You’ve got to hand it to Mindy Kaling. After her sitcom on network television (well, Fox) got canceled, she took it to Hulu, where the series absolutely rebounded. Now Kaling is in a position of creating her own sitcom stable, with a stamp as unique as a Michael Schur or Norman Lear. She still has a way to go, but giving one of her very best writers, Charlie Grandy, a whole sitcom to run with was a wise first move. Champions is a show that fans of comedy and Kaling will find familiar, for good or bad.
The bad: The “child dropped on doorstep upending swinging bachelor’s life” TV trope goes all the way back to the late ’50s, to the days of Bachelor Father and Family Affair. Undoubtedly, this inspirational child will ground this flighty adult, as well as everyone in the community he’s surrounded by!
Fortunately, in this case, that inspirational child is Michael, whose love for Real Housewives and Sex And The City reruns means that he also functions as a tiny doppelgänger for Kaling. Michael is an out 15-year-old finally leaving Ohio for a Fame-type arts school in New York (basically Glee’s St. Kurt Of Lima’s daydream come true), only to have his housing drop out at the last minute. Then his mom, played by Kaling herself, drops a bit of a bombshell: His dad didn’t die in Afghanistan, but is actually a failed baseball star who owns a low-key gym in Brooklyn (there’s a definite “Average Joe’s” DodgeBall vibe), so Michael could move in with him and still attend his fancy school.
Unfortunately, Anders Holm, who plays Vince, the dad, has a tenuous amount of charisma to hang a whole series on. Especially when he is easily outshone in almost every scene by J.J. Totah as Michael. Like Kaling in her self-titled series, Totah’s self-superiority and disdain for most of the characters he’s playing against adds a sharp and hilarious theater-kid-fish-in-Brooklyn-water dimension to the vast majority of his scenes. He tosses out cut-downs—like describing his dad as looking like the “abusive boyfriend in every Lifetime movie”—as easily as he shows his immediate love for players like Vince’s girlfriend (“You’re fabulous!”) and frequent SATC references.
When Kaling makes her few guest appearances, she is so vibrant it’s a letdown that her spots are so brief, even as a Cleveland single mother in a much more modest wardrobe than we’re used to seeing her sport. (Her lines and delivery are still hilarious though, as when Michael attempts to disparage his Ohio upbringing to a school administrator: “He has a nice life, we have a panini press.”) But fans of her old show can take some solace in the really familiar-looking break room, and the appearance of Mindy Project cast member Fortune Feimster, whose Ruby is another lovable loser in the vein of Mindy Project’s Morgan. Whether or not you’re a huge fan of Feimster (a little can go a long way with her), you do have to appreciate her gameness to dress up like a dolled-up parody of a Curves trainer in episode three, “Lumps.”
The standout, though, besides Totah, is Andy Favreau as Michael’s uncle and Vince’s brother, Matt. He perfectly plays the “beautiful, sweet, but dumb” role, and the writers are apparently having as much fun writing for him as he is adding spot-on delivery to lines like, “That’s when I realized, I didn’t have what it takes to collect coins,” and, “Mad doesn’t even begin to describe how I’m feeling right now. I… am… angry!”
Champions has a cast and comedic skill many wannabe successful sitcoms would envy, but while these surface elements are all in place, the show seems to have missed a bit at the base. With barely a blink, Michael almost immediately accepts the fact that he has a father he’d never heard of. Vince dives into the role of a father with chores like getting Michael to pick up after himself and finding him a math tutor, but there’s little discussion of how he feels about taking care of his son for the first time. It’s especially confusing considering that when we met Vince, he was about to ditch the whole Brooklyn enterprise and take off for Florida. Does he host resentment? Relief? Emotion past the next wisecrack? Much is played up about the Champions gym staff being a family, but we barely know these characters enough to buy into that considerable sentiment. There also seems to be an attempt at a will-they/won’t-they romance with the gym’s accountant (again, DodgeBall-like), but again, Kaling’s previous show left some awfully big shoes to fill in the chemistry department. Champions would be wiser to focus on the similarity between the star-reaching goals of the thrown-together father and son.
It’s a relief to have Grandy’s one-liners back on the small screen, and Kaling and co. should thank whatever lucky star a singular talent like Totah descended from. The most moving moment in the pilot is his audition for his performing-arts school, a stirring rendition of Queen’s “We Are The Champions”—as Michael points out, Freddie Mercury was also Indian and gay. (Yes, it’s a little on the nose, what with the series title and all—we’ll allow it.) But in their haste to churn out such a high ratio of laughs per episode, Grandy and his writers’ room will hopefully also fill in the necessary backstory and emotional weights to help some of those lines land even more solidly.