Charlie Grandy and Mindy Kaling’s Champions is an uninteresting comedy with two interesting characters. Both of these characters play with masculinity and when/where traditionalism rears its head, giving the standard sitcom a few reasons to outgrow its premise. On the surface, it’s a cheesy take on the Dodgeball set-up: A deadbeat who fell ass-backwards into gym ownership is ready to give it up until some weirdos wander into his life.
This time around it’s Vince (Anders Holm, whose spastic neck does more acting than the rest of the cast), who runs the gym; the weirdos are his brother, Matthew (Andy Favreau), his old high school flame Priya (Kaling), and his new-to-him son with her, Michael (J.J. Totah), who’s fifteen, fabulous, and about 50% more than everyone else. “50% more what?” you ask. No, that’s it. Just 50% more. Vince has to raise him now because of reasons that aren’t important besides letting us know that a kid who literally came out of Glee is now surrounded by underachieving jocks.
That kid is interesting character number one, though Totah’s hand in it is negligible beyond his precociousness. He’s not quite at the Young Sheldon level, mostly thanks to the moments of depth that complicate the character beyond oversimplified diva, but Totah’s highly choreographed eyebrows and big preparatory breaths before launching into soliloquies listing stereotypical gay icons always bring him back to surface level. It’s fitting that the pilot’s plot involves an audition, because it feels like Totah never quite left his. That said, seeing an unapologetic, prideful gay kid in a mainstream network sitcom is exciting: There’s limited mileage to be gotten out of the “cultured theater boy around man-children” schtick, but it still gets you down the road.
One of those man-children is the show’s second fun character. Matthew tweaks the oblivious meathead with a perfectly calibrated take on a very specific type of person that exists in the real world yet is rarely shown on TV. He’s the well-meaning, dumb, and ultimately good (double-underlined, crossed-out, and replaced with “pure good”) guy who’s simultaneously bro and un-bro. The laugh-out-loud moments belong to the sweetness of someone who’s more than a mere reversal of expectations. Matthew is the platonic ideal of a jock—the kind those looking to date jocks imagine in their heads. His ditziness and love of protein powder heightens his other qualities rather than distracts from them. Matthew is a Manic Meaty Dream Man. And damn it, Favreau is great at it.
Both of these characters, however, must compete with Vince, the saddest white burnout cliché to ever raise a single eyebrow and always collect $200 when passing Go. Holm puts his excess of smarmy energy to hard work, but it’s tiring watching everything above his shoulders spasm back and forth, left and right, whenever he’s delivering dialogue that needs a Ryan Reynolds-level of self-assured smugness to sell. Along with some of the less exciting side characters, like gross Ruby (Fortune Feimster, playing the one role a large woman is allowed to play in a comedy); Vince’s sometimes-girlfriend, Britney (Mouzam Makkar, apparently told to embody a very specific segment of Instagram for her character); and boxing instructor Uncle Bud (Robert Costanzo, with the rambling charisma of Danny DeVito’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia character, only PG), Vince takes up too much space. Champions doesn’t know it yet, but it’s already tired of him three episodes in.
That’s because the series, besides having decent jokes, also labors under the misapprehension that its group of characters can also have an ABC Family-like (excuse me, Freeform-like) sweetness squeezed out of every episode. A sitcom that never reigns in its actors, Champions also lets its creatives run wild. Saccharine direction—which never turns down a beaming reaction shot—caramelizes moralizing scripts—which never say no to an obvious joke or unearned warm fuzzy. A hackneyed Queen cover in the pilot is followed by a different hackneyed Queen needle drop, which makes it all too apparent what Champions thinks of itself.
That the series wants so badly to be a feel-good family sitcom is complicated by Vince and Matthew’s relationship, which is… very close. That allows plenty of gags in their attempt to raise Michael together, squeezing social novelties into a traditional sitcom family structure. An openly gay half-Indian boy who was raised by a young single mother now finds himself with male role models—one who cooks and cleans, one who falls asleep watching Sportscenter—who are just a script rewrite from being a gay couple with the relationship dynamic of every TV marriage. They sleep in the same bed for, like, all of the second episode. It’s roundabout traditionalism with all the ingredients for subversion. The end result is still often yawn-inducingly standard—even if the pieces getting us there aren’t.
Champions premieres tonight at 9:30 p.m. on NBC.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.