One of the true wins of Peak TV is the fact we now have more women’s stories on our televisions than ever before. Because, as we’ve seen over the last decade, the more chances women get to actually create television, the more honest depictions of womanhood we get splashed across our screens. Viewers can now watch true-to-life ladies deal with mental illness (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), the trials and tribulations of sex and dating (Insecure, New Girl, Broad City), and boundless ambition (the entire TGIT lineup) every single week.
But, women shouldn’t be limited to creating shows with protagonists who look just like them. It’s not like men stopped themselves from creating the original lady-led icons of 1966’s That Girl and 1970’s Mary Tyler Moore or current cultural juggernauts like Big Little Lies, Handmaid’s Tale, or grown-ish. One show hints the tide just might be changing for women creators, and that show is Champions.
The NBC comedy is Mindy Kaling’s first series after the close of her beloved FOX-turned-Hulu rom-com The Mindy Project. Everything about Kaling’s career and public persona suggests she would pick up with something as complexly woman-focused as Mindy, whether we’re talking about her many feminist memoirs, her love of Nora Ephron, or her unapologetically feminine wardrobe. Even Kaling’s biggest role to date is A Wrinkle In Time, which features a sprawling woman-led cast and a woman director. Mindy Kaling loves women.
Yet, Champions, co-created with Mindy Project writer, executive producer, and man Charlie Grandy, is undoubtedly masculine at the surface. The series is about two Brooklyn brothers named Vince (Anders Holm) and Matthew (Andy Favreau), whose entire life revolves around the gym they run together, which was handed down to them by their late father. All of this complacency is shaken up by the arrival of theater kid Michael (J.J. Totah), the teen son Vince never knew he had. All of the posters for Champions feature these three smiling dudes of various ages, and no one else. Thursday night’s second episode, “I Think I'm Gonna Tolerate It Here,” hinges on an arcade-style basketball game. The entire show’s homebase is Vince and Matthew’s dingy, old-man-filled gym.
Despite all the testosterone surging around Champions, it doesn’t feel like it’s lost any of Kaling's classic vibes. The primary reason for this is because the new show is still filled with women. Kaling sometimes pops up as Michael’s Ohio-living mom Priya. The most intelligent, grounded character in the entire Champions world is bookkeeper Dana (Ginger Gonzaga). Fortune Feimster is playing Ruby, the gym employee version of her brash Mindy Project character Colette. Mouzam Makkar brings to life another Kaling-created Indian woman who plays against stereotype as Instagram model and influencer Britney. The fitness trainer, whose name is spelled in the same way as Britney Spears’, is far more likely to throw a party for a vodka you ingest through your butt — “Posterier: absorb the night” — than fix a computer or throw on a silly supposedly Southeast Asian accent.
That last little detail is what truly makes Champions feel like a Kaling production, which NBC very much wants you to remember it is. The trick of Kaling’s comedy is that it’s far more biting, culturally critical, and ridiculous than many people realize because it’s said so quickly with such a sunny affect. This tendency perfected on Mindy and in the pages of Why Not Me continues on Champions, as we see on Thursday night’s “Tolerate It Here.” In an attempt to keep Michael from the gym, Vince lies to his new son, saying, “We’re closed because they found a body behind the gym. And it’s white, so they actually want to find out who did it.” Minutes later, Michael bemoans the fact he can’t leave the apartment, coming to the realization, “I’m tired of being cooped up in here like Belle. Or Tangled. Or Sleeping Beauty. Damn, Disney, you lock up more women than the Taliban.”
Michael’s portrayer, actual former Disney kid J.J. Totah, believes his character “definitely brings a femininity to the show,” as the actor recently told Refinery29. He’s not wrong, since Michael does have a lot of the same qualities of Mindy Project heroine, Mindy Lahiri (Kaling). As “Tolerate It Here” reveals, the Broadway hopeful, a proud gay teen who moves to New York to follow his dreams, is a chaotic slob unable to cook for himself in the same way Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) often complained Mindy was. They’re both impossibly clumsy, as Michael gets himself trapped inside of a sofa bed and Mindy ends her series by getting her entire arm stuck inside of a vending machine. The pair even has similarly over-the-top alter-egos: Michael’s stage moniker of Miguel Blanchett Almodovar and Mindy’s “warrior name,” Beyoncé Pad Thai.
While Michael is the obvious Mindy stand-in, brothers Vince, the de facto hero, and Matthew, with his well-meaning simple sidekick shtick, have a Mindy-Morgan Tookers (Ike Barinholtz) situation developing.
All together, Anders Holm, who plays failed baseball player and new dad Vince, agrees the entire show points toward a future where women writers aren’t in charge of “women only” shows. “As a man, who brings masculinity… ” the Kaling collaborator joked during an interview with R29, “I can’t say this, because I’m just a white man, but we’ve been writing for other people forever. So, part of me is like, ‘Won’t it be nice when everyone can just write for everyone?’ But we’re not there yet. According to me, a white man.”
Well, it would be nice if Mindy Kaling — and New Girl’s Liz Meriweathe, Jane The Virgin’s Jennie Snyder Urman, Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and every other woman currently winning the television game — could be the voice of leading men, swole action heroes, griping garbage men, and everyone in between. Hopefully, Champions is the first step in that direction.
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