"Mr. Robot" turns the "nerd culture" into an unblinking powerhouse

The first season of "Mr. Robot" started and ended spectacularly. Its unrelenting opening scene gave us the central character at his best; its closing moments belted us with a surprise. Now the 10-episode second season is finally here, debuting Wednesday (July 13) and rerunning often. Here's the story I sent to papers: 

By Mike Hughes

These days, TV
producers have lowered their expectations. Nothing starts big; the
best shows slowly find an audience.

That's what Sam
Esmail was hoping for when he created “Mr. Robot,” a young-hacker
drama. “I consider myself a nerd,” he said, “so I figured I'd
get at least the nerd base .... It would be this small, little cult
thing. But it wound up being a lot bigger than that.”

A LOT bigger. As it
starts its second season, “Mr. Robot” already has prestigious
Peabody and American Film Institute awards. It won Golden Globes for
best-drama and supporting actor Christian Slater ... and Critics
Choice awards for those two plus star Rami Malek. Critics at TV
Guide, Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly called it the best show
of the year; the upcomiong Television Critics Association awards have
also nominated it as the best overall.

Slater, who has had
failures on TV and alcohol-related arrests in real life, finds
himself gradually accepting success. “I'm always sort of, you know,
like 'So far, so good.'”

And Esmail savors a
leap from his boyhood, when “girls rejected me a lot. I loved
being on the computer and I loved going to the library and reading
.... When you are a funny-looking Egyptian growing up in Jersey and
in South Carolina, it kind of gets rough sometimes.”

He became a film
buff, wrote some scripts that drew attention (but haven't been
filmed), then was the writer-director of a movie (the 2014 “Comet”)
and now “Mr. Robot.” No longer rejected, he suddenly had a
fiancee (Emmy Rossum, his “Comet” star) and a hit.

The praise began
after the first “Mr. Robot” scene, in which Elliot Alderson
(Malek) verbally eviscerates a pedafile with quiet – and,
seemingly, unblinking – precision.

“There's so much
turmoil and strife going on in his head,” Malek said, “that I
think the only thing he can do at times is try to hide .... There's
just a level of focus, when I'm in there; I just don't blink.”

Like Esmail, Malek
is an American of Egyptian descent; his most visible role has been as
the young pharaoh in the “Night at the Museum” movies. But he's
also had roles – from “The Pacific” to “Mr. Robot” -- that
had nothing to do with his ethnicity. “I want to have a very
diverse career,” he said.

After that first
scene, Elliot met an intense stranger (Slater), who nudged him into a
mega-project: Bring down E Corp – Elliot calls it Evil Corp; in his
mind, so does everyone else – and wipe out debt.

There's much more,
viewers later learned: That stranger doesn't exist. Elliot imagines
him – giving him the persona of his late father – while pushing
himself into audacious action.

The hard part was
keeping that a secret, Malek said. It “was difficult at times, when
you are on set and you are telling other actors, 'Just try not to
look at him.'”

The first-season
finale gave viewers the truth ... and showed that Elliot had created
financial chaos.

As the new season
starts, he's trying to withdraw, but others push on. His old friend
Angela is working for E Corp. Their former boss Gideon is being
probed by an FBI agent (Grace Gummer). The E Corp legal chief finds
her orderly world shattered. And Darlene, Elliot's sister, keeps
pushing for more and bigger hack attacks. “She's tenacious and
persistent,” said Carly Chaiken, who plays her.

And Elliot? Still
plagued by that imaginary stranger, he tries to sink into monotony.
Now another stranger (Craig Robinson) keeps trying to recruit him.

It's a tough ride
for the actors, who have many things to fret about ... including
changing passwords at home. “Mr. Robot” has that effect, Slater
said. “It raises your level of awareness and paranoia.”

“Mr. Robot,”
10:01 p.m. Wednesdays, USA Network; season opens July 13

Opener, with few
commercial breaks, runs 91 minutes; subsequent runs are two hours –
that night at 11:32 p.m. and 1:32 a.m., then 11 p.m. Thursday
(rerunning at 2 a.m.) and 9:30 a.m. Saturday.

It's time for a flash, Smokey 4th of July

On any 4th of July, PBS puts on a festive show, with a rich blend of music and the fireworks. This year, however, could be particularly fun, with Smokey Robinson at the core. That's one of three big-deal TV concerts on Monday, the 4th; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

As July 4 nears,
skies and spirits seem to brighten.

This is a time for
upbeat music and moods. Then again, that's Smokey Robinson's usual

Robinson is at the
core of PBS' concert, one of three TV specials on the Fourth. He's a
guy who can even make “Tracks of My Tears” and “Tears of a
Clown” seem festive; that attitude goes way back.

“When I was 5 or
6, my mother would tell me a lot of parables and not explain them,”
Robinson said. One was the man who was sad about having no shoes,
until he met someone with no feet.

This philosophy has
taken him through his own hard times, including his mother's death
when he was young and his later problems with divorce and cocaine.
And it prepared him for that first meeting with Barry Gordy, the
future founder of Motown Records.

“He reminded me of
me – so excited and passionate about his music,” Gordy wrote in
“To Be Loved” (Warner Books, 1994).

Robinson had been
listening to music throughout his Detroit childhood. “I grew up in
a musical family,” he said. “We listened to everything – blues,
gospel, jazz.”

He wrote lyrics at
5, sang for his school at 10. At 17, he had a group (the Miracles)
and a notebook with about 100 songs.

That was in 1957,
when he spotted Gordy (a successful songwriter at 27) and asked to
show him some of his work. Soon, each song was being criticized.
“Instead of being upset, he got more excited with each criticism
.... His enthusiasm after each rejection really impressed me,”
Gordy wrote.

They drove together
to pick up the first release by the Tamla (later Motown) label, Marv
Johnson's 1959 “Come to Me” -- getting stuck in the snow twice.
They got some airplay with the Miracles' “Got a Job” and “Bad
Girl”; then came their “Shop Around” ... which was already on
the radio, when Gordy phoned Robinson at 3 a.m. to say they had to
re-cut it – right then – with a faster tempo.

“It was an odd
request,” Robinson grants now. But “he was our leader, so we did
what he said. I'm glad we did.” The song reached No. 2 on
Billboard's pop charts.

The Miracles would
have other hits, from “I Second That Emotion” to “You've Really
Got a Hold on Me.” And Robinson kept writing for others in Motown;
this is the guy who wrote or co-wrote “My Guy,” “My Girl,”
“Get Ready,” “Ain't That Peculiar,” “Don't Mess With Bill,”
“The Way You Do the Things You Do” and more. Bob Dylan called him
“America's greatest living poet.”

Back then, Motown
was a group activity. People would debate songs, deciding who fit
what; they would record them in one crowded room, now preserved as
the Motown museum.

“I think it's
better that way,” Robinson said. “Now people record one piece of
a track and then send it to someone else. You don't get that same

It was a formula
that scored big. In the last week of 1968, with Robinson as its
vice-president, Motown had five songs in Billboard's top 10 – two
by the Supremes and one each by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and the

Robinson would go
solo in 1972, but kept his vice-president job until Gordy sold Motown
in '88. He cut back on road trips for a while, but now, at 76, talks
passionately about touring.

“That's where the
fun is,” he said. “Every show is different. We have a celebration
every night.”

Especially, perhaps,
if it's the night of July 4.

4th of
July concerts (each with fireworks):

-- PBS, 8 and 9:30
p.m. (check local listings): From Washington, D.C., with the National
Orchestra, stars of pop (Smokey Robinson, Gavin DeGraw), gospel
(Yolanda Adams) and Broadway (two-time Tony-winner Sutton Foster,
Christopher Jackson of “Hamilton,” the cast of Gloria Estefan's
“On Your Feet”). Also, alumni of TV's “Glee” (Amber Riley),
“The Voice” (Cassadee Pope, Alisan Porter) and “America's Got
Talent” (Jackie Evancho).

-- NBC, 8 and 10
p.m.: From New York, Kenny Chesney, Meghan Trainor, 5 Seconds of
Summer, the Rockettes.

-- CBS, 9-11 p.m.:
From Boston, with the Boston Pops: Demi Lovato, Nick Jonas, Little
Big Town.



A young star flourishes in the old (bleeping) rock world of Denis Leary

From the moment "Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll" debuted last season, I was impressed with Elizabeth Gillies. She's a terrific singer who also knows how to handle drama and acerbic humor. Now the show starts its second season Thursday (June 30); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

In one sudden swoop,
Elizabeth Gillies' world transformed.

She had worked with
kids her age, on Broadway (“13”) and in TV (“Victorious”).
But now she was an instant star on “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll,”
surrounded by show-business veterans and by cynicism.

And somehow, she
says, she fit it. “They all share this kind of East Coast feeling
.... It felt so natural, all the cursing and the joking around.”

Denis Leary, 58, a
master of creative cursing and cynicism, created the show (which is
just starting its second season) and stars as Johnny Rock, whose
career imploded after one hit. He was floundering ... until the
arrival of the daughter he never knew; she had so much talent that
the band got back together.

“I had to have a
girl who could really sing (and) be sexy and be able to do comedy, be
able to do drama and improvise,” Leary said, “because I like to
improvise with the actors .... I wasn't expecting to get a response
that would have all five.”

Then he met Gillies,
who, at 22, does it all.

She grew up in New
Jersey, surrounded by a variety of music. “My dad was always
playing music,” she said. “The Beatles, Rolling Stones. .... I
have a real affinity for '70s music, in particular.”

But the family also
caught a lot of Broadway shows. She loved “Little Shop of Horrors,”
did a community theater “Sweet Charity” ... and at 15 was on
Broadway in “13.”

The musical only
lasted three months, but it made history as the first Broadway show
to have only teen-agers in its cast and band. “Just stepping onto
that Broadway stage was amazing,” she said.

Fortunately, teen-TV
was rediscovering ways to use music. Set at a performing arts high
school, “Victorious” starred Victoria Justice, but saw many of
its co-stars – Ariana Grande, Avon Jogia, Danielle Monet and
Gillies – emerge.

It also continued a
trend that started with “13”: Gillies – with dark hair and
Jersey attitude – would play the one with a gothic look and cynical

That's partly her
real persona, she said. “I definitely have a biting wit sometimes.
But I'm much sillier; I smile more than I scowl.”

She and Grande
sometimes fit their opposite images, she said. “There were times
when she would wear all those bright colors and I would be into
black. But we could both be very silly sometimes.

Gillies did a duet
on Grande's Christmas album and was in one of her videos, but then
came the break: Leary's casting director had seen “13” and asked
her to audition.

“She sent us this
tape of herself playing piano and singing from home,” Leary said,
“and it was amazing. And then she came in and she was complete
unimpressed by me.”

Well, Gillies said,
she was impressed, but kept it secret. “I was so driven because I
really wanted this.”

That worked, Leary
said. “We did some improv stuff; every time I threw something at
her, she threw it back in my face. And then she left, like 'See you
guys later.' We're like, 'Holy (bleep)!'”

She got the part,
playing the sometimes-lover of John Corbett, 55, and the bandmate of
Elaine Hendrix, Robert Kelly, John Ales, Corbett and Leary. “I've
always been drawn to older friends anyway.”

Gillies has mastered
most of this, but there's still one skill to learn: When possible,
the show has the band do its songs live on film; when time is tight,
however, it has to simply lip-sync to its recording.

“I'm just a bad
lip-syncer,” Gillies said. “It's pathetic .... I'll see it and
say, 'What were you thinking?'”

Hey, it's reassuring
to know that at 22, she still has a skill to learn.

“Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll,” 10 p.m. Thursdays, FX

-- Second season
starts June 30; episodes rerun at 11 p.m., with previous episode at

The real "Black Hawk Down" story remains an epic

Nowadays, these three men have vastly varied lives. One is a firefighter, one runs an aerospace company, one is a country-music singer. Back in 1993, however, they were linked in one fierce story -- which has been told in books, in the movie "Black Hawk Down" and now in a cable special. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

This was going to be
a quick mission, two hours tops. Army Rangers would zoom into
Mogadishu, capture two Somali rebel leaders, and leave.

Then everything
exploded; 18 Americans were killed, 72 were wounded. The story has
been told in a movie (“Black Hawk Down”), books and now the
opener of a National Geographic Channel series.

All of this was
happening to young men. “I had literally just turned 21 years old
the day before,” Randy Ramaglia said.

After growing up in
a small town, he'd enlisted at 18. “I wanted to be part of
something larger than myself,” he said.

Many in the Ranger
unit were still teen-agers during that Mogadishu battle, but Keni
Thomas was 23. Growing up in Florida, he had always wanted to be a
Ranger like his dad ... even if he didn't quite fit in.

“He was always a
singer-songwriter,” Ramaglia said, and “somewhat of an anomaly
within the unit, Most of us were not artistic. (Keni) actually had
hobbies that didn't involve Rangering.”

On Oct. 3, 1993,
several Rangers were playing Risk; then came the call for the
Mogadishu mission.

It went smoothly,
with the two leaders captured and extracted within a half-hour. Then
a Black Hawk helicopter was shot down; a second helicopter rushed to
the site and was also shot down. Two snipers managed to protect the
second crew and hold off the mob, until running out of ammunition.
Both men were posthumous Medal of Honor winners.

As a Ranger squad
tried to rescue the crew, its leader was wounded. Thomas suddenly
became the squad-leader, for an 18-hour ordeal that included getting
the wounded into armored vehicles, then fighting on foot, to reach a
secure soccer stadium.

For Mike Durant,
this lasted much longer. He was 32 at the time, a New Hampsire
native, a career Army man and the pilot of the second helicopter. The
only survivor, he had a broken leg and a badly injured back, but was
hauled away by the mob.

“There were
moments of sheer terror,” he said, “when I was sure I was going
to die .... And there were moments where I actually laughed in

“The treatment was
very hostile initially. (To them,) I represent everything bad in
their life .... But as they got to know me better, things improved
and they became more human.”

Former Ambassador
Robert Oakley arrived to negotiate, as the U.S. amassed 10,000 troops
at a nearby airfield. After 11 days, Durant was set free.

He stayed in the
military for eight more years, retiring with 22 years of service; now
he has an MBA and runs an aerospace company. Ramaglia stayed for 18
months, then became a career firefighter.

And Thomas? He
re-enlisted and remembers a pivotal day: “I was sitting out there
in the woods somewhere, going,'I wish that somebody would just start
something, so we could go back to combat.'”

This, he realized,
wasn't a good attitude. At the end of his hitch, he moved to
Nashville; he remains a country singer-songwriter, with two 2005
singles on the Billboard country chart. One (with Vince Gill and
Emmylou Harris) reached No. 47, another (with Blackhawk) was No. 56.

He and Durant have
each written books about their experience. Now Thomas feels this
Geographic series, “No Man Left Behind,” reflects what he
learned. “The day you enter the Ranger residence .... you are
taught, take care of each other .... That's a heck of a
responsibility to put on a 20-year-old kid.”

-- “No Man Left
Behind,” 9 p.m. Tuesdays, National Geographic, rerunning at 11.

-- The June 28
opener, “The Real Black Hawk Down,” also runs at 9 and 11 p.m.
Thursday, June 30, then at 5 and 8 p.m. July 5, prior to the second


"Roadies": a rock 'n' roll epic, decades in the making

I see lots of TV shows, many of them good and a few great. But it's still exciting when something really exceptional comes along. The latest is "Roadies," a Cameron Crowe series that starts Sunday (June 26) on Showtime. Like its subject (rock 'n' roll), this has chaos, comedy, nudity, drama, eccentric people and a great soundtrack. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Don't expect Cameron
Crowe to rush something.

This is someone
who's spent months researching a magazine article, years developing a
movie. His hits -- “Jerry Maguire,” “Almost Famous,” “Say
Anything” -- are separated by large gaps.

“Roadies,” his
remarkable new Showtime series, was nine years -- or 42 years – in
the making. Crowe, 58, started developing it in 2007; much earlier,
he decided road crews are at the heart of rock 'n' roll.

These aren't just
people getting a paycheck, said Carla Gugino, one of the “Roadies”
stars. “The people who choose these professions are obsessed with
music and obsessed with the band.”

The musicans and the
roadies even start to blend, Crowe said. “If you see a Stevie Nicks
solo tour, you kind of see a lot of women in shawls working on the
show. Or a Neil Young tour, they kinda got those Pendletlon shirts

Back when he was 16,
Crowe was hired by Rolling Stone to do a cover story on the Allman
Brothers. He reportedly spent three weeks with them, even
interviewing everyone in the road crew.

This was not your
usual teen life. By the time Crowe graduated from high school in San
Diego (at 15, after skipping some grades), he'd already started
writing about rock for underground papers. He went on to Creem and
Rolling Stone; audaciously, he sought David Bowie, who didn't do

“I was 16,” he
recalled. “I was sitting in my bedroom in San Diego, and the phone
range one night, and it was David Bowie.”

Crowe would spend
the next six months with Bowie and crew. He emerged with an expanded
respect for rock people in general and Bowie in particular. “Even
then, which was kind of a wild period in his life, he was always
obsessed with music and art and never the business.”

His rock-journalism
career flourished, but then Crowe shifted: At 22, he spent a year in
high school under an assumed name, emerging with the book and movie
“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982).

Crowe soon began
directing his own films, but was never that separated from rock. He
kept writing for Rolling Stone and others. He was married for 24
years to Nancy Wilson of Heart. Many of his films had a rock feel --
“Singles” captured the mood and sound of Seattle grunge – and
some went further.

“Pearl Jam Twenty”
(2011) was an acclaimed documentary. “Almost Famous” (2000)--
about a teen journalist traveling with a rock band -- won an Oscar
for his script annd lingered in Crowe's mind.

“I was really
struck by the fact that 'Almost Famous' spoke pretty loudly to
people,” he said. “It was a very perosnal movie that I didn't
expect would kind of touch people in that way. And I wanted to
revisit the world.”

So he developed
“Roadies,” bringing in producers J.J. Abrams (“Star Wars: The
Force Awakens”) and Winnie Holzman, whose writing has ranged from
“My So-Called Life” to Broadway's “Wicked.”

This time, the focus
is on the road crew for an arena band. “It really is like staging a
battle – the trucks and the equipment from town to town, loading in
and loading out,” Luke Wilson said.

And with that come
sex, humor, joy and impending disaster. It's “crisis-control
constantly,” Gugino said. “You have a very short period of time
to solve a lot of problems.”

She and Wilson play
two of the road leaders, working under an eccentric rock veteran (Ron
White). Then there's a young idealist (Imogen Poots), who fidgets
when a British business type (Rafe Spall) is suddenly in charge.
“It's like a corporate system that Rafe's character represents,”
Poots said.

Ultimately, of
course, this is not a show about businessmen. “People are driven by
music,” Crowe said. Nothing else matches “the way music can
change a situation, a life or relationship .... So the premise is:
Let's just celebrate music and the people who are so passionate about

-- “Roadies,” 10
p.m. Sundays, Showtime; debuts June 26, rerunning at 11 p.m. and 1

-- Reruns include: 8
and 11 p.m. Monday, 9 p.m. Tuesday, 10:20 p.m. Wednesday, 10 p.m. and
midnight Thursday, 8 and 10:35 p.m. Friday (July 1), 7 and 11:05 p.m.
July 2, 8 p.m. July 3