I recently got bored and started watching Outsourced again. It turns out I’m going to need to revise my opinion from before.
To recap, my opinion from before was that although it’s not spectacularly bad or egregiously offensive, there is simply nothing particularly appealing about it. It’s not funny, and it has nothing interesting to say. It goes for cheap jokes rather than insight; it is lazy and predictable. I formed this opinion on the basis of the first two episodes (I’d formed it after the first one, but I invoked the It’s Just the Pilot Rule).
In the next two episodes, things went seriously downhill, for three different reasons.
FIRST, it cranked up the cultural insensitivity. Jokes about Indian names returned in episode 4. They did one in the pilot, but I thought (silly me) that the writers just had to do it once, to get it out of their system. Nope. Then both episodes 3 and 4 went and made all sorts of jokes about arranged marriages. Our White Hero furrows his brow at the absurdity of it all. He points out that Asha’s helping Rajiv with his love marriage contradicts her own preference for an arranged marriage (whereas this is not a contradiction at all). Repeatedly, Our White Hero is presented with some (supposed) facet of Indian culture and asks “are you kidding?”, then rolls his eyes and gets a sympathetic nod from his asshat American friend. His toolishness continues to rise. He’s completely unlikable. Generally, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a TV show that has an unlikable main character (British “The Office”, “House”), but the rest of the show needs to adapt itself to match. Outsourced, by contrast, seems to think that Our White Hero is likable.
SECOND, it has decided that some of its characters don’t really need personalities; they just need to show up when a joke needs someone to deliver it. Case in point: the plot in episode 4 about the three employees having a mini-feud against the besuited rival call center employees. Not only is it a perfect showcase for the show’s tendency to make jokes that have already been done to death in other shows but assuming that the characters’ Indianness makes it funny all over again, but it goes against the characters of both Madhuri (who has been established as way too unassuming to get involved in a prank war) and Office Space Guy (who has been established as someone who isn’t a complete lunatic and thus wouldn’t think burning down a rival call center is a good idea). But the writers wanted to write this plot, and they weren’t going to let silly things like established characters and personalities get in the way. Pah! Characters are for pansies. Real comedy writers make jokes about Indian people imitating American accents!
THIRD, its characters are not going anywhere. Culture shock comedy, by nature, requires some character growth in order to work. That’s what makes the whole genre work: the point is not that other cultures are weird, it’s that other cultures cause people to change in interesting ways. Not so on this show. Our White Hero’s just continuing to be more of a dick, and in fact is just going to become more of a dick as he ignores Comfortably White Aussie’s inexplicable interest in him, and continues to be a big stupid-head about Unattainable Indian Lady — even after he gets lonely, decides to take the easy way out, and cashes in for some White Aussie lovin. (That last part hasn’t happened yet, but it’s pretty obvious that it will, because this show is nothing if not predictable.)
Just as a random point, I would like to point out that the five main Indian characters on the show are played by three Americans and two Brits. I know this means essentially nothing in theory, but it does means that they all (except Anisha Nagarajan, as far as I can tell) have flawed Indian accents (their natural accents being American and British). This is starting to bother me more and more.
After all this, I’m done writing about this show. Unless (God forbid) it gets worse, anything I say would be repeating myself, and nobody wants to see that.
I watched the first two episodes of “Outsourced” the other day. This is a new NBC Thursday night comedy, centered around the adventures of a white guy from Kansas who gets shipped off to India to manage the call center for his company, which makes “novelty items” like foam fingers and fake puke.
I’d gone in with extremely dim expectations. I’d heard that the show was both offensive and poorly executed, and this sounded very plausible. The premise of the show sounds like it would require very skillful handling to execute well, and if executed incorrectly, it would be offensive. This turned out to be not quite true, but I still wasn’t impressed.
The show is definitely not as offensive as I had originally imagined. Maybe it was just the absence of one specific joke, that being an American (or other Western) character mockingly imitating an Indian accent. As a linguist, I have very strong and specific tastes in accent-based humor. The only joke I’m OK with is when a character tries and fails to imitate another accent, but they are actually trying to get it right and not doing it from a position of power (e.g. Stephen Mangan on “Green Wing” trying and failing to say “knob” in a Cockney accent – series 2 episode 4). None of this happened in “Outsourced” (at least not yet).
One interesting thing about the accents: several of the Indian characters have Indian accents that don’t sound quite right. This turns out to be because the actors playing them are American and British, of Indian ancestry. Check this, this and this out.
Anyway, that was a digression. The primary question here is whether I liked Outsourced, and the answer to that is no. It’s not hugely offensive or painfully bad, but there’s just nothing there. It’s a perfect specimen of lazy comedy, which was exemplified last season by “Hank”. Outsourced is not quite as lazy or sloppy, but Outsourced is made slightly worse by being lazy with its handle-with-care subject matter. Culture shock (which is what the first two episodes are mostly about) is a perfectly valid centerpiece for a comedy, but it requires equal measures of sensitivity, daring and cleverness to get humor out of it.
(If you know me at all, you can probably figure out what fantastic example of culture shock comedy I’m about to go to.)
“Lost in Translation” is a perfect example of doing it right. There are a fair number of moments that simply play on how odd various Japanese phenomena seem to Westerners, but there are three important things about this. First, the characters reacting to them are reacting not with overt incredulity, smug self-satisfaction or ridicule, but instead just perceiving them and reacting quietly. They don’t fall back on Dumb American Tourist archetypes. Second, the culture shock moments are mined for laughs in a very quiet, subtle way, almost as background entertainment rather than the primary center of attention. Third, the culture shock moments are, ultimately, a metaphor for the main characters’ situations. They’re isolated within their own lives and not really sure what to do, but they find shelter in each other and learn to deal with their situations together.
Outsourced, on the other hand, does nothing beyond the superficial with its culture shock moments. The most egregious example is That Guy From Office Space’s line (multiple lines, really) about Indian food giving you diarrhea. Again, if you know me at all, you’ll know that I appreciate a good poop joke as much as the next guy (probably more, in fact) but see… this is not even a good poop joke. It’s predictable and uncreative, as is the extended joke about sacred cows.
So those two jokes I just cited are from the pilot, and I did invoke my It’s Just the Pilot rule and move on. Regardless of the fact that pilots are supposed to be when a show puts its best foot forward and explains what the show is about, some good shows have had pretty bad pilots that ended up being nothing like what the rest of the show turned out to be (Scrubs). So I watched the second episode and it didn’t get any better. The second episode let up on the obvious culture-shock jokes, but is no better for it. It seems like The Office, Special Xenophobic Edition. The humor in episode 2 is based on quirks of the various characters, which is exactly what early The Office was about, but treating it as if the characters’ Indianness makes it fresh and hilarious all over again. So it’s funny when a guy talks too much? Well it’s doubly funny when he talks too much in an Indian accent! Ha ha! Anytime a joke is made at the expense of one of the Indian characters, even if it’s not a stupid culture-shock joke about religious headgear, I get a little uncomfortable. It’s not that making a joke about a character who happens to be Indian is offensive in and of itself — the offensive part is when the joke is supposed to be funny because of the character’s Indianness.
This all goes without mentioning the very obvious setups for Conflicting Love Interests and Ensuing Angst, as our Handsome White Hero immediately has Comfortably White Aussie Lady engaging in witty suggestive banter and Exotic Erotic Indian Lady touching him in the face. What’s going to happen there, I wonder? THERE’S NO WAY TO KNOW!
Despite all this whining, I don’t think Outsourced is beyond salvation. One can hope that it’ll burn through all the cheap humor pretty quickly and then have to dig deeper. This could easily not happen, though; they could just continue to produce The Office: Xenophobia for a while. If it keeps going as-is, then I wish the show a swift death.
I think I may have experienced an epiphany of sorts at the Green Day concert I just went to.
Before I get to that, thought, some background. My history with Green Day extends farther back than with any other band. I’ve written about how Metallica was the first band I ever liked, and this is still true. However, Green Day is the first band name I ever remembered. This is because, when I was a wee lad of 7 or 8, I had a babysitter who enjoyed watching MTV while keeping an eye on me. And one time, on MTV, I happened to see a music video with some revolting footage of someone having a tooth pulled. I was traumatized and ended up cowering in horror. This video was stuck firmly in my head for a long time, as well as the words superimposed on the final shot of a bloody tooth lying on a table: “GREEN DAY”. Turns out, the song was “Geek Stink Breath”. Even now I can’t watch the video all the way through. (And interestingly, I associate the childhood experience of the video with a snatch of music that sounds nothing like the actual song.)
My babysitter tried to get me to appreciate some of the crap she listened to, and I can still remember some of the songs to this day (mostly boy bands and rap). I’ve looked up the songs and artists on the basis of lyrics that I remember (thus proving that my brain is amazing at remembering completely useless garbage), but I didn’t remember any of the band names from back then. But by God I was never, ever going to forget the words “GREEN DAY”.
Once the trauma faded a little, I didn’t actually give Green Day much thought until high school. Just after senior year began, American Idiot came out and apparently it was a big hit. I was completely oblivious to contemporary music at the time (I was still catching up on Metallica’s catalogue from the 90s), so I would not have noticed if not for my best friend’s younger brother. He was the singer and guitarist in one of maybe three bands that competed in our school’s Battle of the Bands, and their entry was “American Idiot”. (To avoid hurting anyone’s feelings, this event was not an actual competition; they just let some bands perform for ten minutes each and that was it. Still, the yearbook awarded my friend’s brother the “Best Guitar Solo” recognition on the page devoted to Battle of the Bands.) At the time I was in a phase where I scorned basically any music anyone tried to tell me about, so I was all set to automatically dismiss whatever band originally made this song as stupid, but this high school band’s rendition of “American Idiot” was actually quite good. It was certainly miles better than the other bands’ performances.
Anyway, this concert performed by actual Green Day. For context, the previous night, I had gone to a ZZ Top concert. During this concert, I almost got involved in a dust-up with a drunk fat guy who was under the impression that I was messing with his stuff (I wasn’t). The crowd was composed largely of people like him — older, unpleasant-looking guys, usually accompanied by equally unpleasant-looking ladies, to whose physiques the years have been unkind. I’ve written at length about the crowds at the kind of concert I go to, so i won’t repeat myself here, but suffice it to say the ZZ Top crowd was scary. (ZZ Top was great, BTW.)
So maybe it was just that whole situation from the previous night, but Green Day made me realize several things, chief among which is this: I should probably start listening to bands that are not older than I am.
Not counting Green Day (or openers), I’ve seen nine bands live*. Of these, only two formed after I was born: Tool and Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Most of them peaked before I was born too. And the difference in atmosphere at the concerts is striking. Green Day was not filled with Scary Aging Metalheads; it was filled with people who were of reasonable ages and appearances, many of them younger than me (many of them were little kids, actually). I did not almost get involved in a dust-up. There wasn’t even a whole lot of smoke in the air.
And the band itself was very obviously of a less advanced age. I don’t know if Billie Joe Armstrong is an exceptional frontman and that’s what makes the difference, but he certainly was the most energetic of all the frontmen I’ve seen perform. Some frontmen benefit from an air of aloof detachment (Billy Gibbons) but I’ve never seen anyone engage a crowd like Billie Joe did. He pulls audience members on stage, crowd surfs, hoses people down with water, and lets audience members perform entire songs. It’s also quite convenient that Green Day is a Bay Area band and Billie Joe could name all sorts of random Bay Area towns and diss Los Angeles and scream soulfully about finally being home.
And they went on and on for over three hours, without a break. This is the longest set I’ve seen any band play live. They played all of their classics, didn’t play too much from 21st Century Breakdown, and covered bits of a few classic rock songs. They did everything in a good order, playing some classics up front, then screwing around a lot in the middle (including taking audience requests), and saving “American Idiot”, “Jesus of Suburbia”, and some acoustic things including “Good Riddance” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends” for the encore and second encore. And, of course, Shoreline Amphitheatre is still amazing. Essentially, they put together the perfect Green Day concert, and the best concert I’ve ever been to.
As a bonus, the opener was AFI, which I had never heard of before. It turns out they’re actually really good and I will start listening to them.
* The others, in roughly chronological order: Yngwie Malmsteen, Rush (twice), Dream Theater (once as a headliner, once opening for Iron Maiden), Queensrÿche (twice), Def Leppard, Metallica, Iron Maiden, ZZ Top.
So you know the show “Cougar Town”? Created by Bill Lawrence, a.k.a. one of the Three Major Deities of television (the others, of course, being Josh Schwartz and Rob Thomas)? I have something to say about it.
There was a rumor, during the summer hiatus, that the show’s name was going to be changed. The name was a thinly-veiled reference to the premise of the show at its start: Courteney Cox plays a divorced woman in her forties who starts going out with younger dudes. Pretty quickly, the show dropped this theme completely and turned into an ensemble comedy about a group of friends who live in some suburban cul-de-sac. Critics (and Bill Lawrence) universally agreed that this made the show much better.
My confession, which I resent having to label as a confession because I see this as an eminently reasonable point of view but society apparently disagrees, is this: the show was totally better when it was about a divorced woman in her forties who starts going out with younger dudes.
That is a show I would watch all the time. That is an awesome topic. There haven’t been any TV shows based around it. It can give rise to tons of funny stuff. It is also an awesome topic. And I would have expected Bill Lawrence to have the balls to make that show, and to know how to get it right.
But the show as it is now is not a whole lot more interesting than if “Friends” were done in modern sitcom style. A heterogeneous group of people sit around in living rooms, say wacky things, and have heartwarming moments. Yay.
They’re not changing the name, as it turns out. The name will just sit around and taunt me, and remind me that if I want to watch the show that’s actually interesting, I have to stick with the first, like, three episodes.
It strikes me that every decade so far since the invention of rock has produced one or two rock bands who were head and shoulders greater in metaphorical stature than all the others — bands you could point to and say, “[Band name] was the band of the 80s” or whatever decade is appropriate.
Then I realized that I can’t think who the band of the 00s might be. For that matter, I can’t even think what the rock subgenre of the decade might be.
For historical context, let’s look back at previous decades.
Rock, in the way that I’m thinking about it, came into existence in the 1950s. Inasmuch as there was a rock musician of the 50s, it was Elvis Presley.
The 60s was the decade of The Beatles.
The 70s was the decade of Led Zeppelin.
The 80s are actually really difficult to pick a band for. So much happened in the world of rock; there are so many different subgenres (and gray areas that may or may not be termed rock) that there were a multitude of apparently larger-than-life bands having their breakthroughs. But the problem here isn’t the same as the problem I’m having with the 00s — I can’t think of any candidates from the 00s, whereas I can think of too many candidates from the 80s. The popular musician of the 80s was almost undoubtedly Michael Jackson, but I don’t categorize him as rock. If I really had to pick one band for the 80s, it would have to be U2.
The 90s was the decade of Nirvana and Green Day.
So what was the band of the 00s?
Now, I realize that a decade is a completely arbitrary period of time, and chopping up the history of rock into decades and choosing a band to represent each is a mostly-bogus thing to do. But it still seems odd to me that I can’t even pick out a single subgenre of rock that emerged or dominated in the 00s.
The cop-out answer is “indie rock”. I do agree that the indie scene gained prominence in the 00s, but this isn’t so much a subgenre in the musical sense as a subculture. And of course, by the nature of the subculture, indie bands aren’t household names, which is what I’m looking for.
Perhaps I’m just behind the times, and I don’t know about some awesome new feature of the rock scene. Perhaps this kind of analysis is impossible while the relevant cultural phenomena are still ongoing (and they very well might be — it’s not like the turning of the calendar from 2009 to 2010 put a stop to everything going on in the 00s). Or perhaps the 00s will just turn out to be a decade that defies attempts to assign icons to it, who knows. All I know is that the 80s is still definitely the best decade of music.
I’m sorry, but since I’m on yet another playthrough of Half-Life 2 due to its Mac release, I have to gush on it a little bit. A while ago I started writing a post on how great the HL2 games are, and it got really quite long, but I never published it because it was just pointless blatant fanboyism. But I have so much fanboyism in me that I have to let a little bit out.
Let’s just talk about how amazing Valve is at game design, shall we? Let’s talk about that. Specifically: how amazing Valve is at storytelling. “What!” I hear you cry. HL2 has a silent protagonist and no cutscenes or anything! How on earth can you say it has amazing storytelling!
Well, let me tell you how HL2 has amazing storytelling. It is amazing precisely because it tells stories so effectively without the crutches of cutscenes, text walls or speaking protagonists.
So there’s this area in the chapter Water Hazard, the one where you’re buzzing around in an airboat avoiding a hunter-chopper that buzzes around strafing you and pooping mines in your path. There’s an area off to the side during the part where you’re going through some kind of refinery. A lone metrocop shoots at you from behind a pile of tires. If you kill him and go into the area where he was, you will find a story, told by nothing but scenery.
As you go in, a zombie will get up from the ground and, inexplicably, a whole bunch of headcrabs will come flying out of a big inaccessible opening above. Once you dispatch them all (with great dispatch!), take a look around, and listen to the story that the scene tells.
There’s a little lofted area with a lambda painted on the wall. There’s some supply boxes there, but also two bare mattresses and a few empty cans of food. It’s very plain that two rebels camped out here. If you look around, you’ll see a dead body — one of the rebels. As for the other one, well, uh, that zombie. Look up at the opening where the headcrabs came from and wonder what’s going on back there. These rebels chose an unfortunate place to camp.
This is hardly unique in the game — there’s plenty of evidence of rebels living in harsh conditions and meeting sticky ends — but this scene stands out in its use of sound. First of all, there’s the howling wind. This, combined with the spinning windmill above, makes the place feel very desolate — as if you’re out in the middle of a desert, even in the midst of this concrete wasteland full of headcrabs and radioactive sludge. The wind sound is quiet, and a welcome break from the constant noise of the airboat, gunfire, and exploding mines. This is a very peaceful, lonely place to stop and rest.
And then there’s the windchimes.
This one sound effect is why this scene makes me gush and spew and profess my undying love for Valve. If you wait a little bit, eventually you will hear a small jingle, and then a clear, lingering tone from a windchime. It is haunting and spooky and beautiful all at once. It continues the story of the two luckless rebels and makes it rather more poignant: the rebels tried to put a little touch on this place to make it feel more like a home. That, in turn, makes you feel like you’re intruding, and makes you slightly uncomfortable about being there, while at the same time slightly mesmerizing you. But here’s the real key: there are no windchimes to be found. This sound, this goosebump-inducing sound, has no apparent source. It meshes perfectly with the scene, yet it makes no sense.
And this is why this constitutes great storytelling: the windchimes are telling you that there is a story here that you will never know.
The whole scene, including the windchimes, tells you a story, but deliberately leaves out part of it. The windchimes are what gives the scene emotional impact — no small feat given that the story is about two already-dead NPCs — but you cannot find them. You will never know where the rebels put them in order to make this little corner feel like a home. You will never see them. That part of the story has been lost forever.
The windchimes aren’t the only mystery of this scene — if you look up, you’ll see a platform with a dead guy, high up and inaccessible. How did he get up there? You’ll never know.
And this is why Valve is great. Not only are they able to tell such a poignant story completely without words, but they bother to craft these stories at all. They could easily have left this whole corner out, and they could easily have left the windchimes out. But they put these things in. They acknowledged that there is even more story there, but it’s gone.
I was thinking about the TV shows I like lately. I like to think that I only like good TV shows, so I’m going to put forth a very presumptuous conclusion based on these thoughts:
Good TV shows peak within their first two seasons.
I took the union of all the sets I’ve named when people ask me what TV shows I like, and found that they all fell into two categories:
- The Bright Star: the show burns with the brilliance of four lesser shows combined, powered by a genius concept, focused writing, a perfect cast, and unwavering vision. This has the unfortunate side effect that the shows burns itself out in the first season, having achieved its brilliance by packing everything that can possibly be done with the concept into 22 jaw-dropping episodes that somehow only get better as the season goes on. The rest of the seasons consist of the show staggering along, a shadow of its former self, as the writers try to wring every last drop of money out of the tired old beast. This kind of show is, more often than not, a drama. Of the shows I like, these were the Bright Stars: The OC, Veronica Mars, Gossip Girl, Heroes, Green Wing.
- The Wobbly Pony: the show stumbles and wavers in its first season, as it struggles to find what works and its cast develops rapport among themselves and with the writers. The second season has solved all these issues, and sometimes even comes with a reworking of the concept (usually not, though). The second season is the product of a well-oiled machine, firing on all cylinders, purring like a cat. The concept is not as powerful as it is for Bright Stars, but Wobbly Ponies make up for it with flawless execution. The rest of the show’s run consists of either passably good execution, making for decent entertainment, or an unwatchable mess as the shows tries too hard to recreate its former glory and ends up faceplanting. This is typical of comedies. The rest of the shows I like were Wobbly Ponies: Scrubs, Chuck, Arrested Development, Bones, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Better Off Ted, My Boys.
There are a couple of other shows I like and watch regularly — Community and Cougar Town, for instance — that have only produced one season so far, so I can’t tell which category they’ll be in.
So what useful conclusion can we draw from this rule that I made up?
If you are making a TV show that is any good, you should quit after two seasons, recognizing that the show will never be better than it already has been. If you are a high-concept show where your entire first season consists of a single extremely tight and self-contained plot (Heroes, Veronica Mars), you should consider quitting after one season.
Yes, this means we’d miss out on a fair bit of potentially good television (Veronica Mars season 2, Scrubs season 3), but it also means we’d miss out on the heinous garbage that comes as a result of good shows severely outstaying their welcome (Scrubs season 6, Heroes season 4), so I think it would be a net positive.
I’d like to see a show try this. Arguably, Freaks and Geeks did (not of its own volition, but still), and look at what happened to it: it’s remembered as a cult classic that reached heights few other TV shows did. If it had kept going, I can’t imagine it would have stayed good, and would have somewhat tarnished its image. But I’d still like to see the creator of a show state, before it even begins, “We are going to make one season of TV, and it will be the best season of TV you’ve ever seen, and then it will be over. No more.”
I understand why this is difficult, though — once you complete the first season, the success has gone to your head, and all you can think about is keeping the momentum going. You may think you still have good ideas left (even though you probably don’t have anything that can top your first season). I would like to see a creator who recognizes this and actively works against it.