How a Gay, Half-Indian, Musical-Loving Teen Became the Center of NBC’s Champions

Film & TV Features   How a Gay, Half-Indian, Musical-Loving Teen Became the Center of NBC’s Champions
Champions co-creator Charlie Grandy discusses joining forces with Mindy Kaling to explore racial and sexual identity, non-traditional families, and nods to Les Mis.
J.J. Totah on <i>Champions</i>
Mindy Kaling and J.J. Totah on Champions Jordin Althaus/NBC

In the pilot of NBC’s Champions, single mother Priya (Mindy Kaling) says goodbye to her son Michael as she leaves him to stay in New York with the father he just learned he had. “You were the sweetest little boy,” she says affectionately. “Until you turned four. Then you saw Bernadette Peters sing ‘Send in the Clowns’ on PBS, and you have complained every day since that you need to live in New York City.” His response? A quick sampling of the Sondheim staple.

Charlie Grandy
Charlie Grandy Evans Vestal Ward/NBCUniversal

Such sirens to theatre enthusiasts ring throughout the new comedy, premiering March 8. The series, created by The Office and The Mindy Project cohorts Kaling and Charlie Grandy, follows the emerging relationship between 15-year-old Michael, confident in both his sexual orientation and cultural allusions (Other People standout J.J. Totah), and his father Vince (Workaholics’ Anders Holm), a washed-up high school athlete who owns and operates a Brooklyn gym with his brother Matthew (Andy Favreau). As Michael moves in to attend a performing arts school, he and Vince navigate their newfound father-son dynamic.

In the interview below, Grandy discusses developing the series, his connection to the theatre world, and representation in the writers’ room.

You and Mindy both had your own ideas for a series before coming together. How did you blend your individual concepts into a cohesive story?
I had always been developing pilots of family shows, but was never able to get anything over that final hump. She had always been a fan of my writing, and I obviously love her. She just had this rough outline of an athlete fallen from grace who reconnects with this character, Michael. From the outset, she had him as this gay half-Indian—loves Broadway, is moving to New York from the Midwest without a lot of money. It was that thing of me wanting to have a family feel to it, because that's my life. I have three kids; when I'm not at work, I'm just doing family stuff. So anything I can bring to the table is going to be about a family dynamic.

What was the driving force behind how you both saw Michael?
We wanted him to be very strong-willed from the beginning. He has no money, a little bit of talent, and a dream. For this kid to be able to get by in life, having felt very alienated in Ohio, you just have to not back down and say exactly what he's feeling, and be unapologetic. That's great for life, but also great for comedy and conflict.

J.J. Totah seems like a miraculous find for that type of person.
When we were writing, we were like, how are we going to find this kid? And J.J. walked in the door. He's so funny, had worked so much, and has brought so much to the character. And you rewrite so much over the course of the pilot; you learn that this isn't working, but this is. It's a lot of trial and error to hone in on what material the actors are really able to respond to and hit out of the park.

How did Michael evolve throughout that pilot process?
Michael became sweeter in the process. He was a little more arch. When you're writing a pilot, there's no room for nuance—especially for a network comedy. Once you get it up on its legs, absolutely. But when you're trying to stand out from the 40 or 50 comedy pilots, and it's just 30 pages, you have to make people say things that are little egregious.

Mindy is vocal online about her enthusiasm for musical theatre—was she the one spearheading all of his Les Mis and Bernadette Peters references?
You know, Bernadette Peters might have been me. My sister is still primarily a musical theatre performer in Chicago, and was in New York for years. My whole life growing up was going to see my sister perform in summer stock and shows through college and whatnot. There were very specific memories I have of Bernadette Peters singing and my sister trying to sound like her. So that was a huge part of my life, which was another reason I was able to latch onto the Michael character.

Was there ever any concern that this musical-loving gay kid relied too much on a cliché?
Of course, but not too much, because you ask if it's justified from story. You have gay writers on staff, and you have to take their lead. You look to them for pitches and make sure it's not just a stereotype. You're making him a person with strong emotional storylines, and they're never there to be the butt of the joke or just to pepper jokes in. I feel we've done a good job of giving him really strong wants, both professionally and emotionally, over the course of the season.

J.J. Totah on <i>Champions</i>
J.J. Totah on Champions Jordin Althaus/NBC

Does that include further examining his identity as both half-Indian and an out, gay teen?
We have episodes that deal with both of those specifically and less specifically. We didn't want it to be a show where every single episode deals with an issue, but we wanted to be open to organically discuss issues. Like raising a son who's half-Indian, and the son is starting to discover his own Indian culture. Vince was already struggling to connect with his son, and it ends up driving them even further apart. How can this guy help his son connect to his own culture? That's an episode. Michael has a little romantic arc towards the end of the season, which is really fun. We want to explore everything we can, and that was the nice thing about having only ten episodes. It really makes you focus on the ten stories you want to tell right now.

Is it a challenge to consciously explore those topics without making it a “one issue per episode” series?
You start with a story idea, and then you realize you're maybe touching on something, and you ask how you can delve into that and have these guys learn something. One episode, we start with this basic idea of a competitive gym. And then that goes into this larger idea of women's safe spaces. What's the real story beneath this? Let’s flesh that out. But if there wasn't something there, we didn't force it. When you have interesting people in your writers’ room, and they're pitching from personal experience, they're touching things that have meant something to them. Usually, that’s related to a larger issue.

You need a diverse writers’ room to tell diverse stories.
As a straight white male, there are only so many stories I can think of. And with Mindy, as a wealthy Indian female, there are only so many stories she can think of. But they're not really similar to those stories I can think of. So the more unique voices you invite to the table, the more interesting it's going to be. And it being in New York just makes sense. That's where everyone goes to pursue their dreams. To give all of the characters their own hopes and desires—however big or small—that helped us unlock these characters. That helps with the authenticity as well.

Will there be more opportunities to showcase Michael and his classmates' talent?
We found that when we went to the school and we cast Michael’s friends, there's so much great, young talent. All these young kids, coming up through Nickelodeon and Disney, they all know how to sing, they all know how to act, and they all know how to tell jokes. It's crazy. So if we could find a way to tap into that more, I would love it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

J.J. Totah and Anders Holm in <i>Champions</i>
J.J. Totah and Anders Holm in Champions Jordin Althaus/NBC
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