NOT OPTIONAL takes a quick weekly look at worthwhile releases, some recent, some not.
Borgen, season one
When I started reviewing Borgen week to week, I expected to like it, but I didn’t realize how much it would stick with me. But it’s been hard for me to recommend it to others, simply because the series’ availability has been so spotty, with each episode available for only two weeks on streaming after it airs on TV on nationwide broadcaster LinkTV and Los Angeles-based channel KCET. Now, however, it’s possible for people who suspect the show might be their thing to catch up on the whole first season: The entire thing will be available on KCET’s Borgen site through Monday, August 5, with the second-season première joining the first season tonight.
So what is Borgen? To say too much about it ruins its pleasures, but I would caution viewers that it’s a slow burn. It’s considered one of the pinnacles of the spate of refreshing, intelligent Danish dramas that have popped up with surprising regularity in the last several years, and it’s one of the few that’s not a murder-mystery on some level. Instead, it tells the story of Denmark’s (fictional) first female prime minister, an idealist who finds herself increasingly tugged in directions that wear down both her commitment to her political beliefs and her connection to her family. It’s one of the best series I’ve ever seen at depicting the sheer, pragmatic realities of politics, as well as one of the few stories in the last several decades to believably depict the strain a woman’s absence can have on her husband and children without ever lecturing her about daring to take a position of power. By the first season’s final four episodes, the show’s surprisingly complex structure reveals itself, particularly in the devastating penultimate chapter, which destroys almost everything the season has so carefully built. [Todd VanDerWerff]
Figure 1 medical photo-sharing app
My dad, brother, and I have long been obsessed with medical oddity photos and weird X-rays, and the recent launch of Figure 1 has brought the Eakin clan so, so much joy. I probably shouldn’t even be recommending Figure 1, considering it’s ostensibly a photo-sharing app “for healthcare professionals,” (a.k.a. not me) but it’s too good not to rave about. Basically, Figure 1 allows doctors, nurses, surgeons, and whoever to share photos from cases that are either insane or perplexing, thus making for an app full of pictures of babies with six fingers and toes on each appendage, insane testicular tumors, and photos titled “foot v. lawnmower” or “arm v. moving subway train.” You have to have a user account to see the photos and any posted comments that aren’t legitimately serious and medically related will get you booted. It’s the ultimate gross-out bar tool, and texted screenshots of the pics are the best way to squick out your sibs. Oh, and this should go without saying, but if you’re at all squeamish about body parts or the lack thereof, stay away. [Marah Eakin]
Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee
This is certainly not the first endorsement for Jerry Seinfeld’s web series Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, but with the second season underway it seems as good a time as any to reiterate how crucial it is. Seinfeld’s been largely absent from the spotlight since the end of his culture-sweeping sitcom, and save for the 2002 documentary Comedian he’s been pulling back on new endeavors while still enjoying all the perks of mega-stardom. That stature is what enables him to land guests such as Chris Rock, David Letterman, and the revolutionary comedic duo of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, but it’s the show’s razor-sharp editing, coupled with tight structures and a sub-20-minute runtime, that keeps it engaging. Sure, some episodes feel empty—the one with Seth Meyers being a prime example—but, by and large, it hits quickly, offering all the charm of a podcast with none of the bloat. [David Anthony]
Dan Le Batard Is Highly Questionable
My favorite mindless television to consume during a workout or at the end of a long day is sports discussion shows. Some people cannot stand all of the Sports Shouting clones, but I choose selectively. Nobody should ever watch First Take, but I’m a sucker for Around The Horn and Pardon The Interruption. But in the wasteland of summer, when baseball is the only major sport going on and there isn’t enough football to keep the cycle going, my favorite show to watch (or podcast to listen to) is Highly Questionable, the youngest addition to ESPN’s lineup of sports journalists breaking down the same stories every day. Dan Le Batard of The Miami Herald began hosting the show with his elderly father Gonzalo, a Cuban immigrant and shameless homer for the Miami Heat. After over a year of plugging away alone, frequent ESPN contributor Bomani Jones has joined the little kitchen set to form a team of smart, funny, and refreshingly honest views in a sea of recycled PR junk. What makes the show so entertaining is that Le Batard is one of the most unexpectedly great interviewers in sports, making UFC fighters seem interesting, or asking Pat Sajak about drinking with Vanna White between Wheel Of Fortune tapings. Le Batard and Jones function like the smartest morning-zoo radio show ever assembled, complete with a Cuban court jester. [Kevin McFarland]