Mindy Kaling’s new NBC show “Champions” packs heart, humor and pop culture references, but the sitcom falls into a pattern reminiscent of “The Mindy Project.”
The show follows failed college baseball player Vince, played by Anders Holm, as he runs his deceased father’s gym in Brooklyn. In the pilot, Vince’s high school girlfriend from Ohio, a schlubby Kaling, arrives with their gay, theater-loving, 15-year-old son Michael, played by J.J. Totah, who needs a place to live while he attends a New York performing arts high school.
Jokes and hijinks ensue, often juxtaposing the messy, musical Michael and neat, sporty Vince, who has at least one good and bad paternal moment in each of the first three episodes. Vince’s parenting is supported by his brother, Matthew, played by Andy Favreau. Matthew is a little too nice and a bit too dumb, even by sitcom standards. Yet, the interplay between Favreau and Totah is heartwarming.
Holm is well-cast as Vince, who comes off as charming; in other hands, the character could easily be annoying. “Champions” appears to be the first time Holm has played a father on camera, and his — and Vince’s — ability to quickly adapt to this role was surprising. Moreover, Holm is a great foil to Totah’s dramatic flair.
Totah’s relative inexperience is evident, but he is a firecracker as Michael. Totah is able to deliver not only great quips — “Are you a freshman at Berkley? Because you protest too much,” he asks at one point — but tender moments as well. Yet, the show could improve by making Michael his own distinct pop-culture obsessed character. Right now, he seems to merely deliver lines left over from Kaling’s character, Mindy Lahiri, on “The Mindy Project.”
Given Kaling’s background in workplace-turned-family comedy, it is no surprise the close knit “Champions” characters self-identify as a family within the first episode. Disappointingly, however, most of the characters are merely tropes, many of which were already used by Kaling on “The Mindy Project.” This staff just comes off as annoying instead of loveable.
The only exception to these cliches is Fortune Feimster’s Ruby, an overconfident gym trainer. In the first two episodes, Ruby seems nearly identical to Colette, the role Feimster played on “The Mindy Project.”
Yet, in the third episode, she disguises her confident, lesbian self as a middle-aged housewife to spy on a rival gym. Her disgruntled expression as she overpowers a lateral pulldown machine with no weight on it is hysterical. The moment lasted for under 10 seconds, but it is one of the most memorable of the first three episodes; this story arc proves the supporting cast of “Champions” can forge their own character paths.
The first three episodes also demonstrate notable character growth. However, now that Vince’s gym is stable and Michael has settled in, it will be interesting where Kaling and her team of writers go from here. Each character needs the time to escape the risk of being a trope. Feimster’s development by the third episode is proof that other characters may grow in complexity as well.
“Champions” has the potential to grow into the new staple sitcom NBC wants to fill out its current comedy lineup. But, to succeed, the writers must leave their “Mindy Project” comfort zone.