Hip hop is born (again) on TV, amid endless optimism


By Mike Hughes

LOS ANGELES -- At first, Nelson
George didn't know he was witnessing a revolution.

Like his friends, he
was grasping for a world beyond Brooklyn. “We were talking about,
'How do we get on? How do I get to be a writer? .... How do I move
into the city.'”

Then, in the late
'70s, he saw music people with that same passion. It was the birth of
hip hop, which the lush Netflix mini-series “The Get Down” now
details. At its core, George said, was “that energy of
possibility.”

He's a “Get Down”
writer and consultant – logical for a guy who lived in the
epicenter of hip-hop. More surprising writer-producer-director Baz
Luhrmann, who's from the other part of the world.

“I grew up in a
very small country town (in New South Wales, Australia), in the
middle of nowhere,” said Luhrmann, 53. “Eleven houses; we had a
black-and-white television.”

Luhrmann would go on
to make colorful movies -- “Great Gatsby,” “Romeo + Juliet”
and more. He was sitting in a Paris restaurant, he said, when he
spotted a photograph of early hip-hoppers.

“I remember
thinking, 'Gee, how did so much creativity come from New York in that
moment?'”

George, 58, has
written books on hip-hop, but doesn't have a quick answer. In part,
he says, it was a fortunate blend of styles (rock, disco, R&B)
and of cultures.

Grandmaaster Flash,
58, was born in Barbados, but grew up in the Bronx. DJ Kool Herc, 61,
was born in Jamaica and moved to the Bronx at 12. One night, Luhrmann
said, Herc confided that hot dogs were at the core of this
revolution:

“He said, 'My
father, who was from Jamaica, ... helped me build my first music
machine and said, “Why don't we play music to get the kids off the
street, and Mom will make hot dogs.”'”

George vividly
recalls the first time he saw a Herc event: “A white van pulls up.
This really tall Jamaican guy gets out with his boys. They pull out
these giant speakers. They bring out milk crates ... full of records
and plug it in. They unplug the bottom of the light speaker, pull it
through, and – boom, the get-down is happening.”

Soon, others
mastered turntables and old records. “We didn't have musical
instruments,” Grandmaster Flash said. “Our instruments were
turntables, mixer .... I came up with a system that allowed me to ...
by the movement of my hand, extract that drum beat.”

To do that, he kept
grabbing more vinyl. “Flash was going to record stores and buying
... what they call 'cut-out records,” George said.

Back then, George
was an intern at the New York Amsterdam News, a black newspaper based
in Harlem. At a place called Downstairs Records, he said, someone
told him: “These kids ... are buying all these $1.99 records. They
are cleaning me out. Whar are they doing with them?”

George didn't know,
but he soon found out: They were changing America, first with
turntables and dance moves, later with rap.

Now that's been
re-created by Luhrmann, using lush visuals, driving music and
(mostly) fictional characters played by unknown actors.

“We have this
incredible young cast,” George said. “So when you look at it, ...
you're seeing youth, you're seeing energy. You're seeing optimism.”

-- “The Get Down”

-- 12-part
mini-series, on Netflix beginning Friday

There's mad variety to this "MadTV" cast


By Mike Hughes

LOS ANGELES -- Chances are, Carlie
Craig and Jeremy Howard won't be competing for the same roles.

He's black, she's
blonde. He's 6-foot-2 (“6-3 on a good day”), she's 5-foot. He's a
well-sculpted 250 pounds, she's less than half that.

Still, they have
this in common: They're enthusiastic Southerners, part of the new
“MadTV” cast. “I have literally prepared my whole life for this
show,” Craig said.

We may have
mentioned that Craig – spending part of her 25th
birthday with the Televsion Critics Association -- is enthusiastic.
Credit that to her dad in Florida (“as a tennis coach, he spends
his whole life motivating people”) and to her mentor in Los Ageles.

That's Todrick Hall,
who does ambitious musical numbers on the Internet. Craig auditioned
for him, was rejected, but asked him to keep her around as a
production assistant; by the time he had a brief MTV show, she was
busy on-camera and in production. “He's the best gay dad I could
ever have,” she said. “He took me under his homosexual wing.”

Howard's motivator
was his mom. Doubling as a pastor and a Home Depot employee, she
helped people who needed to repair their souls and/or their drainage
pipes.

“She started the
church in our house,” Howard said. “I used to set up chairs; then
she got a storefront.”

He became her
musical youth minister, then moved to a bigger church when hers
folded. Then came Los Angeles; “I thought I was going to be a
dramatic actor.”

Instead, he was
steered toward comedy and placed in the CBS Diversity Workshop. That
workshop produced others in this ultra-diverse “MadTV” crew:

-- Michelle Ortiz,
the daughter of Mexican immigrants, grew up bilingually and
theatrically. “I'd walk around the house being Shakira or Urkel,”
she said. “My mom says she knew I'd be an actress.” She spent
half of a summer-abroad studying opera in German and the other half
studying theater in Russia; “I actually sat in (Konstantin)
Stanislavsky's chair.” Then she went from method-acting to comedy.

-- Amir K moved to
the U.S. with his parents when he was 5, after the Iranian
revolution. “They gave up everything,” he said. They did well in
California, where his dad was a structural engineer. “I spent a lot
of my teen years surfing and skating.” He tried to have a grown-up
career -- “in real-estate, I made a lot of money and then lost it
all” -- but when his parents returned to Iran, he decided to try
comedy.

Returning to TV
after a six-year break, “MadTV” was revived with some elaborate
casting. “I auditioned six times,” Howard said He landed a spot
alongside Chelsea Davison, Lyric Lewis, Piotr Michael and Adam Ray,
plus Craig, Ortiz and Amir K.

Their work
alternates – a week of shooting sketches on-location, then a week
preparing to work in front of an audience, with two alumni hosting.
Those elements are the re-arranged into two episodes.

Craig said it's fast
and frantic and fun – mostly. “We have lots of wigs, and I'm very
tender-headed.”

-- “MadTV,” 9
p.m. Tuesdays, CW

-- Aug. 9 is a new
episode, the third, hosted by Aries Spears and Debra Wilson; Aug. 16
reruns the second episode, hosted by Ike Barinholtz and Bobby Lee.

Wanna be a TV star? Learn how to do fake-tech


The Television Critics Association awards arrived this weekend,with good news about worthy shows, some of them -- "Mr. Robot," "The Americans," "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" -- underappreciated by the Emmys. More on that later; meanwhile, here's a story I wrote about the actresses in "Mr. Robot" and other tech-savvy shows.

By Mike Hughes

LOS ANGELES -- In
the olden days, actors had a simple routine during auditons:

Often, they were
asked if they could ride horses and shoot guns. Most said they could;
most couldn't.

And now? Modern
roles have fewer horses, more computers ... and, still, lots of
people faking it.

On “Agents of
SHIELD,” Skye is a master hacker. “I'm horrible at it,” said
Chloe Bennet, who plays her. “I have to ask about 800 times, to
make sure I got it right.”

On the upcoming
“StartUp,” Izzy has a world-finance plan that requires technical
brilliance. “I'm extremely tech-illiterate,” said Otmara Marrero,
who plays her.

And “Mr. Robot”
-- fresh from the Television Critics Association award for best new
program -- is filled with tech wizards. Most are played by people who
aren't.

“I feel like we
all shou;d know how to do all that stuff,” Grace Gummer said. “But
I definitely don't. Don't know how to write code and can barely sync
my iPhone.”

No, this isn't a
gender thing. When playing one of TV's first computer-whiz guys (in
the 1998 “Three”), Bumper Robinson described his expertise: “I
know there is such a thing as a computer.”

Carly Chaikin, a
“Mr. Robot” co-star, can easily top that: “I'm medium
tech-savvy,” she said. But “there are times when I call Apple and
I'm like, 'The spinny thing, I don't know how to ...'”

And she may be more
advanced than Rami Malek, the “Mr. Robot” star. “I did have to
help Rami type,” Chaikin said, “because I'm a fast typer and he
did that (hunt-and-peck method).”

All of these people
have a good excuse: They are actors, after all, and not required to
have real-life skills. Indeed, Gummer's mother (Meryl Streep) has
also does some acting.

Stephanie
Corneliussen, another “Mr. Robot” co-star, has no such parental
excuse. “My father was one of the first programmers, in the late
'60s, before the Internet, in Denmark,” she said. “So he has vast
knowledge about technology that he's tried to teach me.”

By some accounts,
she learned well; “Stephanie is surprisingly very good,” Chaikin
said. Corneliussen doesn't see it that way: “I can't keep up with
all the millenials.”

On “Mr. Robot,”
however, they are all brilliant. Spurred by the mysterious Mr. Robot
(Christian Slater) and the intense Darlene (Chaikin), Elliot (Malek)
created a hack so powerful that it shattered evil E Corp and
destroyed the economy. Only at the end of the first season did he
(and viewers) realize the rest: Darlene is his sister; “Mr. Robot”
is just someone he imagines, in the image of their father.

As the new season
began, Elliot was in mental retreat, Darlene was pushing ahead, his
childhood friend Angela was warily working for E Corp, an FBI agent
(Gummer) was trying to bring then down ... and the enigmatic Joanna
(Corneliussen) was scheming.

“It's incredible,
the women Sam (writer-director Sam Esmail) gave us on the show,”
said producer Dawn Olmstead. “And it's not based on being someone's
spouse or girlfriend.”

Chaikin has seen her
IQ double – from a dim ditz in “Suburgatory” to an angry
genius. That reflects reality, she said: “There are so many women
in tech. And there are such amazing female hackers.”

And there are a lot
of smart women playing them on TV. Just don't expect them to fix your
computer.

-- “Mr. Robot,”
10:01 p.m. Wednesdays, USA, rerunning at 1:01 a.m.; this week's hour
has late-night reruns on Thursday night (midnight) and Friday night
(2 a.m.)

-- “StartUp”
starts up Sept. 6 on Crackle

-- “Agents of
SHIELD” returns this fall on ABC

At ABC, a changing world for dramas ... and some day, maybe, a black "Bachelor"


LOS ANGELES -- The
world hasn't had its first black “Bachelor” yet, but it will have
more prospects.

“We need to
improve the pool of diverse candidates in the beginning,” said
Channing Dungey, who is in her first year as the ABC president.

As the first black
person to be in charge of a major network's programming, she has a
key role in this. ABC's “Bachelor” and ”Bachelorette” shows
have fallen into a familiar pattern: A white man or woman (with one
Latino so far) surveys a field that includes one or two black
prospects ... who seem to be sent home in the second or third week.

The new “Bachelor”
is almost always someone who just missed on “Bachelorette,” and
vice-versa, Dungey said. So the next key is getting a better mixture
of contestants to start.

That comes on a
network otherwise known for its diversity in comedies (“Black-ish,”
“Fresh Off the Boat”) and for its top black producers of dramas:

-- John Ridley is
preparing for his third season of the Emmy-nominated “American
Crime,” which keeps finding new ways to view race and class.

-- Shonda Rhimes has
four dramas on ABC next season and often fills all three hours on
Thursdays, the most productive night for TV advertising.

Only two of Rhimes'
shows -- “Grey's Anatomy” and “How to Get Away With Murder”
-- will be ready this fall. “Scandal” is pausing for Kerry
Washington's pregnancy; “The Catch” is pausing after switching
show-runners in the middle of its first season.

Filling the missing
Thursday spot in the fall will be “Notorious,” which isn't from
Rhimes ... but shares her feeling for breathless, soap-style shocks
and twists.

All of those shows
are far from what Dungey, 47, grew up on in Sacramento. “I watched
a lot of television,” she said. She listed a batch of favorites –
from “Rockford” to “Magnum” -- most of which solved a mystery
at the end of each hour.

Ironically, one of
her first actions as ABC president was to cancel “Castle,” the
network's only close-ended mystery. Its Monday spot will go to
“Conviction,” with Hayley Atwell as the daughter of an
ex-president, now nudged (after some wayward years) into re-examining
past convictions.

The network does
need more close-ended hours, Dungey granted. “We have often
(regretted) the cancellation of 'Body of Proof.'” In the three
years since ABC dropped that Dana Delany mystery, it has filled its
Tuesday slot with a string of expensive, open-ended failures.

Another approach
involves stories that feel like a mini-series. “Secrets and Lies”
(returning this fall) and “American Crime” (returning at
mid-season) each tell a 10-week story, then come back the next season
with new characters.

Now Dungey has just
approved “Ten Days in the Valley,” which has an overworked TV
producer (Kyta Sedgwick) suddenly in the midst of her own
missing-daughter ordeal. After its 10-episode run (possibly next
spring or summer), it could return with new stories for the same
character.

 

Olympics: Fears and hopes burst into overdrive


By Mike Hughes

LOS ANGELES -- The
Olympics always seem to bring dreams and fears, many of them
misplaced. But all of that hits new extremes in Rio de Janeiro.

People talk –
often – about the zika virus and security woes and banned athletes
and economic decay and, for athletes in open-water events, pollution.

“In some cases,
the best they've been told is, 'Try to keep your mouth closed,'”
said Bob Costas, NBC's primetime anchor. “That's rather difficult
when you are swimming.”

But alongside that
is ... well, the sheer joy of Brazil.

“The place is so
physically commanding and exotic and beautiful,” said Mary Carillo,
an NBC reporter and commentator. “The people are so warm and
friendly and I got to run around for a couple weeks.”

So did other people
doing features, she said. “Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski went to
Carnival and celebrated as only they could. They are as close to
Brazilian partiers as any North Americans can be.”

They're also former
Olympic skaters; Carillo is a former tennis star. NBC's team ranges
from athletes to a 76-year-old ex-anchor. “Tom Brokaw, in his 50th
year (with NBC), went down the Amazon and went to southern Brazil
with the Gauchos,” Carillo said.

The reports will
have plenty of chances to talk about Brazil's troubles, Costas said.
“It's not just that the president faces impeachment – more than
half of their Congress has already been indicted or is under
investigation for some kind of corruption. And the ecoonomy (is) in a
deep, deep recession.”

Still, there are the
festive parts. That's what viewers want after a rough year, Carillo
said. “I think America is ready to cheer (for) not only the
Americans, but everybody else.”

Well ... a lot of
NBC's attention will clearly be focused on Americans. Costas did
single out two superstars from other countries – Kohei Uchimara of
Japan, the dominent male gymnast, and Usai Bolt of Jamaica, the super
sprinter. But he put them in a category with two Americans.

“Simone Biles
(could become) the greatest all-round female gymnast of all time ....
Michael Phelps is already the greatest swimmer in Olympic history
.... We're talking about Mount Rushmore-type stuff.”

Those are in events
his primetime broadcasts will feature – swimming, diving,
gymnastics, the emerging popularity of beach volleyball and, in the
second week, track-and-field. Beyond that, Costas said, there will be
“a little bit of indoor volleyball (and) the gold-medal basketball
game.”

And what about the
rest – the 6,700 hours, scattered over 16 days on NBC and cable.
How will we find what we want? “I have no idea,” said Jim Bell,
NBC's executive producer. “Good luck.”

Bell did promptly
say that he was joking, then suggested nbcolympics.com. He also said
the open water has been tested and found safe for swimmers and the
zika threat is mild in this cooler time of Brazil's year. Also: “If
you download the Olympics app, I promise you'll find it and figure it
out.”

Gerina Piller
probably hopes so; she's a golfer, one of the many sports that don't
make NBC's prime time. “I definitely never thought I'd be in the
Olympics,” she said with a laugh. “How could I? This is the first
time they've had (golf) in 112 years.”

Piller grew up in
Roswell, N.M. (no she didn't see any alien after-effects) and started
golfing at 13. Now, 18 years later, she was ranked No. 29 in the
world last year and has a shot at Olympic glory.

Her event doesn't
start until Aug. 17, so she could sit to one side and listen to NBC
people talk to the Television Critics Association. Then they played a
spectacular video, backing a new Katy Perry theme song for the
Olympics. “I've got goosebumps,” Piller said afterward.

And that's precisely
what NBC figures other viewers will soon have.

-- Olympics, opening
ceremony Friday, closing ceremony Aug. 21

-- Events covered by
NBC and its cable channels