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No trophy for you: NBC's Champions is mostly just a participant


Two dense brothers and a know-it-all gay kid comprise Champions. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, March 8th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Anders Holm, Andy Favreau, J.J. Totah, Fortune Feimster, Yassir Lester, Ginger Gonzaga, Mouzam Makkar, Robert Costanzo, with recurring appearances by Mindy Kaling
Produced by: Mindy Kaling, Charlie Grandy, Howard Klein, Matt Warburton, Michael Spiller

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Broad, hit-and-mostly-miss sitcoms generally are affixed with laugh tracks to underscore their need to feel wanted.

NBC’s Champions doesn’t have one, which tends to make most of the jokes fall even flatter. Surprisingly, it’s a co-creation of Mindy Kaling and Charlie Grandy, who also worked together on The Office and The Mindy Project. So quite a bit better was expected from the three episodes made available for review.

Champions is built around two well-meaning brothers without an abundance of candle power. They’re now running the Brooklyn Champions Athletic Club with a staff of mostly inept trainers that no one would hire but them. The place has been passed down from their father.

Vince Cook (Anders Holm) once had a promising baseball career until he screwed it up. Brother Matthew (Andy Favreau) is hunkier, but might have trouble spelling cat unless he’s first had his Wheaties. In the premiere episode’s opening scene, an aggrieved husband shows up with a pistol in search of the Cook who slept with his wife. It turns out to be Vince, who’s saved from a bullet to the head when Matthew persuades the guy that his brother is more miserable alive than dead.

Meanwhile, the son that Vince never knew he had (wow, what a novel twist) is now 15, openly gay and suddenly denied enrollment in a prestigious school after the dean of students who recruited him got caught in a “Jared from Subway-type sting.” Michael (J.J. Totah) and his mom, Priya (the recurring Kaling), are told he’ll have to re-audition. This means Michael will need a place to stay. Which prompts mom to spring his existence on Vince, who shares a pad above the gym with Matthew. Don’t expect any of this to make any real-world sense.

Michael is an entitled sort of kid who’s chock full of ‘tude and stereotypically “gay” ways of doing and saying things. In Episode 2, he’s aghast at seeing the brothers’ in-home Pop-A-Shot arcade game. “What is that?” he asks. “It looks homophobic.”

Michael also is proud of getting a D on a math test. “Who cares?” he tells Vince in Episode 3. “I’m an artist, not a black woman at NASA in the ‘60s.” This one might sail over some heads -- and certainly over dad’s. Later in this episode, Michael retorts, “No, honey, the only thing I steal is scenes.”

Vince, who wants to sell the gym and blow town, presides over a staff that virtually guarantees bankruptcy. Cranky Uncle Bud (Robert Costanzo) spews Brooklyn-ese from his right wing perch. He’s just bought a houseboat that’s being dubbed The Crooked Hillary. But all lives matter to him, even those of the “gender confusos.”

The gym’s super-gruff, plus-sized lesbian trainer, named Ruby (Fortune Feimster), disdains just about everyone and everything. Shabaz (Yassir Lester) is more interested in being a playwright with addled ideas than in building any bodies. He also dispenses what has to be television’s very first joke dropping the names of Sterling K. Brown and Ryan Murphy. Perhaps one in 100 viewers will get it -- and still not laugh.

Some of the scenes play out OK, and Favreau has a marginally winning way with the doofus brother he plays. As the self-described scene-stealer, newcomer Totah also gets in a few good jabs.

None of this seems nearly good enough, though, to make Champions more than a likely short-termer on the TV sitcom conveyor belt.

One almost longs for a guest appearance by Sean Hayes, whose Will & Grace will serve as Champions’ Thursday night lead-in. He could drop a 10-pound dumbbell on his big toe before cavorting and contorting for a minute or so in a Jerry Lewis mode. Hayes once effectively played Lewis in a made-for-TV movie, so he might well be up to the task of injecting Champions with some sorely needed cheap belly laughs. Just trying to help.

GRADE: C-minus

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