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Books on TV break it down for us viewers

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Books on TV break it down for us viewers

So, we hear Syracuse University has just founded a Center for the Study of Popular Television — intended, or so sayeth its dean, to ”study entertainment programs with the same care and passion as…professors of English study Melville and Pynchon.”

Wow, now you can officially major in Melrose Place. Cool, heh-heh.

But let’s leave Beavis and Butt-head out of this, for of all the recent TV-related books to hit stores, theirs — MTV’s Beavis and Butt-head Travel Log (Pocket, $12) — has got to be the stoopidest. In fact, as literary efforts go, it’s not even worth discussing. This is a shameful coda to four years of often fun inanity.

Fortunately, there are other, worthier candidates for a future Syracuse syllabus or two. (Those crazy kids have to crack the books sometime, right?)

Take Brenda Scott Royce’s Party of Five: The Unofficial Companion (Renaissance, $14.95). A self-described rabid fan and frequent visitor to the show (she says she’s met Scott Wolf ”so many times he probably thinks I’m stalking him”), Royce has extracted the kind of obsessive detail from set, costume, and lighting designers that only fellow rabid fans will savor. Here are specific items on the menu at the Salingers’ restaurant, like the curiously named Melrose Crabcakes. Here are goofy stills of the stars’ early thespian efforts, like Matthew Fox in Freshman Dorm. Here is endless fodder for future editions of Six Degrees of Whomever: Alexondra Lee, who had the role of Callie last season, once played the young Melissa Steadman on thirtysomething! Pay attention: There’s a quiz at the end.

Quizzes galore also pop up in the MTV-sanctioned The Real World: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide (MTV/Pocket, $18), by James Solomon with Alan Carter (a former EW writer). Many are multiple-choice, which is, presumably, to help fill the space not taken up by the bright, boppy graphics; the droning, exhaustive interviews with Real World inhabitants who reveal how their lives have been utterly transformed since they left the show, or in more cases not; and — oh, yes — a seven-page application inviting readers to try out for future seasons, which has questions your average Ivy League institution wouldn’t dare ask (”Did your parents have a good marriage? What was it like?”). The book does perfectly mimic MTV’s stop-and-chop editing. In fact, as one leafs mindlessly through the pages, one expects to happen upon…a commercial.

And that’s the kind of thing Rider University journalism instructor E. Graham McKinley terms ”the contradictory joys of consumerism, the righteous tunnel vision of capitalism” in her densely theoretical, deeply frightening Beverly Hills, 90210: Television, Gender, and Identity (U. of Pennsylvania, $17.50), which isn’t about the content of the show but rather the viewing experience of its audience. After conducting intense sessions of anthropological research (sitting around yakking with assorted cliques of girls while they watch), McKinley has concluded that ”agreement on what is appropriate beachwear is continually constructed, negotiated, and bolstered by…media images and interpersonal talk.” Whoa, Nellie. Also from the upholstered trenches comes the following groundbreaking dispatch: ”Younger viewers often watched the show with friends via the telephone; college students tended to gather in dormitory rooms or lounges.”

We hear there are some openings out there for nutty professors. Beavis and Butt-head: F- Party of Five: B+ The Real World: C Beverly Hills, 90210: C for content, A- for unintentional humor.

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