'Champions': TV Review

Not in terrible shape, but definitely needs more reps.

Ever wonder what Mindy Kaling's character from 'The Mindy Project' would have been like as a gay, biracial teen from Ohio? NBC's new comedy has the answer.

If you've ever wondered how critics or other writers can see two very different shows from the same creators and point to similar comedic rhythms, a fun illustration can be found in NBC's new sitcom Champions, premiering Thursday.

Created by The Mindy Project veterans Mindy Kaling and Charlie Grandy, Champions is about as much like The Mindy Project as a series can be without looking much like The Mindy Project at all.

The show stars Workaholics veteran Anders Holm as Vince, a former high school baseball star now running the family's behind-the-times gym — the Brooklyn Champions Athletics Club, for those wondering about the title — and searching for a way out. Without telling his dim-but-sweet brother and roommate Matthew (Andy Favreau), Vince has made plans to sell the gym and move to Florida. This escape plan is stymied when ex-girlfriend Priya (guest star Kaling) arrives from Cleveland with her 15-year-old son Michael (J.J. Totah) in tow. Michael dreams of attending a prestigious performing arts school in New York, and Priya thinks it's time for Vince to take some responsibility for the son he never knew he had.

Naturally, this complicates Vince's hopes of ditching the gym and his situation with gym employees Ruby (Fortune Feimster), Shabaz (Yassir Lester), Dana (Ginger Gonzaga), Uncle Bud (Robert Costanzo) and yoga instructor and Vince's ex-girlfriend Britney (Mouzam Makkar).

The second-most frequent question I had watching the three Champions episodes made available for critics was, "Was Mindy Lahiri on The Mindy Project always being written as a gay teenage theater kid from Ohio or is Michael in Champions being written as a thirtysomething female gynecologist from Manhattan?" A huge part of the amusement of Champions is that basically every Michael line of dialogue could have been said by Mindy on The Mindy Project, so if that prospect doesn't amuse you, you've been warned. Michael is pop-culturally obsessed and optimistically views New York City through a prism of Sex and the City and Eloise and afternoon matinees of Les Mis, which doesn't align well with the cramped apartment above an old-school gym where he finds himself living. Just as Mindy was intellectually a fish-out-of-water at her doctor's office, where her colleagues maybe hadn't read the latest issues of US Weekly and The Hollywood Reporter, Michael now finds himself living with a jock father who doesn't get most of his references and an amiable meathead uncle who gets very few references of any kind.

The most frequent question I had watching the three Champions episodes made available for critics was, "Shouldn't this be a bit funnier?" Champions has been slotted near AP Bio (with Will & Grace airing between them) in a block of NBC comedies with strong casts and strong creative auspices that highlight the challenges for many broadcast comedies in settling in and immediately finding their voice, supporting characters and structure.

Because its voice is the voice of The Mindy Project, with Vince taking grouchy lines that might have been given to Chris Messina's Daniel and Matthew coming across as a significantly less-dark version of Ike Barinholtz's Morgan, Champions comes far closer than AP Bio to having that task taken care of, which is why it's initially a significantly funnier show than AP Bio, even if it lacks that show's tonal and artistic ambition.

In lieu of the love story at the center of The Mindy Project, Champions has an unconventional family dramedy, with Vince and Matthew playing My Two Dads for Michael. Totah is clearly talented in a variety of ways and he gets the best punchlines in the early episodes, though his extremely focused myopia doesn't always track believably and the series has yet to figure out how to make Michael's schooling a part of the show in any real way. Matthew is a familiar sort of well-intentioned fool, and it's perhaps the show's biggest asset that Favreau has more success bringing out the character's sweetness than his amusing dumbness, since Champions doesn't lack for scene-stealing comics, but otherwise certainly would lack for the heart Favreau brings. As he was in his Mindy Project arc, Holm is playing the straight-man spiked with occasional comic oddness, and I continue to think he's funnier than his non-Workaholics roles have asked him to be.

Champions' workplace zaniness is definitely where the show is most a work-in-progress. One of the oddest things about The Mindy Project was its multi-season quest to lock down an ensemble it was prepared to stand by, and one can easily imagine Champions going through something similar. Feimster, one of TV's busiest acquired-taste comics, is forced to lean into a character she's played many times before — hyper-aggressive and with an elevated sense of self that doesn't necessarily match how others see her — and yet the biggest laugh I got in the early episodes came from Ruby attempting to infiltrate a local female-friendly gym, which had her playing completely different beats. One-note introductions to the other main gym workers left me thinking that this business and TV show have too many full-time employees, so I hope that both Champions and Brooklyn Champions Athletic Club give those characters better opportunities to carry the load. That NBC lists roughly half the cast as "recurring guest stars" only underlines the lack of permanence.

It's easy to admire Champions for its low-pressure progressive streak, which starts with its biracial gay teenage leading character and carries through the races, religions and sexual orientations of the other category with a "No big deal" shrug. It doesn't ask to be hailed as important, but representationally it clearly is, a trait it shares with another of NBC's Thursday shows, Superstore. That workplace comedy, which I don't praise frequently enough, is yet another broadcast entry that wasn't instantly hilarious, but established its universe and then found ways to elevate the humor. That's probably the upside potential for Champions.

Cast: Anders Holm, Fortune Feimster, Andy Favreau, J.J. Totah, Mouzam Makkar, Yassir Lester, Ginger Gonzaga, Robert Costanzo, Mindy Kaling
Creators: Charlie Grandy and Mindy Kaling
Premieres: Thursday, 8:30 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)