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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Americans watch an average of five hours of television a day, but that doesn't mean what we're watching is good. The fall TV season is rolling out this month, adding even more choices to the already overwhelming array of programs.

If you're trying to figure out how to fill those five hours, give or take, NPR's Neda Ulaby has a guide for you. It's not so much a list of good shows as it is a method of watching them - a way to identify authentic characters of all races and genders. Our guide begins with something called The Bechdel Rule.

NEDA ULABY: Who better to explain the Bechdel Rule than cartoonist Alison Bechdel? About 25 years ago, she drew a strip with a woman explaining that she only watches movies that meet three criteria.

Ms. ALISON BECHDEL (Cartoonist): One, it had to have at least two women in it. Two, they had to speak to each other about, three, something besides a man.

ULABY: The idea that it's important to see women characters talk about something besides men was, to be honest, not even Bechdel's idea.

Ms. BECHDEL: I stole it, lock, stock and barrel, from a friend of mine, Liz Wallace, who I was studying karate with at the time.

ULABY: But the cartoon still resonates because it articulates something often missing in popular culture. Not the number of women we see on screen, but the depths of their stories and the range of their concerns.

Eric Deggans covers television for the St. Petersburg Times. He says a lot of this comes down to who's writing the scripts. There's not a lot of diversity amongst successful TV writers, and as a result, Deggans says there aren't a lot of fully realized African-American characters, for example, or conversations between women with a convincing range of topics.

Mr. ERIC DEGGANS (Journalist, St. Petersburg Times): When you're constantly watching TV shows that don't reflect that reality back to you, you feel a dissonance. You feel like you're kind of not connected to the culture.

ULABY: Maybe that's why the Bechdel Rule is still a popular meme on the Internet. The rule pops up on blogs, and people argue about what follows the rule on Web sites and on listservs. At least two women featured characters who have to talk about something other than a man. The shows that fail might surprise you.

Take the show "Sex and the City." It's about four women, the whole show is them talking - but does it follow the Bechdel Rule? Even the characters agree that it doesn't.

(Soundbite of television show "Sex and the City")

Ms. CYNTHIA NIXON (Actress): (As Miranda) How does it happen that four such smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends? It's like seventh grade with bank accounts. What about us?

ULABY: Just because a show is female-driven does not mean it follows the Bechdel Rule, says media critic Eric Deggans. Shows like "Grey's Anatomy," filled with professional women, all doctors, who talk to each other like this.

(Soundbite of television show "Grey's Anatomy")

Ms. SANDRA OH (Actress): (As Dr. Cristina Yang) You had sex with Derek in an exam room?

Ms. ELLEN POMPEO (Actress): (As Dr. Meredith Grey) Yes.

Ms. OH: (As Dr. Cristina Yang) Last night?

Ms. POMPEO: (As Dr. Meredith Grey) Yes.

Ms. OH: You and McDreamy did the nasty nasty.

ULABY: Of course, there are shows that follow the Bechdel Rule. In "Brothers and Sisters" on ABC, women talk about the family business. On NBC's "30 Rock," women talk about what's funny. And there's a new show on ABC Family.

(Soundbite of television show "The Middleman")

Unidentified Group: Middleman.

ULABY: "The Middleman" is a science fiction show about a young woman who's a heroic crime fighter's temporary assistant. But she comes home, makes art, and talks with her best friend and roommate, who's also an artist.

(Soundbite of television show "The Middleman")

Ms. NATALIE MORALES (Actor): (As Wendy Watson) Real life is scary. I'm just working it out on the canvas.

Unidentified Woman: (As Wendy's roommate) So these paintings aren't a desperate and violent cry from your subconscious because it knows you're planning to quit art in favor of a mysteriously urgent and time-consuming form of temping?

ULABY: Lead actress Natalie Morales says "The Middleman" is important because girls really do have such dialogue about art and work and music and not just boys.

Ms. MORALES: What I liked about it so much is that it was actually real and it was a lot like me and my friends and teasing my best friend about a band that she likes or something I've done or...

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: And according to the Morales Rule, there are things this Cuban-American actress will not do on screen.

Ms. MORALES: Dance, just salsa, and talk like Ay, Papi, what do you mean? And no one talks like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MORALES: Like, I don't care if you're Latin, you don't talk like that.

ULABY: Morales is also peeved when Spanish words get sprinkled in nonsensically to make characters seem more ethnic. TV critic Eric Deggans has a personal version of the Bechdel Rule as well.

Mr. DEGGANS: At least two characters who are not white who are on shows where the main focus isn't race.

ULABY: Shows that follow the Deggans Rule include "Lost," "ER" and "The Closer." But Eric Deggans says this isn't about meeting quotas. On the one hand, the rule is about identifying with characters, seeing characters who are, in some ways, like you, who talk like you talk, who have similar concerns, who remind you of your friends. On the other, TV gives us a chance to sample the real breadth of American culture. It's about peering into other people's faces, other people's lives.

Mr. DEGGANS: One of the things I love about "The Sopranos," for example, is that I don't think I would ever be able to hang out with an Italian-American family and get that kind of authentic sense of how they're relating to each other.

(Soundbite of television show "The Sopranos")

Unidentified Man: She didn't sack poor Gabriella. She needs a bigger house.

Mr. TONY SIRICO (As Paulie Gualtieri): Ginny Sacramoni, what she needs is her own zip code.

Mr. DEGGANS: It's that weird theory where the act of observing something changes it, you know, being a black person in that room would change it. But "The Sopranos" takes me into that room in a way that it doesn't strut and I get to see what that's really like up close.

ULABY: Deggans says that's what diversity is. It's about stories, not numbers. But he says he can't think of too many shows in the fall TV lineup that follow the Bechdel Rule or the Deggans Rule or the Morales Rule.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

BLOCK: If you have a favorite show that follows one of these rules or if you have a rule of your own you'd like to share, we're talking about it at our Web site. You can join the discussion with Neda Ulaby at npr.org.

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