“Champions” is almost great. The sitcom has a remarkably self-assured voice, embodied mostly by 15-year-old lead Michael Patel (J.J. Totah), a gay theater kid already polishing his collection of scathing, obscure bon mots on his immediate family. Totah isn’t really related to “Champions” co-creator Mindy Kaling — in the show, Kaling plays his mom, Priya — but his indignant, comedic cadence so resembles hers that it feels as if a tiny, male Kelly Kapoor is on your screen. (“How dare you?!” he squawks, in the pilot, in a familiar refrain. In “Champions,” after being raised solo by Priya in Cleveland, Michael moves in with his dad Vince (Anders Holm) so he can go to performing arts high school in New York City. But Vince barely knew about his son and had never met him before, so shifting from layabout overgrown manchild to responsible father isn’t the smoothest transition.
Totah steals every scene he’s in, with a facility that nearly makes everything around him work by osmosis. He’s joined, in scene-stealing charm, by his “new” uncle Matthew (Andy Favreau), a well-meaning but entirely clueless gym rat. Michael, who is by Priya’s admission quite spoiled, lords over his newfound father and uncle as a diminutive tyrant; that he is a different sexuality and racial background than both is just fuel for his verbal barbs. When that doesn’t work, Michael isn’t above guilting Vince for letting Priya raise his son without any help for 15 years. Totah’s commitment to his zingers is a fully physical one; he snaps to attention, makes sarcastic eye contact, or spins out of frame with precise, balletic grace.
Where the show starts to feel underdeveloped is the territory farthest from impetuous young Michael. Vince and Matt run the gym their father left them, and are pretty bad at it; their dysfunctional employees make up the rest of the supporting cast. But although it seems that everyone onscreen is doing their best, the gym plotlines rarely feel important. This may be partly due to the fact that Holm, while winning enough, isn’t a strong enough performer to hold down a whole show. It doesn’t help that Vince is so underwritten he’s almost indiscernible. Opposite outsize Totah and reliable Favreau, Holm disappears into the background of the show he’s ostensibly leading, which isn’t ideal. This is especially disappointing because Kaling, in the rare scenes where she’s calling or visiting from Cleveland, is such a magnetic force that she and Totah light up the screen. The first scene of the pilot is the two of them talking to Michael’s new guidance counselor at his high school, and the chemistry between them is so electric, it’s physical; they hold each other’s hands, touch each other’s hair, share knowing eye contact. Other characters inject that sorely needed vivacity into the proceedings — like Vince’s “on-again/off-again soulmate,” Brittany (Mouzam Makkar), or oversharing trainer Ruby (Fortune Feimster). But it’s lacking in the central relationship between father and son, and that makes “Champions” feel a little hollow.
On the plus side, the sitcom tackles comedy about gender, race, and sexuality with a confidence that is truly refreshing. One recurring gag is that Vince has almost exclusively dated South Asian women, like Priya and Brittany; it’s eye-rollingly recognizable, and quickly dismantled by his observant son. At one point in a meeting about new members, Brittany and coworker Shabaz (Yassir Lester) realize that the demographic leaving the gym is the same demographic that tipped the presidential election — “white women,” they say to each other in unison, making meaningful eye contact. In another storyline, Ruby, a lesbian, pretends to be straight in order to infiltrate the gym’s women-oriented competitor, appealingly named “Lumps.” Stumbling through her notes, she complains about her hypothetical husband reading her Playboys — and then stops, a little confused, as if she knows why that doesn’t make sense, but can’t figure out why.
With a little adjustment, “Champions” could be fantastic. The exceptionally diverse cast brings a lot to the table, and the writing is smart and fresh. But right now it’s a bit too disjointed to be a complete success.