Saturday, May 21, 2011

TV TOPIC: The Rise of Indian Actors on Television

Cultures tend to be treated like caricatures on television. And some viewers might say that a good example of this is the recently canceled NBC series "Outsourced." When it first premiered, Twitter was flooded with comments about how insensitive and insulting the personas and jokes were to Indian people. While I'm willing to admit that not all Indians act exactly like those characters, I didn't really find it that offensive. I think that there have been far worse caricatures of cultures in entertainment history, from Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles to the black-face 80s comedy Soul Man. Plus, I think what the producers and writers aimed to do was show that no matter where you work or live, people generally behave the same. You'll still have your office hardass, office moron, office gossip, office hottie, office perv, and your office pushover. They showed that an Indian person can be your average, dorky or sex-crazed dude without any religious or political baggage weighing them down. And all the while, you got to learn about Indian tradition and culture.
"Outsourced" may have been canceled, but it marked a seminal moment in TV history. The saying goes that if something happens twice it's a coincidence, but three times and it's a trend. I believe this is the first time this many Indian actors have been in a TV show on a major network. And although they no longer will be, we can take comfort in knowing that the induction of Indian actors into mainstream TV is in full affect, with Kunal Nayyar on "Big Bang Theory," Adhir Kalyan on "Rules of Engagement," Archie Panjabi on "The Good Wife," Aziz Ansari on "Parks and Recreation," Danny Pudi on "Community," Mindy Kaling on "The Office," Vik Sahay (left) on "Chuck," Pej Vahdat on "Bones," Michael Steger (right) on "90210," Reshma Shetty (center) on "Royal Pains," and Sendhil Ramamurthy on "Covert Affairs."

So maybe viewers weren't quite ready for an all-Indian cast, but at least we're making progress. In 1994, Margaret Cho spearheaded an all-Asian series on ABC's "All-American Girl," and in 2002, George Lopez starred with an all-Hispanic cast on ABC's "George Lopez." Who knows what culture will get the full-cast treatment next.

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