NBC’s “Champions,” an appealing if uneven comedy from co-creators Mindy Kaling and Charlie Grandy (premiering Thursday), is about the underachieving owner of a struggling Brooklyn athletic club who meets the teenage son he never knew he had.Scratch that. Vince (Anders Holm of “Workaholics”) always knew he had a kid with Priya (Kaling, in a recurring role), but the unplanned pregnancy stood between him and a college baseball scholarship, so the couple decided to part ways. Vince never played a part in raising his child—nor, as it turned out, did he play much baseball. Instead he returned to Brooklyn to run his late father’s weight gym, which he’d dearly love to sell.
The situational part of “sitcom” presents itself in the form of Michael (J.J. Totah), Priya and Vince’s hyperaware, super-snarky, showbiz-obsessed, proudly gay theater nerd. Hoping to attend an exclusive performing-arts school, Michael, 15, needs a place to live in New York and Priya, who lives in Cleveland, is out of options (and tired of single-parenting). So mother and son show up unannounced, where Priya informs Vince that it’s his turn to step up as a parent.
After meeting his father (and comparing him to “the abusive boyfriend in a Lifetime movie”), Michael isn’t happy about moving into the bachelor pad Vince shares with his affably dimwitted brother Matthew (Andy Favreau). “What is that?” Michael asks, pointing to the brothers’ beloved arcade-style hoops game. “It looks homophobic.”
If he thinks a machine looks homophobic, he should have seen television sitcoms two or three decades ago, in which precocious, smart-alecky boys his age and younger had audiences howling at their clever quips and deeply sarcastic eyerolls—only to grow up and tell People magazine of the myriad struggles they endured as teenagers, including addiction, depression and, in more than a few cases, hushed-up homosexuality.
“Champions” is having none of that, but it’s smart enough to know better than to kick off with a self-satisfied pride parade. It simply presents the idea that Priya raised her son to be entirely himself—meaning that he’s one of those lucky 21st-century gay kids who don’t dwell inside the metaphorical closet. Totah camps his scenes up without a trace of old-school inhibitions; that he’s front-and-center on a prime-time sitcom is presented merely as a post-post-”Will & Grace” opportunity for laughs instead of agendas.
Vince hardly flinches at the news that his son is gay, nor does his brother, nor do the supporting characters who populate the gym, including a comically overconfident (and lesbian) trainer named Ruby (Fortune Feimster).
Removed of messaging, “Champions” instead has to rely on the lightning-quick style of humor that defined Kaling’s previous show “The Mindy Project.” The results in the first few episodes are mixed, with LOLs spaced a little too far apart. (Ruby has a good one, in the second episode: “Families don’t keep secrets! Except in movies, documentaries, Catholic countries, sad plays and podcasts!”) Most of the best jokes are totally in Totah’s court. “Can I plz go 2 the bodega across the street?” Michael texts his father. “I feel like the kid in ‘Room,’ except I don’t have a Brie Larson to talk to.”
“Huh?” Vince replies. “Brie Larson? Is that a cheese?”
“Yes,” Michael texts back with disdain. “A cheese gave Casey Affleck his Oscar.”
Such get-with-it-Dad jokes don’t land with as much impact when Dad is already with it. And even with strong performances from the supporting cast (especially Favreau and Feimster), “Champions” is much better when Kaling is in front of the camera as well as behind it, even if her intent here is mainly to produce. If Michael is as clever as Totah makes him seem, he’ll figure out a way to get his mother more screen time.