Yes, drunken geeks can be fun

This change has happened in one jolly generation. Comics and videogames were once confined to the basement ... as were the people who savored them. Now they've moved upstairs and into the spotlight. The latest example is Zachary Levi's game show, which starts next Thursday (July 16). Here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

Zachary Levi wisely
chose to be born in 1980.

Parts of the '80s –
Reagan and Wall Street and hair bands and such – may have been lost
on him. But there was something more important: “I was 4 years old
when Nintendo came out,” he said.

The Nintendo
Entertainment System soon added its key game. “As soon as I saw
'Super Mario Brothers,' I was hooked,” he said.

So were other
people, which is why “Geeks Who Drink” -- with Levi as producer
and host – should have an audience. It's a cable game show designed
after something that's popular in bars; on a set that looks like
tavern, drinks flow heavily and people answer questions about sci-fi,
videogames and more.

That neatly fits
changing times. “What it means to be a nerd has evolved,” Levi

The original
definition – never that accurate – was a bunch of guys who never
got the girls. They stayed in the basement, while the handsome,
athletic guys had all the fun.

By comparison, this
show's pilot film has:

-- Women as half the
contestants, overflowing with pop-culture knowledge.

-- Two jock-type
actors as captains: Eric Christian Olsen co-stars in “NCIS: Los
Angeles”; Scott Porter was the first “Friday Night Lights”
quarterback, before co-starring in “Hart of Dixie.”

-- And Levi, 34, who
is tall (6-foot-3) and handsome and sometimes romantically
successful. (He had a brief, six-month marriage to Missy Peregrym,
the “Rookie Blue” star.) And a self-professed nerd.

“Nerdi-ness is all
about being passionate,” Levi said. “There are food nerds and car
nerds and ...”

There are also lots
of computer-comic-videogame nerds .... something that got easier as
all of those things improved. Today, Levi spends lots of time playing
“Call of Duty” and “Destiny” and “Borderline” and such.
“They're just bigger and brighter and more immersive .... With
'Mario,' it was all just moving in the foreground, all very linear.”

Comics and movies
also improved, brightening a mobile childhood, as his dad's job kept
moving. Levi was born in Louisiana and finished high school in
Ventura County, Cal., with many stops along the way; that:

-- Shaped his
actor-ly personality. “I had to be an outgoing kid, moving around
so much.”

-- Deepened his
interest in comics and videogames. “You can take them with you when
you move.”

-- Saw him
auditioning for plays and musicals, “maybe the nerdiest thing I've
ever done.”

And the most
successful. Levi has gone on to do a little music – singing “I
See the Light” (from “Tangled”) at the 2011 Oscars, starring in
Broadway's 2013 “First Date” -- and a lot of acting.

There were four
seasons for the ABC comedy “Less Than Perfect,” five for the NBC
light adventure “Chuck.” He was Fandral in the second Thor film
and this fall he has “Heroes Reborn.” That's NBC's “Heroes”
reboot; it may be ideal for a generation in which nerds are cool and
geekdom is a bar game.

-- “Geeks Who
Drink,” 11 p.m. Thursdays, Syfy, repeating at 1 a.m.

-- Opener, July 16,
also at 8 a.m. July 18, 5:30 and 8:30 a.m. July 19, 5 a.m. July 20, 6
a.m. July 22.


A 35-year-old event ... a 23-year-old star ... and a whole lot of people

For sheer quantity -- of stars, of fans, of music -- few events match PBS' 4th-of-July concert. This year's event ranges from country to classical, from veterans (Barry Manilow, Alabama) to 23-year-old phenom Hunter Hayes. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Right now, living
inside Hunter Hayes' world might seem kind of scary.

He's 23 and looks
19, in a genre once filled with grizzled baritones. He's “a young,
hot country star,” Jerry Colbert, the creator of PBS' “A Capitol
Fourth” concert, says accurately.

And now this lad
will sing to the multitudes – a crowd estimated at 300,000-plus –
at the 35th fourth-of-July concert. Colbert has seen such
veteran as Mel Torme and Joe Mantegna filled with emotions.

He also remembers a
young Faith Hill being awestruck. “She came off the stage and said,
'That was the biggest crowd I've seen in my life.'” And that was
just the rehearsal, with a mere 50,000 or so.

So now Hayes should
be dazzled ... except he's seen mega-crowds, back in his formative
years: “When I was 5, I played with Hank Williams, Jr., at the
Texas Motor Speedway,” he said.

The crowd that day
has been estimated at 185,000 or more. “It was awesome,” Hayes
said. “I looked out at that and said, 'This is what I want to do in
my life.'”

He was in the right
place for that. Hayes grew up in Breaux Bridge, a Southern Louisiana
town of 8,100, near Lafayette, a center of Cajun culture. “You hear
great music everywhere,” he said.

His parents aren't
musicians, but were encouraging. “My dad (a mechanic) is the
biggest fan in the world,” Hayes said. “He can tell you everyone
who did anything.”

Hayes' grandmother
gave him a toy accordion when he was 2; a real one followed. At 4, he
played “Jambalaya” on cable's Nickelodeon; at 5, he was with
Williams before that mega-crowd. At 6, he was an accordionist in “The
Apostle”; the film's star, Robert Duvall, gave him his first

This might suggest a
cute-kid-with-a-guitar cliche, but Hayes comes across as
dead-serious. “I love writing,” he said. “Any time I get,
that's what I'm doing. There's so much creativity you want to use.”

While many musicians
accuse streaming services of underpayment (or non-payment), Hayes is
upbeat. “I have faith that they'll work out the money part,” he
said. “But that's why you do this, for people to hear it .... I
have so many songs waiting to be heard.”

And one of them drew
extra attention. “Invisible” -- a song for any teen who feels he
doesn't fit in – reached No. 7 on Billboard's country chart, his
fourth single in the top 10. (“Wanted” was No. 1; so weew two
albums). He sang it at the Grammys, then got excited when Paul
McCartney was backstage.

“I thought,
'Should I go up to hin? What could I say?'” Then he didn't have to
decide: McCartney walked up to him, shook his hand, said “that was
a remarkable performance” and stayed to chat.

It's the sort of
star moment you can get at the Grammys ... or at “Capitol Fourth.”
This year ranges from pop (Barry Manilow, Nicole Scherzinger) to
country (including Alabama) and classical.

That range is part
of the 35-year evolution. “We started out as more classical,”
Colbert said, “when we had (Mstislav) Rostropovich as the

That first year,
Pearl Bailey was the singer and startled Rostropovich by reacting to
the crowd and repeating a chorus. Classical folks don't improvise

Ever since, “A
Capitol Fourth” has been about fun. “Barry Manilow has said, 'I
can't wait to get up there,'” Colbert said. “Dolly Parton was all
fired up.”

And even someone
who's done it all – been cheered by the Texas masses, been praised
by Sir Paul – might end up being excited.

TV's Fourth-of-July

-- PBS: From
Washington, D.C.: Barry Manilow, Nicole Scherzinger, Alabama, Hunter
Hayes, Meghan Linsey, Lang Lang and Ronan Tynan, plus KC and the
Sunshine Band and the National Symphony

-- NBC: From New
York: Kelly Clarkson, Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley, Meghan Trainor,
Flo Rida.

-- Both start at 8
p.m. Saturday and end with fireworks. NBC repeats at 10 p.m.; most
PBS stations (check local listings) repeat at 9:30.



Campbell's final tour brought joy, pain and frustration

Glen Campbell was the Blake Shelton of his era, only more so. He was a country star -- nice voice, great guitar work -- with the sort of easygoing humor that audiences savor. As he retreated into Alzheimer's disease, friends and family planned a documentary about his farewell tour. The result drew an Academy Award nomination and airs Sunday (June 28) on CNN; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

In a few quick
minutes, James Keach absorbed the Glen Campbell experience.

He sensed the joy
and frustration of knowing a genial country star whose memory is

Campbell and friends
were visiting Keach to plan what would become an Oscar-nominated
documentary, now making its cable debut on CNN. “My son walked by
with his guitar,” Keach recalled. “He (Campbell) said, 'Hey, I
play the guitar. Let me show you something.'”

Soon, Campbell asked
why he was there; he was reminded that he was planning a movie about
his struggle with Alzheimer's disease. “He said, 'I don't got
All-zheimer's, I've got part-zheimers.'”

Later, Keach's son
happened to walk by again with his guitar. Campbell's reaction? “He
said, 'Hey, I play the guitar. Let me show you something.'”

This was a warm and
funny guy who often forgot things ... and who was planning a concert
tour that acknowledged his problem. “Glen is bringing (Alzheimer's)
out of the closet,” Keach said.

He has a past worth
remembering. Campbell was “a critically respected, mainstream
country-pop star” says the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock &
Roll (Fireside, 2006). Adds All Music Guide to Country (Backbeat
Books, 2003): “His smooth fusion of country mannerisms and pop
melodies and production techniques made him one of the most popular
country musicians.”

Those mannerisms
came naturally. Campbell grew up near Delight, an Arkansas town of
less than 300, in a family that had 12 kids and much music. He did
studio work for everyone from Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darrin to Elvis
Presley and the Beach Boys ... who then hired him as the replacement
when Brian Wilson quit touring. “Glen was a nice guy, a hell of a
musician,” Wilson wrote in “Wouldn't It Be Nice” (1991, Harper
Collins). “His falsetto was good enough to cover my parts.”

Then Campbell went
solo. Tommy Smothers saw him on Joey Bishop's late-night show and
“flipped over Campbell's material, his guitar, and his singing, and
his affable, down-home, aw-shucks, casually comfortable personality,”
David Bianculli wrote in “Dangerously Funny” (Touchstone, 2009).

Soon, Campbell was
Smothers' summer replacement and then had his own show. He ruled
country and even saw two singles (“Rhinestone Cowboy” and
“Southern Nights”) reach No. 1 overall.

But this amiable
country guy also had three divorces and a drinking problem. The
pivotal years were 1981-2 – a tumultuous romance with Tanya Tucker
... a return to religion ... and marriage to Kim Woollen, a former
Rockette dancer. “She's an amazing woman,” Keach said.

Keach's involvement
had started with his friendship with Johnny Cast. He produced Cash's
“Walk the Line” film, which led to a suggestion that he direct a
film about Campbell's farewell tour. “I thought, 'OK,
five-and-a-half weeks; let's film it.'”

Then the tour kept
growing. “The reviews were great and the audience couldn't get
enough of him,” Keach said. Five weeks stretched to two-plus years,
with 151 concerts.

Gradually, problems
grew. Low notes bothered Campbell; he changed keys often, requiring
his band – friends, plus two sons and a daughter – to shift. “He
was getting frustrated onstage,” Keach said.

In November of 2012,
Campbell gave his final concert. Two years later, he was in a
long-term home. But the Oscar-nominated film offers a warm tribute to
Campbell, 79, and his wife and kids.

“They've been
raised very well,” Keach said. “They were able to roll with the
punches. It was probably one of the best times of their lives,
because they spent so much time with their dad.”

-- “Glen Campbell
... I'll Be Me,” 9 p.m. ET Sunday, CNN; reruns at 10:48 ET


Poldark: A throwback hero rides again

This is just what TV viewers need to round out their summer choices. Reality shows and cable dramas are fine, but "Poldark" adds something more -- a big, sweeping, scripted series on a broadcast network. It debuts Sunday (June 21) on PBS: Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Lately, TV has been
redefining just what a leading man does.

He cooks meth or
runs a Mob or, at least, does advertising. He divides our emotions.

“There just aren't
that many heroes around in drama, in American television,” said
Rebecca Eaton, PBS' “Masterpiece” chief. “Everyone is quite
compromised, ambivalent as a hero.”

Now she has the
opposite of that, with Ross Poldark. “His moral compass is so in
the right place,” said Aidan Turner, 31, who plays him. “He's
fair. He's honest. He has a real sense of integrity.”

He's a throwback.
How far back do you go to find someone like this? Maybe to:

-- 1975, when the
original “Poldark” aired on PBS. “It was a huge favorite,”
Eaton said. It was also the first time “Masterpiece” had a
long-running series.

-- Or 1945. That's
when Winston Graham wrote his first Poldark novel. He would write 11
more, through 2002.

-- Or the 1780s.
That's when the story is set.

Returning to
Cornwall after involuntary duty fighting against the American
revolution, Poldark finds a changed world. His mine has closed, his
loved one has married, his estate is decaying.

His own status is in
an in-between state, Turner said. “He's the working-class hero of
the (workers) in Cornwall, but he's also respected among the gentry.”

He battles
authorities and bears scars, one of them literal. That required
Turner to make daily visits to the make-up trailer, he said. “It's
nothing compared to what I've just come off.”

Turner's career has
been full of make-up and make-believe. He was a vampire in the
original, British version of the “Being Human” series ... and a
werewolf in the movie “Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” ... and
Kili, a heroic dwarf archer in the “Hobbit” films.

And yes, those
Hobbit tales prepared him to be Poldark. Turner -- a city kid who
grew up as an electrician's son in Dublin – suddenly had:

-- Time to actually
learn how to ride a horse. “It was a line on my (resume) for a long
time, and I thought, 'I've got to start learning how to do this.'”

-- A chance to
absorb the beauty of the New Zealand settings where “Hobbit” was

Then his “Poldark”
role let him ride along seaside England. “The landscapes are so
epic .... It's wonderful as an actor to get to see some of these
locations; otherwise, I might not ever see them.”

Eleanor Tomlinson --
who co-stars as Demelza, the high-spirited urchin – agreed. “It's
so romantic,” she said. “You're standing on a cliff, with these
amazing hair extensions.”

For Turner – real
hair, no extensions – there was a chance to savor authenticity. The
house used for exteriors of Ross Poldark's home was build in the
1600s; in some early episodes, he worked with the actor who had
played Poldark 40 years ago.

Robin Ellis, now 73,
plays Rev. Halse in two episodes. The first is an intense one, with
Halse as the judge and jury in a poaching case involving Poldark's

“I was really
going at him,” Turner said, “getting quite angry. I stormed out
of the courtroom and slammed the door .... Robin just caught my eye
and ... gave me the little wink. And I thought, 'Oh,

what a wonderful
thing for the original Ross Poldark to do.'”

-- “Poldark,” on
PBS' “Masterpiece Classic”

-- 9 p.m. Sundays,
starting June 21; check local listings


Yes, it's time for some cross-cultural, kick-butt bounty hunting

Two of TV's darkest times -- Fridays and summers -- are getting a boost form the Syfy Channel. Last week (June 12), "Defiance" and "Dark Matter" settled in; now comes the third part of the night: "Killjoys" is a jaunty show with an impressive new star; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Even on TV, with all
its global diversity, there's been a gap: We haven't really had a
Nigerian-Norwegian heroine who's a kick-butt, intergalactic bounty

Now that's filled:
Hannah John-Kamen, 25, stars as Dutch in Syfy's new “Killjoys.”

Yes, she sort of
fits into a sci-fi show. “My brother was majorly into 'Star Wars'”
she said. “(And) I'm a huge graphics-novel fan.” She reels off
graphic favorites, from Watchmen -- “visually, it's beautiful and
captures the drive of the story” -- to Batman's darker moments.

And the “Killjoys”
action? John-Kamen, who's British, has never kicked an alien in real
life, but she's had years of dance – from ballet to jazz, tap and
salsa – and was ready for the fight choreography. “It does seem
to come naturally to me,” she said. “I was able to pick it up in
the first 20 minutes.”

Besides, her varied
roots make it easy to accept new things. She's kept in contact with
both her parents' cultures, but said, but grants “it's easier for
me to go to Norway.”

Her dad, who's
Nigerian, is a forensic psychologist, the sort who might be called
into a police or court case; her mom is a former Norwegian model. Add
them up and you might have an idea for an Idris Elba/Scarlett
Johansson mini-series; you also have John-Kamen's life.

She grew up in
northern England, obsessing early on performing. She did some
training at the National Youth Theatre in London and graduated in
2011 from the Central School of Speech and Drama.

Soon, she was swept
into the starring role in sort of show that could make careers. “Viva
Forever” was written by Jennifer Saunders (“Absolutely Fabulous”)
and stuffed with songs from the Spice Girls.

“I had such a
great time,” John-Kamen said. “It was an amazing experience.”

Critics were less
amazed; they praised her and attacked the show, which folded quickly.

Since then, she's
had steady work guesting on English TV and now starring in
“Killjoys,” which is from people who know the genre. It's written
by Michelle Lovretta (Syfy's “Lost Girl”) and produced by the
people who make BBC America's “Orphan Black.”

The 10-episode first
season was filmed in Toronto – partly in elaborate sets, partly
outside – and mixes action with light moments. “Even the name
'Dutch' is kind of odd,” John-Kamen said.

At its best, it
might have some of the offbeat flavor of Syfy's now-departed
“Warehouse 13.” Indeed, Aaron Ashmore (who co-starred in the
final three seasons of that show) plays Dutch's partner. He's a
lesser bounty-hunter – a Level 3, compared to her Level 5 – but a
better talker. He's also the opposite of his brother (played by Luke
Macfarlane, who was Scotty on “Brothers & Sisters”), a tough,

Both guys are
Canadian, so they could always provide her with tips for getting
around Toronto. Then again, she could offer better guidance for a
trip to Norway and Nigeria.

-- “Killjoys,” 9
p.m. Fridays, Syfy, debuting June 19; repeats at midnight

-- Opener also
repeats Sunday at 4:30 a.m. and midnight (technically, 12 a.m.
Monday) and Thursday, June 25, at 10 p.m.

-- Part of a new,
three-hour block; a week earlier, Syfy opened the second season of
“Defiance” (8 p.m.) and the first of “Dark Matter” (10)