There's a thin line separating offensive from funny,and two sitcoms that debuted this week straddle that line. CBS' Mike & Molly is a Chuck Lorre sitcom about two overweight singles who meet at Overeaters Anonymous. NBC debuted Outsourced Thursday night in the coveted post-Office time slot, about a call center in India that sells novelty gifts and the young American sent to manage it.
MORE ON FALL TV:
Kevin Fallon: 12 TV Shows You're Not Watching (But Should)
The AtlanticPanel: 'Glee' Season Premiere: The More Things Change...
Caitlan Smith: '30 Rock': How Long Until Tina Fey and Matt Damon Break Up?
Both series must navigate touchy issues. How do you create a sitcom centered on a person's unhealthy weight, realistically reflecting a person's self-deprecating sense of humor without being insensitive? And there's an abundance of jokes to be had from Outsourced's fish-out-of water concept—but can they be delivered without offending an entire culture?
The respective sitcoms have both aired their first episodes, and both faired well in the ratings (Mike & Molly especially so). However, they also received lukewarm reviews—not the kind of rapturous response that warrants carte blanche freedom to dole out politically incorrect jokes when it comes to these sensitive issues. (Glee, for example, uses sharp dialogue and a fresh approach to subvert racial stereotypes and go after seemingly taboo issues—most recently a hilarious send up of The King and I's "Getting to Know You" at an Asian summer camp.)
General consensus is that Mike & Molly and Outsourced are both guilty of crossing that aforementioned, proverbial line. Which of these two new shows is more offensive?
The titular Molly character in the CBS sitcom is introduced sweating on an elliptical machine while singing along to "Brick House" (get it?). While there were some genuinely sweet, funny moments in the premiere, there were many fat jokes. So many, in fact, that Movieline is launching a weekly series: "The Mike & Molly Fat Joke Tracker":
...you don't even have to sit through the CBS show to catch the most offensive jabs. Herewith, last night's tasteless disses from the Mike & Molly pilot.
"I would shoot you right now but I don't have enough chalk to outline your body." -- Mike's cop partner
"Why don't you take her to one of those lesbo clubs? They seem to like the beefy gals!" -- Molly's mom
"Dammit, one of y'all got to inhale." -- Mike's partner, to a crowd of OA members wheezing as they climb up the stairs.
And there's plenty more of those jokes on the site. As NPR points out: "That stuff absolutely has to stop if the show is going to improve, both because it's embarrassingly lazy and because it's less observant about weight issues than some other nice moments in the opener." The New York Press, however, didn't see such silver lining:
You already know the premise of Mike & Molly from the ubiquitois ads: Taking the next logical step from Fat-Man, Skinny-Wife sitcoms, Mark Roberts has created the Fat-Man, Fat-Girlfriend prototype. Except it's not funny. And it's kinda offensive. And there are some major actors being utterly wasted here.
It's a sentiment that TV.com's Steve Heisler agrees with:
The show (which debuted Monday) is the story of two overweight people who are overweight, finding love as two overweight people. (Can you believe it? Gone are the days where just the guy is the fat one.) The series premiere really hammered this point home.
Every time Mike and/or Molly grace the screen--which, because they are the leads, occurs in every single scene--someone has to take a crack at their weight, or their eating habits, or their weight and eating habits. It's constant. Never mind the concept that Mike and Molly could be happy with the way they look, or be told they are beautiful and handsome regardless of their size.
In the other corner, there's Outsourced. The series is doubly issue-y. Not only does it deal with cultural differences, but the failing economy and workplace downsizing—outsourcing. But topical didn't save the show from reverting to the stereotypical. It too inspired a weekly series: "The Top Ten Most Offensive Lines in Outsourced":
3. "In the meantime, I'm not sure what religion you guys are, but this is your new Bible." It's the company catalogue.
2. "You guys have got some pretty crazy looking hats yourselves....mostly on the women though."
1. NBC to viewers: "Watching Outsourced online is one of our sacred customs!"
Reviews, including The Hollywood Reporter's, tend to agree that the series lacks cultural sensitivity: "Insensitive during this generation's Hard Times? Possibly. An excuse to mock Indian people and culture? Could be. Downright angering? Sure, for many."
HitFix argues that the show is wasting an opportunity to comedically address how cultures learn about each other:
Or you could have "Outsourced," where a sour-faced American initially reacts to India with repulsion and travels abroad to discover that every stereotype that he harbored about Indian culture in his sheltered, insular upbringing was exactly correct, that Indians are, indeed, a strange and weird people with food that gives normal people (white people) diarrhea.
What's astounding about "Outsourced" isn't its racism -- it would be xenophobia, anyway -- but its laziness. A pilot is where you're supposed to put your best foot forward, right? So why would you want to do a pilot which, over 22 minutes, fails to get a punchline from any aspect of Indian culture that isn't a well-established stereotype?
But when it comes down to it, a premise can make or break a TV show. Surveying the reviews of these two fall premieres, it appears that Outsourced's ripped-from-the-headlines conceit has caused fewer eyes to roll, and more people to be hopefully intrigued. As EW's Jeff Jensen writes, Outsourced "one day might evolve into a sharp, irreverent satire about consumerism and prejudice that isn't demeaning and doesn't punt to cheap jokes about Indian names, Indian accents, and Indian food. Call us when it gets there."