There’s something immediately comforting about the new half-hour comedy “Champions,” which debuts Thursday and marks a return to NBC for “The Mindy Project” star Mindy Kaling, and that’s the recurring sense that it wasn’t that long ago when the show would not be permitted to exist.
Co-created by Kaling with her fellow “The Office” alum Charlie Grandy, “Champions” centers on a pair of brothers who own a broken-down Brooklyn gym, Vince (“The Mindy Project’s” Anders Holm) and Matthew (Andy Favreau). Vince is an ex-jock who has a tough time with responsibility, and Matthew, the sweeter of the two, has a hard time with, well, cognitive thought.
Both are spinning their wheels up to the arrival of Michael (J.J. Totah), Vince’s 15-year-old son whom he left behind in Ohio and has to reconnect with on the fly upon the sudden return of his ex-girlfriend, Priya (Kaling, who will only appear on the series in brief guest spots).
So far, so good from a sitcom structure perspective, and it’s a testament to Kaling and Grandy’s skill that these ingredients are set in motion so quickly in the first episode — there’s an undeniable feeling throughout you’re in experienced hands that, blessedly, don’t come with a laugh track. Then there’s the twist: Michael needs a place to stay because he’s arrived from Cleveland to audition for the Manhattan Academy for the Performing Arts, and he’s gay.
From a television standpoint, this sort of thing is usually the stuff of drama; Michael could be just realizing who he is and keeping it a secret, his distant and very different father could not understand and remain emotionally distant, and so on. Instead, everyone understands and moves on; it’s 2018 after all.
“You think we have a problem with gay people? We own a gym,” Vince says. “Our big dream is that someday our gym will become a gay gym because women and straight guys are filthy.”
That sort of unquestioned acceptance in and of itself feels like a breath of fresh air, particularly at a time that more backward-looking social policy has gained a foothold in our political climate. Also, in a risky choice, Michael’s identity isn’t something that leaves him uncertain or conflicted. He’s as self-assured and musical-theater flamboyant as a sixth member of the rebooted “Queer Eye”; a brown and more bookishly groomed Gen-Z Jonathan Van Ness with an arsenal of catty comebacks, eye rolls and “Les Miz” references.
It’s a daring move, especially given network TV’s usual clumsiness with teen sexuality, to say nothing of its bumpy recent efforts to court red state viewers (see the many military-tilted programs from last fall, and poorly executed “values” outreaches like the dim sitcom “Living Biblically”). Make no mistake, “Champions” wears its coastal media elite status with pride (“It’s all dudes — it’s like a congressional panel on women’s health out there,” one observer pointedly says of the gym in the third episode as the brothers face competition from a female-courting fitness franchise).
But for all its forward-thinking perspective and sterling comic credentials, the breezily funny “Champions” might fare better if it makes things tougher on itself. With its tighter focus on Vince’s adapting to fatherhood and the characters adapting to their respective worlds, the first episode was the best of the three NBC made available for review. Michael’s dry observation of Matthew’s protein powder containers used as decorating touches deftly underscored the differing perspectives at work, as did Vince tapping into his athlete past to deliver little league encouragements to his son so he could nail his audition.
In later episodes, however, the precocious Michael falls prey to sounding less like a kid than a tireless vehicle for quips that don’t always square with his character. “Are you from Berkeley, because you protest too much,” he snipes at a would-be math tutor in the third episode, and a recounting of the Disney princesses who have been kidnapped that culminates with a Taliban joke isn’t impossible to imagine coming from a 15-year-old, but it’s far more likely for a 30-something sitcom writer. Hopefully, as the series goes on, the show will mine more from acting his age (and all the messiness that comes with it).
That said, the moving parts that make up “Champions” will probably win you over. Holm channels the same affable bro energy as his role in “The Mindy Project” as Vince tentatively approaches maturity, and Totah, who also appeared on “Glee,” gamely owns every line thrown his way. Veteran character actor Robert Costanzo also turns up among the gym’s ensemble as the brothers’ gruff uncle, who might be challenged later based on hints about his political perspective. But as much as the show exists beyond the reach some of the world’s problems, it doesn’t have to solve them, either. The fact that it’s here feels like a victory in itself.
When: 9:30 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)
Follow me over here @chrisbarton.