Mindy Kaling is back in business. After acing it on “A Wrinkle in Time,” and since her Hulu comedy “The Mindy Project” came to an end in November 2017, the actress has returned to primetime through her new NBC comedy “Champions.” She isn’t a regular on the show but has written and produced it alongside Charlie Grandy. It has aired two episodes and based on them, “Champions” is quirky enough to enjoy it, showing promise despite plot loopholes.
The show is about two slightly over-attached brothers; the charming Vince (Anders Holm) and his good-hearted but dim brother Matthew (Andy Favreau). They own a gym called, you guessed it, Champions. Vince is ready to finally move on from this life and plans to sell the gym and move to Florida to start fresh. Unfortunately for him, his high school ex Priya Patel (Kaling) drops in unannounced with their openly gay teenage son Michael Patel (JJ Totah, a total scene-stealer) in tow.
Michael wants to attend a prestigious performing arts school in the city but ends up having no place to live. Priya can’t leave her nurse job in Cleveland so she convinces Vince to let Michael crash with him. It turns out that when she got pregnant, both Priya and Vince mutually decided that he wouldn’t be in the kid’s life and the latter neglected to mention this to anyone, including his brother. Now, Vince and Matthew have to buckle up to help take care of the kid.
I’m okay with forgiving the cliched main storyline, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before in varied forms, whether it’s “Three Men and a Baby” or “Two and a Half Men.” I’m okay with it mainly because the characters stand out enough to get you invested in the show, especially the main trio of Michael, Vince, and Matthew, along with Britney (Mouzam Makkar), Vince’s ‘on-again, off-again soulmate,’ as she puts it.
Kaling has brought her trademark style to “Champions.” It’s easy to spot lots of similarities to “The Mindy Project” and even “The Office,” which she not only starred in as Kelly Kapoor but also wrote many of its episodes. For starters, young Michael Patel is quick-witted and pop-culture savvy, major traits we’ve seen in both Kelly and Mindy Lahiri. And don’t think “The Office” fan in me didn’t enjoy the fact that one of Kaling’s character’s son is named Michael.
Child actor Totah is easily the best part of this comedy. We haven’t seen many Indian-American kids on the show, let alone an openly gay child. Priya, as a single mother, has doted on Michael and spoilt him quite a bit; a luxury he is quite used to and one that Vince is helping him shed. Totah greatly delivers every dialogue with a good mix of snobbishness and sass.
Makkar’s Britney, who also works at the gym, is an over-the-top drama queen, exaggerating several dialogues and situations, which luckily come off as comical. Her own comic timing is pretty impactful in almost every scene she’s in.
“Champions” can easily be dubbed as a workplace comedy as well. The rest of the cast rounds out as employees of the Champions gym. Fortune Feimster’s Ruby is friendly and loud, much like her own “The Mindy Project” persona, Colette. We haven’t seen enough of Yassir Lester’s Shabaz or Robert Costanzo’s Uncle Bud yet but all of them seem to share an offbeat chemistry. Holms himself played an important role in “The Mindy Project” as Cliff. In “Champions,” he is effective as the endearing lead, playing the guy who is finally getting the chance to do the right. Ditto for Favreau.
With a pretty solid cast like this one and comedy writing that’s biting and amusing, you would imagine “Champions” to be an automatic hit. However, the most glaring problem is its primary story. Priya drops off Michael with Vince and Matthew, who even though are technically family, are two men she hasn’t seen in 15 years and doesn’t know what they’ve been up to. There’s a moment in the first episode towards the end when she has her minute of doubt about leaving her kid with them but then immediately after speaking on the phone with her ex, she changes her mind again. It’s a storyline that can only literally work in a wacky sitcom.
Besides this, “Champions” needs to work a little harder to find its groove. Right now, it does come on a little strong but as the rest of the season plays out, it will find its sweet spot.