The duo — who first worked together on “The Office” — are once again tackling the workplace in their new NBC sitcom, “Champions.”
Anders Holm stars as a washed-up athlete turned gym owner living in Brooklyn with his younger brother, played by Andy Favreau, when his old high school girlfriend, Priya (Kaling), breaks the news that they have a teenage son together. J.J. Totah portrays their openly gay 15-year-old son with big onstage aspirations.
“Champions” sees a number of familiar “Mindy Project” faces both in front and behind the camera, with Holm, Fortune Feimster, executive producer Matt Warburton, writer Chris Schleicher, and the crew all boarding the new show. Kaling herself has stepped away from leading her own series and into a guest role.
Ahead of its series premiere, Grandy spoke with Variety about what the show’s dynamic will look like, how the ensemble cast opens the door for deeper conversations, and why they chose to spotlight a gay teen.
Where did the idea for “Champions” come from?
It really started with Mindy wanting to tell another New York story. She felt she’d done her version of it with “The Mindy Project” and was trying to think of another way to stay in the city and find exciting, new characters that people hadn’t seen before. The thought of doing a very proudly out teenager coming to the city with big dreams but absolutely zero money felt fun. We’ve wanted to work together for a long time, and I have kids and my head was a little more in the family head space, so I basically said, “What if we take this kid and add a family?” We just built it out from there.
What’s the appeal about New York?
It’s just a very romantic place. We both lived there, worked there, we both got our big breaks [there], so perhaps we romanticize it a little bit. But especially for this kid who wants to be in musical theater, it just felt like the only place he could be.
Did you write it with Anders in mind for the lead?
He entered our thought pretty early in the process. We had worked with him on “The Mindy Project” and loved him as Pastor Casey, and we knew “Workaholics” was coming to an end. It just felt like rather than audition, let’s just go and walk this guy up who we know is going to be fantastic.
What were the discussions around Mindy as a guest star as opposed to a lead character?
It was really that she’ll come in, she’ll help launch it and then focus just on the creative side in the writers room and on the production side. The idea was to create this show, have her launch it, bring eyeballs to it, and then always have her around. [Holm’s character] Vince checks back in [with her] a few times over the course of the season, and she comes back for a big episode — our second to last episode. There was always this belief of this show had to be able to succeed without her or it couldn’t succeed at all. We wrote accordingly.
How will the family dynamic be structured?
[Totah’s character Michael] is just getting a lot more discipline. Vince and [Favreau’s character] Matthew were raised with a lot more discipline — Vince, especially, was much more of a serious athlete and kind of brings that towards his parenting. That’s where most of the conflict comes from, at least on the parenting issues. There’s also certain things in the new dynamic [such as] Vince having to give the sex talk to Michael, which is something he had not planned on doing. The fact that his son is gay makes it even more fraught. The nice thing about setting it in the gym is we really use the gym as an extended family, too. It’s not just Vince and Matthew, you have a whole host of characters that are chiming in.
How will it be different than other shows about two and a half men?
To take it back to the ensemble, it allows us to cover certain issues. We do an episode where Vince has to admit that maybe the gym and his attitudes are not as welcoming to women as he thought. Or Michael getting in touch with his Indian roots, and how does that affect Vince and how he was raised? It feels like we can have more discussions in an open forum that a lot of shows can’t, given just the diverse nature of the ensemble.
Do you find it important that the show addresses LGBTQ, women and diversity issues?
I just feel if you’re not going to address those issues, why even do a show like this? That was the point from the very beginning. We wanted to have a very diverse cast, where we could raise anything we found interesting. The topics we enjoy discussing in the room typically make the best episodes.
What was the conversation in deciding to make their son gay?
It came from in the writers room and actors, performers, writers we’d met who are gay and just having a specific voice that we hadn’t seen well represented on television. Just thinking about the contrast between Vince, this former athlete, and having a son who [is gay]. What I like the most is we don’t make that an issue. We don’t go there. Immediately in the pilot, his son brings it up, and Vince and Matt are both like, “Great, we’re on board.” But where do you go from there as parents?
What will the balance of Michael at school, owning the gym, and dating look like?
All of it. We don’t really get to the school until the end of the season. It’s mostly at the home and in the gym. In terms of dating, there’s a little bit with all the characters. Romances come and go, there’s a romantic arc through the season, and Michael has crushes throughout the season.
Was there temptation to do something different after “The Mindy Project” ended?
That was much more of a office comedy, this is more of a family-office comedy hybrid. We, toward the end, could do some family issues [on “The Mindy Project”], but we couldn’t get into it that much. That’s not where that show lived — that was a real romantic comedy. This show does very well when we’re able to pull parenting issues into a larger cover story of something that’s going on in the gym.
How much of the current climate has influenced the show?
Everyone has a strong attitude. We try to discuss, if we get into an issue, for instance, our fourth episode, a Curves style gym comes to town and is starting to poach clients. That raises a discussion of what should the gym do — and I think there you’re very aware of how women, especially middle aged women, have been viewed and treated by society. In that sense, we absolutely try to be as culturally aware and sensitive as we can.
How did you guys land on the title?
Naming a show is so hard. It was TBD for the entire time. We were trying to think of gym names and then what are gym names you can clear? Champions just came about because in the pilot, there’s a moment toward the end that comes back in a different way. It has this subtle connection between Vince and Michael toward the end. Like any title, that ends up being the one everyone agrees on [laughs]. It’s so long and those discussions are always so fraught, you just try to black it out as soon as it’s over. Any time you think back you’re like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe we thought of naming it that.” You just sort of cringe.
“Champions” premieres Thursday, Mar. 11 at 9:30 p.m. on NBC.