One thing primetime comedy viewers have come to love (and perhaps expect) is a formula. Stereotypes -- often harmless, sometimes not -- and common themes (family mishaps, romantic blunders, quirky friendships) are what drive viewership numbers in the world of television sitcoms. It's not entirely out of place, then, to assume that shows that riff off of a certain culture will follow these recipes for success, though the results of doing so carry far more weight than mere ratings.
Enter the newest wave of situation sitcoms: Indian-themed comedies. Both Nirvana and Outsourced, which were tabled after their initial pitches in 2004 and 2007, respectively, are being revived for some major network play.
Nirvana, written, directed and produced by Canadian-born Indian American Ajay Sahgal, will resemble the highly successful Everybody Loves Raymond and focus on the day-to-day lives of two grown Indian American sons living with their immigrant parents.
Outsourced will take a cultural twist on the single-camera office comedy and tell the story of an American manager who is sent to India to manage a call center. Part Lost in Translation, part The Last Samurai, the series is rooted in cultural misunderstandings and commentary on American culture.
A dramatic 2007 film rendition of Outsourced followed a similar premise, but with a very different vibe.
So what does the emergence of two sitcoms boasting Indian American leads mean, exactly?
A lot of jogging -- that is, a few steps forward and hopefully not a whole lot back.
Following in the footsteps of other cultural comedies like George Lopez and CBS's short-lived My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Nirvana and Outsourced are breaking through barriers to expose viewers to the kinds of cultural groups they might not otherwise understand or know about. Normalizing the experience, removing the exotic mystique, is something to be happy for.
The fear, though, is that in stereotyping the Indian American experience -- or in the case of Outsourced, the Indian experience -- the shows run the risk of alienating more mainstream audiences altogether.
"An American audience is very American-centered and not interested in other cultures for their own sakes," TV historian Tim Brooks told The Hollywood Reporter. "For a show such as these to succeed, it can't be just about an (exotic) culture. Americans want things that they can relate to."
"Hollywood, and TV in particular, always tries to jump on a trend."
It'll be interesting to see how much of a Stickiness Factor (cue Malcolm Gladwell) the two shows have, and whether the trend is one that's here to stay.