"Explorer" is back and warlords are a target

There really was a time when basic-cable was kind of empty. It had reruns and wrestling and music videos, but few original shows that amounted to much. "Explorer" entered that turf in 1985, becoming one of the best of a small field; now it returns as a monthly series. It's opener (Sunday, Aug. 30) is dark and grim, but also admirably ambitious. Here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

“Explorer” is
back, returning to a cable world it helped create.

This was once one of
the best shows on basic-cable, almost by default. It kept getting
better, but so did everything else. It had five networks, famous
hosts, piles of awards ... then faded out.

But now it's back as
a monthly series, starting with something it couldn't have imagined
in the early days – a dangerous plunge into the world of warlords,
elephant slaughter and tusk-smuggling.

“I wanted to go to
the worst of the worst places, where the most violent people are
going after elephants,” said Bryan Christty, head of National
Geographic Channel's criminal-investigation unit.

The channel wasn't
launched until 1997 overseas and 2001 in the U.S., but “Explorer”
began in 1985.

Back then, National
Geographic did occasional big projects for PBS, but was eyeing this
new cable world. It planned a simple magazine show, using films that
had already been shot around the world.

The competition was
scarce back then. At times, “Explorer” was the only American
buyer for a documentary; it filled up three hours every Sunday.

Soon, it began
adding its own films. “It's the longest-running documentary series
in cable-television history, with more than 2,000 films and nearly 60
Emmys,” said Tim Pastore, now the channel's head of original

Along the way, it
kept moving. It started on Nickelodeon ... spent 13 years on TBS ...
had brief stints on CNBC and MSNBC ... and finally reached the
National Geographic Channel in 2004.

It also tried famous
hosts – Tom Chapin, Robert Urich, Boyd Matson, Lisa Ling, even
Robert Ballard, the man who found the “Titanic.” But by 2011-12,
it was down to occasional films, then disappeared.

Its return links
with a fresh philosophy at the channel.

The NGC reality
shows (heavy on Alaska) may have been indistinguishable from those on
other cable channels; the change began when NGC and Fox revived
“Cosmos,” said Courteney Monroe, the channel's CEO. “I think
'Cosmos' really demonstrated to us that smart, entertaining and
high-quality ... storytelling and Hollywood production techniques can
really draw an audience.”

With its global
reach -- “we are in 171 countries,” Monroe said – Geographic
can amp up its budgets and its ambitions. The “Explorer” debut
offers a prime example.

“We created fake
ivory tusks,” said producer J.J. Kelley, “and did something
nobody's done before, put a GPS tracker” inside.

With that tracker,
he said, they followed the tusks through three African countries and
“into some very dangerous places where everyone else had AK-47s and
we had cameras.”

The result is
chilling, Christy said. It's “a new face of ivory-poaching –
warlords funding themselves.”

And it's the sort of
film no one would have imagined, in the early days of cable and

-- “Explorer”
return as monthly series, National Geographic Channel

-- Opener is 8 p.m.
Sunday (Aug. 30), rerunning at 1 a.m.; also, 9 a.m. Sept. 6.

-- Preceded by
reruns of past “Explorer” hours, noon to 8 p.m. Saturday and
Sunday; followed, at 9 p.m. Sunday, by “Elephant Queen” on sister
channel NatGeo Wild.

-- Upcoming editions
include “Lost City of the Monkey God,” “Cult of Mary” and
Bill Nye's “The Five Stages of Climate Change Grief”


On TV -- and, probably, on tour -- these dancers do it all

This as been a great season on "So You Think You Can Dance." Yes, there's the new "stage vs. street" gimmick, but that's just a start. Often, the "street dancers" have had plenty of stage classes; the "stage" people have studied hip-hop. These guys do it all and do it well,. Now "Dance" is getting ready to start tour-ticket sales (Aug. 28) and for its finale (Sept. 14). Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

The “So You Think
You Can Dance” tour will reach some fancy places, suitable for
cellists and tuxedoes and such.

There's an opera
house in Baltimore and a symphony hall in San Diego. There are
theaters with regal names, including the Majestic, the Palace and
four Paramounts.

But the roots of all
this are much simpler. For Hailee Payne, it started in a tiny dance
studio in suburban Utah; for Virgil Gadson, it started on his front
steps in Philadelphia.

“I watched a lot
of music videos and dance videos with my family,” Gadson said.
Michael Jackson, M.C. Hammer and James Brown were big. His cousins
danced; he was the little kid watching.

He's still little,
at 5-foot-3 -- “I have to make myself look bigger onstage” -- but
he's in something big:

-- The “Dance”
show, Mondays on Fox. It's down to its final six now (including
Gadson and Payne); on Sept. 14, it will have a winner.

-- The tour,
starting a month later, with (so far) 55 shows scheduled in 105 days.
“This will be something,” Payne said. “As dancers, we're
usually selling something or we're behind (musical) artists. But now
people will be coming to see us.”

What they'll see
will range afar. “So You Think You Can Dance” is known for
passionate pieces – in the choreography category alone, it's won
eight Emmys, with more than 30 nominations – and its variety.

This season, for the
first time, the show has split into two sides. Team Stage (including
Payne) ranges from ballet to Broadway, from tap to jazz; Team Street
(including Gadson) goes from krump to hip hop. “We're fighters.
(We) go for it, full out,” he said.

Except that the
lines aren't nearly that precise. Both sides seem ready for anything.

“As dancers, we
always want to get in there and do everything,” said Payne, who
found a studio that would teach it all. “We were wacking and
popping, and locking and housing and ..:”

In the same way,
Gadson has studied some jazz, tap, modern, even ballet, Still, his
start at age 3 was doing Michael moves with his cousin on that front
porch, for his mom (a dental assisatant) and family.

They continued to
study neighborood moves; at 12, they won a contest and a chance to
study dance at Freedom Theatre. Hip hop was strong there, but so were
other styles,including Broadway. “I always told my friends, 'I
wanna be in “The Lion King,”'” Gadson said.

And he did reach
Broadway, dancing in “After Midnight.” The show ran eight months;
then Gadson, who had finished in the top 30 in 2011, was persuaded to
try “Dance” one more time.

For Payne, that show
was always the focus. “When I was 8 years old, I watched the first
season and said, 'I want to be on there' .... I would watch it and
tape it every season.”

At 4, she'd seen the
Radio City Rockettes on TV and announced she wanted to be a dancer.
Her dad (a sales rep and dance fan) and mom (who processes medical
claims) agreed instantly.

Utah is a prime
source of “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance”
contestants. “There are new studios popping up all the time,” she
said. “They sure must want us to be dancers.”

Now she is one,
after hectic preparations. She switched studios four times. She had
to quit softball and didn't have time for prom; “it was just go to
school, go to classes, go to sleep .... But I loved it.”

Both have had
patched-up dance lives Gadson, 28, moved to New York, where he
dances, teaches and tours; Payne, 20, has stayed in Utah, teaching
dance and working part-time as a pharmacy assistant.

But now – for
three-and-a-half busy months – they'll be full-time dancers. “It's
going to be a lot of fun and it's going to be tiring,” Gadson said.
“It's going to be the real tour experience.”

The show

-- “So You Think
You Can Dance” 8-10 p.m. Mondays, Fox.

-- Three weeks and
six dancers remain. On Aug. 31, the show names its final four; it
calls the Sept. 7 and Sept. 14 episodes a two-part finale.

-- Remaining Team
Street dancers, with their specialities: Virgil Gadson, 28, hip hop;
Jaja Vankova, 23, krump; Megz Alfonso, 29, hip hop

-- Team Team Stage:
Gaby Diaz, 19, tap; Jim Nowakowski, 26, ballet; Hailee Payne, 20,

The tour

-- Tickets go on
sale Friday; see www.fox.com/sytycd

-- Additional Team
Street: Neptune, 25, freestyle; JJ Rabone, 30, contemporary

-- Additional Team
Stage: Derek Piquette, 18, and Edwin Juarez, 24, both contemporary


Looking like Danny Trejo is a great career move, but a tough start

There's a fierce energy to the "Dusk Till Dawn" series that somehow gets us past its flaws. The show is the center of El Rey, the cable -- and satellite and streaming and such -- network that reflect Robert Rodriguez's passion for action. Now "Dusk" starts its second season Tuesday, after a marathon; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Others can grumble
about typecasting in Hollywood, but Danny Trejo has a bigger concern:

As a kid, he says,
he was typecast in life. “There would be a bunch of us together,”
Trejo said. “But the police always went to me.”

He looked meaner,
looked guiltier. That was a bad thing throughout his youth, much of
which he spent behind barrs; then it became a good thing, propelling
an acting career.

As he talked about
this, he was sitting next to his colleague from the “Dusk Till
Dawn” series, creating a visual contrast. There was:

-- Trejo, 71, craggy
and imposing – a reminder of his “Machete” movie roles.

-- Wilmer
Valderrama, 35 and sort of sweet-faced -- a reminder of his “That
'70s Show” years.

For Valderrama, the
fierce “Dusk” is a new esperience. “It lets you exercise
different muscles,” he said.

That's usually just
actor talk, but in this case it's literal: Valderrama hit the gym
between seasons, giving his character (Carlos) a new set of muscles.
“My girlfriend is glad I did it,” he said.

And this is no
standard girlfriend. He's been dating actress-singer Demi Lovato, 23.

When Trejo was her
age, he was occupying a different universe. By various accounts, he
did time in six California prisons until he was about 30. He became a
prison boxing champion and went through a 12-step program, staying
sober ever since. Then his tough image led to an acting career.

“For my first
years, I was Inmate #1, Gang Member 2,” Trejo said. “I was the
bad Latino.”

He played guys named
Spider, Hawk, Sharkey, Scarface, Geronimo and Razor Charlie. That
last one was in “From Dusk Till Dawn,” the 1996 film that saw
crooks – Quentin Tarantino (who wrote the script) and George
Clooney -- hide in a nightspot, unaware it's a vampire hangout. The
film led to:

-- More “Dusk.”
There were two direct-to-video sequels and then the series. It
launched in March of 2014, as the centerpiece of Rodriguez's new El
Rey network; now its second season begins.

-- A steady of Trejo
in Rodriguez movies. One character, named Machete, had supporting
roles in four “Spy Kids” family films, then became the center of
two action films for grown-ups.

Now Trejo and
Rodriguez are back together. Late in the opener (Aug. 25) of the
second “Dusk Till Dawn” season, we meet him as a fierce soul
known as The Regulator.

“I think the
Regulator is kind of a cross between Machete and Marcia Brady,”
Trejo said.

He really did play
Marcia (sort of) in an ofbeat commercial. Trejo does comedy
sometimes, but “Dusk” takes him back to the dark side. The
season's second episode, Rodriguez said, has “Danny eating an
eyeball and being able to see what the guy is seeing. (Then you know)
you are in for a ride.”

Rodriguez directed
the season-opener and the season-finale – which includes a guest
role for Lovato. “I wanted to direct her,” he said. “She has
some great personality ... and she's got great acting chops.”

Back when he was
looking for young Latinas for “Spy Kids,” Rodriguez auditioned a
pair of 10-year-old Texas friends, Lovato and Selena Gomez. He
rejected them then, but both went on to be big stars. Now Lovato will
do an episode alongside her boyfriend, who's had his own

Born in Miami,
Valderrama spent his early years in Latin America. His family fled
north, he said, with little money. “I didn't speak English until I
was in school.”

Then it all worked
out. As a teen, he did plays and a commercial. At 18, he became a
“70s Show” star.

Life is pleasant,
sometimes, if you look sweet; it's tougher if you look like Danny

-- “From Dusk Till
Dawn,” 9 p.m. Tuesdays, El Rey network; second season starts Aug.

-- That's preceded
by a marathon, from 11 a.m.; opener reruns at 10 p.m., midnight, 1
and 3 a.m.

-- El Rey -- via cable, satellite and streaming 00 also has
Robert Rodriguez's “Director's Chair” interviews with other
filmmakers. Reruns are 8 and 9 a.m. weekdays, plus some evenings; the
next new one is George Miller, Aug. 30.

-- El Rey recently
finished first season of “Lucha Underground” wrestling series. It
also has “Miami Vice” reruns and reflects Rodriguez's passion for
action films; see www.elreynetwork.com.


Bluntly speaking, Patrick Stewart does it all

When I turn 75, I highly doubt that a dozen chorus-line beauties will want to chat with me, much less dance with me. But then again, I'm not Sir Patrick Stewart, a master of past kingdoms and future universes. Stewart is remarkable in "Blunt Talk," which debuts Saturday on Starz, rerunning often. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Patrick Stewart's
vast skill-set is ready to go on display. In cable's new “Blunt
Talk” series, Stewart does ... well, everything.

In the opening
episode, he does comedy, tragedy, a bit of swordplay and a passage
from King Claudius in “Hamlet.” We kind of expect all of that
from a Shakespearean master.

But the second
episode starts with him embedded among a dozen chorus girls, doing a
big dance number. “We began about three weeks (early), because it
was an elaborate sequence,” Stewart said.

And before it was
trimmed, he insisted, it was “a piece of iconic American televion
.... The moments that are missing are Gene Kelly moments.”

He's joking about
that, perhaps, but the dancing is competent ... as is everything
Stewart tries. He's “conquered every genre that he has attempted,”
said Seth MacFarlane, a “Blunt Talk” producer. “He's done
hourlong drama; he's done live theater. He's done ... comedy; he's
hosted 'Saturday Night Live.'”

He's spent a lot of
time back in the 16th century, thanks to Shakespeare, but
also spent seven years in the 24th century, captaining the
Enterprise. Arriving from England, he said, he'd expected the U.S. to
be “a free society, in which status ... was of no significance at
all. Well, I very quickly found out that being in a syndicatedm
science-fiction television show put me way down that hierarchical

Yes, that's more of
the Stewart humor, encasing bits of truth. Somehow, Emmy voters
ignored his splendid stay on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

His other work,
however, has been roundly honored. He's had four Emmy nominations and
(for spoken word) a Grammy win. He has one Tony nomination, plus two
wins in the British equivalent, the Olivier Award. He's also been

Now Sir Patrick
plays a deep character. He's Walter Blunt, a well-meaning news-talk

“His heart is
always in the right place,” said Jonathan Ames, the “Blunt”
creator. “He wants to do the right thing, (but) there might be a
lapse in judgment or an impulsive moment or a vulnerable moment.”

He makes a huge,
alcohol-fueled mistake in the opener, then tries to right it with
sheer bravado; in the second eisode, he veers toward a giant lapse of
journalistic ethics. Yet in between, he seems so fragile that we feel
more sympathy than disdain.

Also in-between is
the dream scene. “I had seen these Busby Berkeley videos on YouTube
and I was fascinated with the images,” Ames said, “that something
would open up like an eye.”

So he asked a
75-year-old knight to spend extra time being in a chorus line.
Stewart agreed.

“When does an
actor with my kind of background get to do a scene like that with 12
brilliant and beautiful women?” he asked. “It was an unexpected

-- “Blunt Talk,”
9 p.m. Saturdays, Starz; debuts Aug. 22

-- Opener reruns at
10:05 p.m., 11:15 p.m., 3 a.m.; then Sunday at 10:20 a.m., 3:10, 8
and 11:30 p.m.

-- Also reruns at
3:25, 6:05 and 9 p.m. Tuesday; 11:15 p.m. Friday (Aug. 28) and 8:25
p.m. Aug. 29, before the second episode. Plus 7 p.m. Sunday on sister
channel Encore.


Old 'SNL' guys go to great lenghts -- and to Iceland -- for new comedy

Here's a good general rule for comedy fans: If Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen or Bill Hader are involved, give it a try; from "Weekend Update" to "Portlandia," they've brought some big laughs. Now all three are combining for "Documentary Now," which debuts Thursday (Aug. 20) on cable's IFC. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

TV-comedy landscape used to seem limited. It had sketches and sitcoms
and stand-up and such, all done in a studio.

But a new generation
often prefers a cinematic approach. “Documentary Now” -- debuting
Thursday (Aug. 20) on the IFC cable channel -- continues a trend that

-- Latenight. Jimmy
Fallon and James Corden – actors, not stand-up comedians – show a
fondness for filmed bits; Stephen Colbert says he'll do the same when
he starts in September.

-- “Saturday Night
Live.” Filmed bits – rare, for a while – are now common and

-- And fresh
projects from “SNL” alumni. “There are so many more places that
are doing comedy,” Seth Meyers said. “IFC has been such a great
home for this from the beginning.”

Even while he was on
“SNL,” Fred Armisen raced west each summer to make “Portlandia.”
It became a staple for IFC (formerly Independent Film Channel), with
“Maron,” “Comedy Bang Bang” and more,

Other “SNL”
people, led by Will Ferrell, have made two mock miniseries on IFC.
And now four “SNL alumni – Meyers, Armisen, Bill Hader and
director Rhys Thomas – have “Documentary Now.”

The show offers mock
documentries, a comic tradition since Rob Reiner made “This is
Spinal Tap,” 31 years ago. “It's one of the greatest movies
ever,” Armisen said.

So “Documentary
Now” will include a film about a fictional band, the Blue Jean
Committee. It will also have variation on “Grey Gardens,” “Nanuck
of the North” and one of Meyers' favorites:

“Growing up,
watching 'Siskel & Ebert' was a big deal,” he said. “And they
were real champions of 'The Thin Blue Line' .... I worked at a video
store and that was one of the first documentaries I remember

That film told of
the rush to convict a murder suspect, pitting a skilled prosecutor
against a clumsy, about-to-retire defense attorney. In contrast,
“Grey Gardens” met a mother and daughter in the decay of a
once-grand house; in this version, they're played by Armisen and

Budgets were tight,
but “Documentary Now” shot two of its films in Iceland.

“It's the most
beautiful place,” said Armisen, who starred there in the “Nanuck”
take-off. “We fell in love with it; it's gorgeous. So we just did
this (second) episode.”

That one, Meyers
said, is based on something Armisen has talked about: “Fred has
long made the observation that when you go to Europe, what they love
about America is slightly off. You'll see T-shirts that say, 'Long
Island Baseball Club.'”

So they imagined an
Al Capone festival in Iceland, with gangster hats and pizza. Armisen
savored the experience, Meyers flew in for three days, Hader stayed
home, filming some narrator scenes.

“I said, 'How do I
get out of going to Iceland?'” Hader said. “And they said, 'You
gotta play the old guy and be in prosthetics for five hours.' And I
was like, 'Done.'”

His reluctance to
travel is logical, Meyers said. “Bill has three children and Fred
and I don't.”

Still, it's
remarkable that any of them have time for this. Meyers has his talk
show (12:35 a.m. weekdays on NBC), with Armisen as the bandleader and
sidekick, when he's not doing something else.

Still, the former
“SNL” colleagues find time to make odd films. “This project is
one that I really love being a part ot,” Meyers said. “I love
that we figured out a way to keep working together.”

-- “Documentary
Now,” 10 p.m. Thursdays, starting Aug. 20, rerunning at 1 a.m.

-- Opener, a “Grey
Gardens” take-off called “Sandy Passage,” also reruns at 12:30
p.m. Saturday, 11 p.m. Sunday and 5:30 a.m. Monday.

-- Also, subject to
change: “Dronez: The Hunt for El Chingon,” Aug. 27; “Kunuk
Uncovered,” Sept. 3; “The Eye Doesn't Lie,” Sept. 10; “A
Town, a Gangster, a Festival,” Sept. 17; Gentle and Soft: The Story
of the Blue Jean Committee,” Sept. 24.