'Eastbound & Down': The Ugliest American

Fred Norris courtesy of HBO

NBC’s Outsourced may not have premiered with the deafening hubbub of a Boardwalk Empire or a Lone Star, but it was, in its way, the rookie show up against the most pressure. It not only bumped the critically adored Parks and Recreation out of NBC’s Thursday-night comedy block and took up residence in the cushy 9:30 slot that once housed Seinfeld, Friends, and Frasier, it hardly seemed (on paper, at least) to be a worthy addition to the once “must see” schedule. Outsourced follows the office hijinks of Todd Dempsy (Ben Rappaport), an American charged with leading a ragtag group at a call center in Mumbai, where he must train and motivate his team while sidestepping cross-cultural faux pas. It’s the sort of concept that portends staid, perhaps even offensive jokes, such as the tech-support person whose accent suggests that, despite her claims, her name is probably not Meredith. But Outsourced isn’t remotely spicy, or even terribly funny. It’s got nowhere near as many laughs as what’s arguably the most racist show on television.

Maybe it’s because of the limitations of network television, but Outsourced manages to stumble into obvious jokes about the differences between American and Indian culture (Don’t eat the food—it’ll give you diarrhea!) while circumventing anything really subversive. The show doing that job is HBO’s Eastbound & Down, which is in the middle of its second hors d’oeuvre–sized season. Eastbound continues to document the endless rise-fall-rise-plummet cycle of disgraced baseball pitcher Kenny Powers (Danny McBride), who, after abandoning his high-school sweetheart, inexplicably decides to relocate to Mexico. If there’s a gringo least suited to a move south of the border, it’s Kenny, whose attitude toward people of different races leads him to make comments like “Even though you’re Mexican, you seem normal to me” and “I see the look on your faces. You’re thinking, ‘Hey, Kenny, you’re from America. You probably have a printer.’ ”

Network comedies have no problem dealing with barbed issues of race, so long as they are couched in the efforts of enlightened liberals who do their darnedest to avoid coming off racist only to trip over their tongues anyway. In 30 Rock, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) is quick to assume Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) is illiterate, when, as it turns out, he’s just a diva. On Modern Family, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) is so desperate to prove to his Colombian friend that he’s not a racist, he accompanies her to a Colombian restaurant and orders the hottest dish on the menu, with disastrous results. Scenarios like these are often hilarious, and true to life, but hit the easiest targets by lampooning those doing their best to confront their prejudices.

Eastbound allows Kenny the freedom to say whatever awful thing his id leads him to. His casual xenophobia isn’t treated as if it’s particularly special or interesting, rather just one of many undesirable traits he possesses, along with his mullet, his cocaine habit, and a troubling tendency to refer to himself in the third person. Because of our country’s fraught racial history, we tend to pay special, undeserved attention to people’s racist attitudes. Yet when racism is individual rather than institutional, it’s just a specialized strain of stupidity, one that is just as pathetic as general denseness. The sitcom has always relied on its dunces—its Chrissy Snows, its Joey Tribbianis, its Kelly Bundys. There’s just as much rich comedy in deploying Kenny’s bull in Mexico’s China shop, and it takes a lot more cojones.

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