One thing connects the protagonists of the comedies "$#*! My Dad Says" and "Outsourced," premiering Thursday on CBS and NBC, respectively: They owe money on student loans, which limits their life choices to moving in with Dad, in the first instance, and moving to India, in the second. Otherwise, these series are as different as tomatoes and ketchup, with the distinction that both tomatoes and ketchup are good, but one of these shows is not.
"Outsourced" (which I think of as the tomato in the simile above) is a cross-cultural fish-out-of-water/gang-of-losers tale that joins NBC's Thursday night institutional comedy block, quite comfortably, alongside "The Office," "Community" and " 30 Rock." ("Parks and Recreation" returns midseason.) Based on a 2006 independent film by John Jeffcoat, who is on board for the series as well, it concerns Todd (Ben Rappaport, new to the medium), a salesman for a Kansas City novelty company who is packed off to the subcontinent to head their newly outsourced call center and school the people of Mumbai in the art of selling foam cheeseheads, toilet-shaped coffee mugs and various plastic excrescences.
I approached with trepidation — you walk a fine, slippery line when you contrive to build a comedy around People Who Talk Funny and lampoon, from a superpower's perspective, a foreign culture. But "Outsourced" seems to me the most deftly realized sitcom of the new season. It is no closer to reality than any of its Thursday night neighbors ( Ken Kwapis, of "The Office" and other good things, developed it and directed the pilot), but it has a top-flight cast, characters who show you who they are rather than telling you, smart writing, sure rhythms and a cheerful attitude.
Of course, the culture shock, and the schooling, will run both ways. (If anything, this is a comedy about American values.) "This is how you celebrate the birth of the son of your god?" asks Asha, played by Rebecca Hazlewood, when Todd attempts to explain what's funny about a "mistletoe belt." And though there are the victories the genre demands — Todd himself references "The Bad News Bears" — they're scented with irony: "How would you like to pay for your vomit and your poo?" asks shy Madhuri (Anisha Nagarajan), having made a sale.
William Shatner, who has most always played comedy whether or not he was playing in a comedy, has beamed down into a standard three-camera sitcom, "$#*! My Dad Says," based on a Twitter feed (!) by Justin Halpern, who also co-created the series. The opener, in which Halpern's flat-broke alter ego, Henry ( Jonathan Sadowski), comes home to San Diego, has been substantially revised from the original pilot but not improved, only made more sentimental.
Shatner's Ed is hardly the first difficult dad of television. (Redd Foxx, Jerry Stiller, we could go on.) Old folks speaking uncomfortable truths, talking dirty, riding on motorcycles — such things have long been considered comic dynamite. Oddly, at 79, Shatner comes across as too energetic and youthful even for the 72-year-old he's playing. The bigger problem is that he's given nothing to do or say worth the doing or saying. He gets better mileage from a Priceline commercial.
Though a certain no-nonsense philosophy of life might be extracted from the utterances of Halpern's actual $#*!-saying dad, as edited for television he's just a hard nut with a soft center, a cuddly misanthrope with a shotgun, like some " Andy Griffith" moonshiner. He complains that downtown "smells of motor oil and hummus" and observes that, "if it looks like manure and smells like manure, it's either Wolf Blitzer or manure." Henry, for his part, reads as self-pitying and whiny — much the worse company.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to register "$#*! My Cat Says." I think that $#*! could turn into something.