider their backgrounds, family and dating life. So it’s progressive in potentially cooling off those of us already angry at how greedy corporations have farmed out labor to foreign countries because they care more about cutting costs than servicing us once they sell us products.
But would I care if NBC created a sitcom set in Japan? Only for the work it gave Asian American actors. Not so much for the subject matter. I feel the same way about “Outsourced.”
NBC told me their research showed Americans were open to a sitcom built around the touchy subject of Indian call centers—people who take away American jobs (they also said viewers wanted comedy at 10 p.m. but we all know how the “Jay Leno Show” ended up). “Outsourced” bowed to 7.4 million people—not bad—but fell 22% to 5.8 million last week. Given that NBC’s Thursday night comedies get by on 5 million viewers (“Community,” “Parks and Recreation”), this new series could be safe if it doesn’t drop off much more.
Headache Department: NBC’s high concept replacement for the “24” and “Lost” crowd, “The Event,” started out OK with 10.6 million viewers but lost a third of that audience by its third airing this past week. Not surprising given its annoying structure: The first two episodes began with some action-filled scene then flashed back 7 days then 13 months to show us how we got to this point. Then it went back to present time and went through the flashbacks again. It’s a device unconfident producers use when worried their audience won’t stay tuned with the slower scenes unless they throw them into the action right away (as it kept trying to attract a stronger audience, my favorite show at the time, “Alias,” did the same thing).
You feel like drawing graphs so you can remember where you were and where you left off. Even in this week’s episode, we started off with the hero hurriedly trying to help a bloodied, unconscious FBI agent. The scene barely lasted a minute before we flashed back to “two hours ago” which was where the story ended the previous week. Why not just pick it up there then eventually get to that initial scene? See above.
In any case, Ian Anthony Daniel, who’s half Japanese, plays CIA agent Lee. He’s investigating the prisoners who’ve been secretly locked up by the government in Alaska since they crash-landed there in 1944. The secret? They’re aliens from another planet who barely age even after 66 years. And Lee’s one of them.
Do My Eyes Deceive Me? Department: One of the pleasant surprises this season on “Glee” is that Tina (Korean American Jenna Ushkowitz) is in a relationship with Mike Chang (Howard Shum, Jr.), the great dancer who barely got any lines last year. In the opening scene, a nosy high school reporter sticks a mike in Tina’s face and asks her if it’s true that the two became a couple over the summer. “Why, because we’re both Asian? That’s totally racist!” Mike concurs: “Torally racist!” As they walk on down the hall, however, they begin to hold hands. The wheelchair-bound Artie, Tina’s former boyfriend, looks at them sadly. Pretty damn funny.
An Asian American couple? Doesn’t the television explode whenever two Asians are in the same room let alone romantic with each other?!
Charise, the 18-year-old singer from the Phillipines who became an overnight star after appearing on “Oprah,” was introduced as exchange student Sunshine Corazon who’s such a great singer, she worries the selfish diva Rachel (Lea Michelle). While the Glee club welcomes Sunshine with open arms, the new student decides to sing for the opposing high school because the director helped her mom get a green card and Rachel would make her life a living hell. Charise will return in later episodes.
Early Casualties Department: ABC’s “My Generation,” which featured a “where are they now?” look at high school graduates 10 years later and Anne Son as a former wallflower who got pregnant on prom night, fell 31% in its second broadcast to 3.9 million viewers and was promptly cancelled the next day. It’s the second new show to get the axe after Fox’s “Lonestar.”
You Should Be Watching Department: The CW’s “Nikita,” the only show which currently stars an Asian American (Maggie Q), continues to grow on me. It’s at the 3 million level, but great for the network’s expectations. It airs Thursday nights at 9 p.m.
Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.