Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The greatest stand-up set Louis C.K. ever saw, plus 4 more essential entertainments

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NOT OPTIONAL takes a quick weekly look at five essential releases, some recent, some not.


Tig Notaro, Live (available for download)
It wouldn’t be terribly accurate to call Tig Notaro’s Live a stand-up album—it’s sort of that, but also not that at all. The half-hour set was delivered at Largo just a few days after Notaro was diagnosed with breast cancer—and that was just the latest in a tornado of shit luck she’d had: Her mother died in a freak accident, a long relationship ended, and she’d suffered a crippling intestinal problem called C. diff. Another comic probably would’ve canceled the appearance and gone into hiding, but Notaro used her time to work through her own feelings—terror, dark humor, resignation, determination—in front of an incredibly generous audience. It’s a good thing the recorder was rolling, because this one-time-only catharsis could have been lost to legend. Instead, it was big-upped by Louis C.K. (“one of the greatest stand-up performances I ever saw”) and downloaded a whole bunch of times. [Josh Modell]

One Minute To Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, And Castro On The Brink Of Nuclear War (in stores now)
The Cuban Missile Crisis was a geopolitical meltdown that posed an existential threat to modern civilization. It doesn’t get much more frightening than that. But now that we know everything worked out okay, it makes for an awfully good read. Michael Dobbs’ One Minute To Midnight is among the most exhaustively researched books about the U.S.-Soviet standoff over Cuban nuke installations, which makes it sound dry, but this hour-by-hour account is as spellbinding as any Tom Clancy yarn. The twists are often ludicrous—like the spy-plane pilot who picks the worst possible moment in history to lose his bearings and drift into Soviet airspace—but it’s all real, and with a clean, straightforward style, Dobbs never overhypes the action. He doesn’t need to. [John Teti]

Hipsters (on DVD now)
Primarily essential viewing for fans of modern musicals and joyously vivid cinematography, the 2008 Russian movie Hipsters feels like the offspring of the May/December pairing of the Hairspray remake and Swing Kids. Set in mid-1950s Moscow, it tracks the burgeoning stilyagi movement, the Russian hipster youth subculture centered on black-market American records and eye-searingly bright clothing. The story loosely follows the film version of Hair, with a square who blindly serves his government coming in contact with a free-spirited social scene, falling for one of its core members, and gradually assimilating, until the loss of the group’s leader signals a changing era. The film rambles a bit amid images of Soviet disapproval and oppression of the hipsters, but it’s beautiful and striking to watch, and there’s plenty of wry humor amid the sincere message about the rewards of non-conformism and acting out. It’s outsized, energetic fun, with a rousing finale that speaks past one moment in time, and on to everyone who was ever young, dumb, and trying to find a new identity. [Tasha Robinson]

Wicked Tuna (Sundays at 9 p.m. on National Geographic)
I grew up fishing on Lake Erie, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve kind of fallen out of the catch-and-release game. It’s not like I don’t live by a lake; it’s more that I’ve just gotten lazy and boats are expensive. Fortunately, though, there’s a wealth of fishing shows on TV to feed my proverbial beast, from Deadliest Catch to any number of Babe Winkelman productions. My latest obsession is Wicked Tuna, which airs on National Geographic and, like every other reality show out there, features a variety of loudmouthed characters just doing their jobs. In this case, that job is catching massive, sometimes 1,000-pound-plus tuna in the North Atlantic. While I’m not a fan of some of the captains (looking at you, FV-Tuna.com’s Dave), the actual fishing makes up for all the reality dreck. Some weeks, the crews will lose monster after monster, or just catch a bunch of sharks, which—as I learned from yet another fishing show, Swords: Life On The Line—you absolutely don’t want to eat because they taste like pure, concentrated urine. Other weeks, though, the fishermen will battle for hours and end up with huge fish and payouts that can range from just a couple of grand to about $20,000 for one single tuna. Not bad for a day at sea. [Marah Eakin]

The Middle (returns to ABC March 27)
With almost everything on network TV in reruns, March is a great time to catch up on shows you might have let slide, or shows you’ve never even started watching. To that end, let’s all resolve to make March the month we catch up on the fourth season of The Middle, a show that’s in the midst of a season so good it’s easily one of the best comedies on the air—but nobody’s talking about it, because it’s not as immediately buzz-worthy as something like New Girl or as in need of salvation as something like Enlightened. Every time I say The Middle is one of my favorite shows on the air, I’m looked at like a crazy person, perhaps because it seems like such a basic family comedy couldn’t possibly be good, or because people don’t like Patricia Heaton’s acting and/or politics. (Though she’s nicely modulated the former for the single-camera format.) But a cursory look at the fourth season and in particular the episodes that aired in February sweeps will show what I mean. The five members of the Heck family have all gone through assorted trials and tribulations this year—mother Frankie lost her job, while son Axl is trying to figure out his future, and daughter Sue is dating for the first time—but the show has yet to lose its essentially optimistic view of America’s working-class families. The whole season is available on Hulu Plus, and the last few episodes are available on basic Hulu, so if you’re looking for another TV comedy to try, why not this one? [Todd VanDerWerff]