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YEAHS AND NAHS: Pop Culture List Books [May. 4th, 2007|09:31 pm]


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YEAHS AND NAHS: Pop Culture List Books

Pop culture lists are not just the basic building block for 80% of the combined programming schedules of VH-1 and E. They're fun, easily digestible, and provocative. A good list book should be the same. I read two in the last month, one a big success, the other not so much


Many of you who have missed an episode of your favorite TV show likely have turned to the site televisionwithoutpity.com to get a detailed recap. Or maybe you just enjoyed visiting the forums to exchange opinions about the show. Well, the website with a proud reputation for snark has found a way to cash in on its online cachet by producing that charming relic of bygone days: a book.

Authors Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting started the site and created this book of the same name, subtitled "752 things we love to hate (and hate to love) about TV." Pretty self-explanatory, eh? Indeed, it plays out much as you might expect, with the 752 things arranged alphabetically with occasional woodcut illustrations, sort of like a mini-encyclopedia.

I'm not a frequent visitor to the site, so I can't speak to whether this book captures whatever makes the Internet experience so appealing. But as simply a book about TV, though, I find it rather disappointing. I generally love breezy, opinionated volumes like this one, with bite-sized sections and various takes on pop culture topics. Unfortunately, while it wasn't a chore reading Television Without Pity, I was never absorbed in it and ultimately got little from reading it.

The limited frame of reference is part of the problem. There is a clear emphasis on TV from the late 1980s and up, or programming that was in heavy reruns in the time period. That's fine, and not surprising given the likely age of the authors. But I saw most of that stuff myself. For me to get much out of that subject matter, the writing should offer some high insight or entertainment value, and it's lacking. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume their assertion (in an I Love Lucy entry) that black and white TV isn't funny is facetious. But there is still a distinctly narrow scope here. I enjoy reading about aspects of TV I don't know much about, and when the subject matter is more familiar, I expect a new take on, say, how lame Cousin Oliver was. A book called TV Land TV to Go did a much better job of pointing out the medium's conventions and cliches.

Also, the encyclopedic format quickly becomes annoying as we find frequently pointless cross-references and entries that consist solely of directing us to another entry. Another flaw is the repetition of the authors' pet obsessions. They clearly think Regis Philbin doesn't prepare for interviews on his morning chat show. It feels like they mention it dozens of times. I exaggerate, but more than once is probably too much. And there are way, way too many references to Lex from Survivor.

One might argue a book like this isn't meant to be read straight through, but I say that when I read a good one, it's difficult to put it down. Sadly, that's not the case here. It's a small book that I read quickly, but more out of obligation than interest. One unique aspect of TV Without Pity is its female perspective. While I don't necessarily NEED to read about the sex appeal or lack thereof of Ian Ziering, it at least provides a new perspective for me, as much of this kind of writing seems to come from male voices. This helps give the book distinction, but not enough to make this slim, padded effort worth its cover price. It might be an entertaining read at a discount for those who have seen a lot less TV (and read a lot less about it) than I have.

YEAH: A much better example of this kind of book is Greg Wyshinki's "Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Dumbest Ideas in Sports History." It's witty but never too silly and provocative without being overly snarky.

Oddly, this list book isn't presented entirely in list form. The top 25 are given as a countdown in the final portion of the volume; before then, the entries are grouped thematically. This seems a good compromise between the logical flow of a book and the orderly randomness of a ranking. Hey,one advantage is that it lets you skip over the hockey parts if you're so inclined. Besides, the list isn't the emphasis, and it needn't be as long as the writing is clever.

There is more of a bias towards relatively modern events and ideas here, but Wyshinski shows a grasp of sports history beyond his own personal frame of reference. He includes plenty of familiar and expected items, like the infamous Olympic Triplecast and the XFL, but his concise writing and sharp humor make reading about such subjects worthwhile.

This was a fine list book that I plowed right through, and any sports fan will get some value from it.