Wednesday, March 7, 2018

TV REVIEW: NBC's 'Champions'

NBC will premiere its new original comedy series Champions on Thursday, March 8 at 9:30/8:30c. The comedy stars Anders Holm, Andy Favreau, Mouzam Makkar, J.J. Totah and Fortune Feimster.

Read on for my thoughts on the new comedy after screening its first three episodes.

If you miss The Mindy Project, then you will love Champions. It has only been a few months since the FOX/Hulu comedy went off the air. And yet, it's clear that this new series will fulfill the same void for that particular audience. Of course, there are pluses and minuses with that comparison. The Mindy Project had a solid pilot but extremely uneven first season with it taking a long time to figure itself and its cast out. That was a luxury it was afforded on FOX in a less competitive marketplace. But now, Champions is debuting in the era of #PeakTV. There are so many shows vying for attention at the moment. NBC has seen an upswing in popularity with its comedies lately. It has a solid rotation of shows right now - with Superstore, The Good Place, Will & Grace, Great News and Trial & Error. Of course, not all of those have been success stories in the ratings. It's still disappointing to me that Great News might be done after two seasons - another show that fans of The Mindy Project should definitely watch. More recently, the network launched A.P. Bio to good and solid reviews but low ratings. It's tough right now. NBC is placing all of its bets on comedy on Thursday night. It's a competitive night. Now, Champions will get a solid lead-in from Will & Grace. And yes, we still live in an environment where lead-ins matter on broadcast television. But the actual content will need to be good to maintain audience engagement. It may not take much to be seen as a ratings hit nowadays. But it's a fine line between success and failure as well. The opening three episodes of the show are very promising and suggest that with enough time Champions can be a solid show though.

I make the comparison to The Mindy Project because Champions is created by Mindy Kaling and Charlie Grandy, directed by Michael Spiller and features a cast including Anders Holm, Fortune Feimster and Yassir Lester - all of whom worked on the previous series. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising at all if the set decorators just took the sets from The Mindy Project and redesigned them just a little for this show. There's an apartment that is impressively big for a middle-class family in New York. There's a business where a lot of time is spent in the employee's lounge. The establishing shot may actually be of the same building just from a different angle. Familiarity is everywhere in this show. That extends to the humor as well. It's a comedy that is very much obsessed with making pop culture references. Many of those are funny and timed appropriately to whatever situations the characters are getting themselves in. Of course, that also means Feimster is basically playing the same character here as she did on The Mindy Project. And yet, the show is doing just enough to make sure that the co-workers that fill out the ensemble aren't just the same types of people this creative team has worked with before. Moreover, Holm is playing a very different character than the one he played on The Mindy Project and Workaholics. He's still established as a dirtbag early on. But he does genuinely care about his family as well - even though he is prone to lying and keeping secrets from everyone close to him.

Holms plays Vince, the owner of a gym in Brooklyn. He manages the business with his dumb but lovable younger brother, Matthew (Andy Favreau). He is ready to leave the family business behind in order to explore new horizons when his high school girlfriend, Priya (Mindy Kaling), shows up with their teenage son, Michael (J.J. Totah), who has been accepted into a performing arts school in the city. The premiere does spend a lot of time establishing this premise. It has very little time to actually explore the business side of things. But it is a sweet family dynamic that the show creates early on and is fun to watch. Vince isn't some clueless deadbeat dad who didn't know that he got his high school girlfriend pregnant. He knocked Priya up during their senior year and he decided he wanted to pursue a baseball career instead of caring for a family. When that didn't pan out, he retreated to the family gym in New York. But this is the first real time he has spent with Michael. Michael didn't even know who his father actually was up to this point. He has always had his fantasizes. But now, Vince is proving to be a massive disappointment. It's a learning curve for everyone involved. The issues that pop up are conventional in some ways and really progressive in others. It's clear right away that Michael is gay. He makes a big deal out of coming out to his father and uncle. And yet, they already knew and don't care at all. In fact, they are encouraging him to perform his best at his school even though the references Michael makes about pop culture and show business frequently go over their heads.

In these three episodes though, it's also abundantly clear that the show is still trying to figure out the proper ratio for how much time should be spent in each corner of this story. That was a major concern for The Mindy Project as well. It split its time between its protagonist's desire to be in a romantic comedy film with the workplace drama of her career. Here, the show is splitting its time between the family drama with Vince, Matthew & Michael and the problems that come up at the gym. As the episodes go along, the show does get a greater sense of the ensemble. It introduces a couple of characters to help flesh out the world of the gym. And yet, the balance isn't quite right just yet. There's a story pertaining to each corner of the world in every episode. There is crossover. Michael always wants to insert himself into his immediate environment to get out of doing chores or boring math homework. Vince is learning just how far to encourage that while still being a present father looking out for his son's best interests. It's a show that does go for the schmaltzy, feel good moments of Vince actually being a good influence on Michael. But it's also a show with a desire for hijinks and zingers. The balance resembles the later years of The Mindy Project when the show mostly stuck to a particular status quo. That's still a very effective and watchable show here. But there's still hope for evolution as well to ensure that this show is remembered as fondly as that one was. There's a lot of promise here - as well as star making performances from Totah and Favreau.