Champions is a sit-com that, while occasionally somewhat fun, has no ability to get out of its own way, and that’s a surprising turn for something with Mindy Kaling‘s name attached. The Mindy Project wasn’t the most hilarious show to come along either, but even the most jaded viewers had to appreciate the brand of comedy, and the overall effort. That was a show, much like Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, that wanted to take something that fit the sit-com mold in some sense and show just how unique that could become in the right hands.
Champions is somehow the exact opposite of that effort. It takes a premise that is, if nothing else, almost belaboring its complexity and manages to suck out all the flavor inherent in its situation and characters by jamming it all into tired comedy stylings that don’t seem to think much of the audience.
There is unfortunately little to make of Vince (Anders Holm), a baseball player who tanked his own career by blowing up a gas station with the weed he was smoking, because he becomes almost aggressively stereotypical. He has run his parents’ gym in New York City with his brother, Matthew (Andy Favreau), for thirteen years, but we enter the show as he sets his escape plan in motion when he secretly sells the gym and sets his sights on Florida. The show, in direct contradiction to what it wants to set up specifically, needs Vince to be a flaky, irresponsible “guy,” because that connects us to a lot of potential comedy now that Priya (Kaling), the woman Vince had a child with 15 years ago, has shown up with said child, Michael (J.J. Totah). Michael has plans to attend an elite, art school in New York, and Priya thus needs him to live with Vince, despite her insistence that Vince not be a part of Michael’s life to this point.
The show is so desperate to make easy labels for its characters, and avoid all hope at depth, that it actually has them tell you exactly who they are, perhaps largely because in most cases it doesn’t make sense. When Vince is confronted with the fact that he’s about to bail on his entire life, his story is that this is simply, “what he does.” Just like when he let Priya raise his son. So, 15 years ago he went along with the wishes of his child’s mother, then took over his parents’ business, which he didn’t want, and ran it for more than a decade, keeping several people, including his Chrissy Snow-esque brother, employed, but this is just, “what he does,” and that’s all the explanation he needs? Well, now the, “I’m a flake,” jokes can run free apparently.
Matthew fares no better, because we simply introduce him as someone who says something rather simple, and we’ve got him nailed down and ready deliver confusion and charming stupidity. Best and worst is Michael, who is at least entertaining, though lost in an even deeper quagmire of cliche and formulaic construction. When we first see him in a suit attempting to excuse his mother’s inadequacies we know all we’re going to get about him, except that he’s gay.
The saving grace of the show is that Kaling and co-creator Charlie Grandy, a long-time SNL writer who also worked on The Mindy Project, are funny people. That doesn’t disappear altogether because we’re working with hollow characters that are largely meant to get their “cute” laughs as much by simply seeing them, like a puppy in a window, as by any lines they may deliver. It is more of a struggle to bother with what humor may surface though, which isn’t helped by the fact that the show seems to be suffering from some sort of delusion about its own effort. As if, among other notes, having a gay teen character automatically means that you’re “about something,” and thus having him be real, layered, and/or interesting is icing we don’t need.
There are still some laughs, and it is a show that has a shot at survivable ratings simply by virtue of shoving all its chips onto “Mostly Harmless,” but it has the overall air of a “vacation film,” where we throw Jon Favreau’s brother a gig (which is something of a dig without teeth, because he’s the best person on the show by far), and get to hang out in the city spitting out scripts that write themselves.