If you’re looking for comedy that is funny and fast paced, then the new sitcom Champions is for you. It premiered last Thursday, March 8th on NBC. Mindy Kaling, formerly of The Mindy Project, is an executive producer, writer, and occasional performer on Champions. The premise centres around Michael Patel (played by J.J. Totah) and his father Vince (played by Anders Holmes). Michael is a gay, biracial teenager from Ohio who has been accepted into a prestigious performing arts school in New York. Due to a clerical mix up and scandal at the school, Michael’s billet has fallen through and he ends up living with his father whom he has only just met.
A pilot episode is a tricky beast. Within twenty-two minutes, you have to establish setting, characters personalities, and the “situation” element of the sitcom (a.k.a. situation comedy). The plot of the first episode was sweet, but predictable. What really made Champions stand out were the engaging characters. Throughout the pilot episode, the characters are very in your face: the loveable bachelor, the sassy gay teen, the kind-hearted dope, and the fierce diva. Charlie Grandy, Champions co-creator, producer, and writer, addressed this issue in an interview with Playbill, “When you’re writing a pilot, there’s no room for nuance—especially for a network comedy… But when you’re trying to stand out from the 40 or 50 comedy pilots, and it’s just 30 pages, you have to make people say things that are little egregious.” Although some of these characters seem like tropes, it was so well done that I want to see more.
Vince is charming and likeable, a trait actor Anders Holmes has carried over from The Mindy Project and Workaholics. His bachelor lifestyle instantly changes once he has to start raising his son. I think most new parents think to themselves “What do I do now? What’s happened to my life?” Vince is really no different in that regard, except for the fact that his child is fifteen years old. It’s something that most parents can relate to even if Vince’s situation is a bit more extreme than most.
The most exciting character for me is Michael, by far the funniest character in the pilot. His dialogue is filled with hilarious one liners and witty observations (think Sofia from The Golden Girls, except he’s a fifteen year old teen obsessed with music theatre). A young gay man who loves music theatre seems like a stereotype, but LGBT inclusion in the writers’ room has quelled any concerns that Grandy and Kaling have, “You have gay writers on staff, and you have to take their lead.” Even from a short pilot you can tell that Michael’s sassiness is genuine, but a lot of his bravado is covering teenage insecurities. His wit, passion for the performing arts, and clear desire to make a connection with his dad make us want to root for him.
The Mindy Project received criticism in its first two seasons that the main character Mindy Lahiri’s Indian heritage was not fully explored. Mindy Kaling sometimes appeared frustrated with the idea that she had to represent all Indian American women, rather than just play the funny but flawed character of Mindy Lahiri. However, some of the best episodes in the later seasons of The Mindy Project had plots that revolved around Indian American identity. It seems that these experiences are influencing how Michael’s heritage will be dealt with on Champions. One of this season’s episodes is going to feature a storyline about Vince trying to help Michael connect with his Indian heritage. This is a story that many multicultural families will be able to relate to.
Michael is a person of colour and a young gay teenager, two demographics that are often marginalized. Coming of age in an era of identity politics is challenging for anyone, so it’s important to have a character like Michael Patel on network television. In a recent interview with Glamour, Kaling said “I wanted to help push that forward with showing him being out and loud and proud, particularly because he’s Indian. To me, a character like that who lives in Manhattan, where he’s dreamed of being, and he felt like an outsider in his own town, just felt like such a character you could root for, and America hasn’t seen yet.”
I identify a lot with Michael Patel. I am also biracial, with Indian and European heritage (although I’m a straight woman rather than a handsome, openly gay teenager). I have also known my whole life that my strengths lie in storytelling and the arts, just like Michael. It’s gratifying to see a character like this on screen.
Kaling and Grandy’s philosophy of representation is summed up in my favourite scene of the episode. Michael is about to play “We are the Champions” by Queen for an audition. He introduces it, saying “I’m going to perform my favourite song, written by another openly gay man who also happens to be Indian.” This leads to Vince saying to himself “Freddie Mercury was gay?”
The next episode of Champions airs the Thursday, March 15th at 9:30pm EST. I know that I’ll be watching.