J.J. Totah Is the Breakout Star of Mindy Kaling’s Mostly Solid Champions

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Andy Favreau, J.J. Totah, and Anders Holm form a family in Champions. Photo: NBC/Jordin Althaus/NBC

Some shows would be better off skipping all the setup that a pilot requires and beginning in medias res, three or four episodes into the season. Champions, the new NBC comedy from Mindy Kaling and Charlie Grandy, a writer who worked with Kaling on The Office and The Mindy Project, is that kind of show.

Its pilot, which airs Thursday, gets bogged down in semi- and totally unbelievable details that explain why Michael Patel (J.J. Totah, the breakout star of the series), an openly gay teenager who moves from Cleveland to New York City to attend a performing arts school, winds up living with the noncommittal father (Anders Holm) he never knew he had. But by the third episode — the last of three that NBC made available for advance review — the sitcom starts locking into a groove and allowing its characters to reveal their idiosyncrasies organically, instead of in the more forced manner of the pilot, which practically shouts, “Look how charmingly wacky all these people are going to be!”

In other words, Champions is a promising comedy, one that doesn’t arrive quite as fully formed as recent NBC gems like The Good Place or Great News, whose time slot it has inherited, but that offers enough funny moments and bright spots to place it squarely in the good category. As implied above, the brightest of those spots is Totah, the alum of Disney Channel’s Jessie, as well as the films Other People and Spider-Man: Homecoming, who plays Michael with supreme confidence and a blatantly queer eye that can veer toward the stereotypical. None of the adults Michael encounters ever make jokes at his expense, nor does his homosexuality become a television quote-unquote “issue,” at least in the first batch of episodes. He is easily the most hilarious person in the Champions version of Brooklyn simply because that’s who he is and he’s not afraid to show himself — or at least the version of himself with the stage name Miguel Blanchett Almódovar — to the world. That’s still a refreshing thing to see on television, especially in a mainstream network show, in a lead role owned by a young adult. On top of that, as Totah demonstrates in an audition that takes place near the end of episode one, the kid can sing the hell out of Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”

But before Michael can sing about “bad mistakes” and how he’s “made a few,” the pilot makes a couple of its own, most notably establishing its premise in a way that isn’t thoroughly convincing. Michael and his mother, Priya (Kaling), arrive in New York, ready to get him settled into life at the fictional Manhattan Academy for the Performing Arts, only to find out that the dean of students, who admitted Michael and offered him housing, has been arrested after a sting operation that the principal describes using three simple words: Jared from Subway. Michael is suddenly forced to reaudition for his spot and find his own place to live, prompting Priya to seek out Vince (Holm), the high-school ex who fathered Michael but has been kept out of his life, as both Priya and Vince agreed that would be best.

“That all makes sense, right, sweetheart?” Priya asks after explaining the complicated backstory to her son.

“Um,” says Michael, thinking for a second, “NO.” At least Champions owns up to its own absurdity.

Even so, it’s hard to believe that Priya would leave her son in the care of an irresponsible guy she hasn’t seen in more than a decade, and that Vince would so quickly take him in, especially since, mere minutes ago in TV time, he signed off on selling the gym — called Champions— that he inherited from his father so he could clandestinely ditch his New York life and move to Florida. One wonders why Kaling and Grandy didn’t cut out all the gym-selling business, which bleeds over into episode two. Having Vince, who also lives and works with his dim, musclebound brother Matthew (Andy Favreau), transition into Dad mode is plenty for the pilot to have to handle.

Ultimately, though, all the pilot is just establishing the foundation upon which joke-brick after joke-brick can be laid, with help from the same pop-culturally observant sensibility and outsize personalities that helped define The Mindy Project. You can see that formula being perfected as the show continues. The aggressive shamelessness of Ruby, a trainer at Champions played by comedian Fortune Feimster, who, like Holms, was a regular on The Mindy Project, gets funnier, especially in the third episode when she joins a competing all-female gym to act as a spy and winds up embracing its body-positive messaging.

When Matthew enters the same gym, he looks around at all the empowering quotes on the wall and marvels, “It’s like living inside my mom’s Facebook page.” The charms of that dumb dude-bro played by Favreau, which are predictable at first, start to grow on you, too. (I’ll save you a Google by telling you that Favreau, who has appeared on The Mick and Aquarius, is the brother of Obama speechwriter and Pod Save America host Jon Favreau.)

The blankest slate on the show is Vince who, at least early on, is so clearly tasked with playing the straight man that he doesn’t have much of a personality of his own. We know he’s a little unreliable, sometimes lazy, and interested in sports, which makes him … like pretty much every standard-issue guy in America? He’s obviously been positioned to serve as a foil to his son, but he could use at least another layer to make him seem like more of a real person.

Michael carries the majority of the personality weight in that relationship, but luckily Totah is up to the task, putting just the right knowing sauce on each line of dialogue. When he’s told to do his math homework so he can be a “beautiful mind,” for example, Michael is appalled: “The movie that took the Oscar from Moulin Rouge? How dare you.” The theater kid from Cleveland comes very close to out–Adam Ripponing Adam Rippon. That’s one of the reasons that I am very, very here for Michael Patel and Miguel Blanchett Almódovar and whatever comes next in their blossoming careers as young actors and reluctant citizens of Brooklyn.

J.J. Totah Is Tremendous in the Mostly Solid Champions