Mindy Kaling’s ‘Champions’ is off to a slow and steady start

Sunday, March 11, 2018 - 5:51pm

"Champions"

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A carefree bachelor’s life turns upside down when his kid is dumped on his doorstep. We’ve seen that before, haven’t we? “Parenthood” did it. So did “Baby Daddy” and the short-lived “Grandfathered.” But if anyone can take an old trope and give it new life, surely it’s Mindy Kaling, who elevated the workplace sitcom with heart and chutzpah on “The Office,” and subverted the expectations of romantic comedy on “The Mindy Project” just as often as she reveled in them.

On “Champions” — her charming new NBC comedy with “Mindy Project” co-producer Charlie Grandy — Kaling returns to TV in a recurring role as Cleveland-based single mom Priya Patel, who surprises her high school flame Vince (Anders Holm, “Workaholics”), a washed-up gym owner in Brooklyn, with their flamboyant 15-year-old son Michael (J.J. Totah, “Glee”). Michael needs a place to live in the city so he can attend a prestigious performing arts high school, and Vince is Priya’s last resort.  

Holm did excellent work on “The Mindy Project” as pastor-turned-DJ-turned-shoe mogul Casey, but as Vince, he’s woefully underwritten and lacking the depth or charisma of anyone he shares scenes with, leaving him in the awkward position of being a supporting character on his own show. He’s helped out a bit by the delightful Andy Favreau (“The Mick”) as Vince’s brother Matthew, who manages to muster enough energy for the both of them.

The breakout star here is J.J. Totah as Michael. An updated version of “Ugly Betty”’s Justin Suarez, Michael is equally stylish and quippy, this time with a little extra swagger, delivering every biting takedown with a breezy elan, but also with a fragile, earnest hunger for a life beyond Ohio that recalls the likes of Rachel Berry and Kurt Hummel. His great fear is having to “go back into the closet, marry an ugly girl from my high school and run a pashmina cart at the mall.”

It’s refreshing, and maybe a testament to the state of TV today that Michael’s homosexuality is neither bad comedy fodder nor some nagging source of tension. Where Justin’s coming out was a seasons-long, milked-for-all-the-drama-it’s-worth saga typical of television in the aughts, Michael’s is done quickly after meeting his newfound father and uncle, who are both totally unfazed. “You think we have a problem with gay people?” Vince chuckles. “Our big dream is that someday our gym will become a gay gym, because women and straight guys are filthy.”

If something like “Champions” had aired 10 years ago — even five years ago — it would certainly be littered with lazy jokes operating under the bizarre premise that jockish homophobia is hilarious. But thankfully, there’s none of that here, and the show is far better for it.

But one wonders how far the “theater-crazed kid meets gym bros who don’t understand him” gimmick can really go. It got old pretty fast on “Glee,” and it gets old pretty fast in the pilot. Jokes that write themselves tend not to be very funny. At a certain point, the audience sees it all coming, so the show will have to work to avoid falling into the sorts of clichés its premise suggests it will fall into.

The bad news? “Champions” isn’t instantly impressive. The good news? Network sitcoms rarely are — “The Mindy Project” certainly wasn’t — and Kaling’s shows tend to be at their best once they’ve gotten into a reliable groove and established a set of familiar rhythms. What “Champions” will have to do to be fresh and compelling is what “The Mindy Project” and “The Office” often struggled to do in later seasons: balance out the zaniness with some narrative heft and walk that fine line between character and caricature. It has all the pieces of a great comedy, all that’s left is putting them together.