Olympics: Fears and hopes burst into overdrive

By Mike Hughes

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

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

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

NBC aims (again) for that Olympics springboard

By Mike Hughes

the Olympics gobble up our TV time, NBC will try (again) to use them
as a springboard to its new fall season.

“You're going to
see a lot of promos, obviously,” said Robert Greenblatt, the
network chairman. Also, there will be:

-- An Olympic-themed
episode of “Superstore,” wedged into the games-coverage on Aug.

-- A half-hour look
at “The Voice” auditions, following the closing ceremony on Aug.

Beyond that,
Greenblatt said, there won't be any shows getting an early,
post-Olympic start. That strategy has failed in the past; “you get
a lot of viewer fatigue,” he said.

His network has been
in a mixed position lately – adequate ratings for scripted shows,
but big ones for reality and special events. This fall, NBC has only
three new scripted shows – the comedy “The Good Place” and the
drama “This Is Us,” plus “Timeless,” a detour for the

“We had heard so
many pitches on time-travel,” said Jennifer Salke, the NBC
president. Then the network gave this one its best spot, on Moday's
behind “The Voice.”

Mostly, though,
Greenblatt and Salke talked to the Television Critics Association
about their specials and events, including:

-- Jimmy Fallon
hosting this year's Golden Globe ceremony. That's in January, which
is when the new “Celebrity Apprentice,” with Arnold
Schwarzenegger doing the firing, arrives.

-- A concert
celebrating Tony Bennett's 90th birthday.

-- The next live
musical. “Hairspray” will include Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson,
Derek Hough, Harvey Fierstein and more.

-- The success of
“America's Got Talent” this summer, with Simon Cowell (who
produces the show) as one of the judges. He'll be back next year.

-- And “The
Voice,” with Miley Cyrus and Alicia Keys stepping into two of the
judge/coach chairs. Greenblatt said he sees no prospect of Blake
Shelton and Adam Levine leaving the other two spots. “They love the
show. And they love the paychecks.”

"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