Saturday, September 21, 2013

Bechdel Test: The Big Bang Theory (Season 6)

Kaley Cuoco, Melissa Rauch, and Mayim Bialik

We’ve had a lot of fun this week with Emmy predictions, so I figured we’d close the Emmy Week with a Bechdel Test examination of one of the frontrunners for a number of the trophies: The Big Bang Theory. For those who have been with it since the beginning, The Big Bang Theory started as the Bechdel Test’s worst nightmare-four guys, one girl, and our female lead Penny (Kaley Cuoco) never seemed to get her own plotlines or even a last name (she still hasn’t gotten the latter).

But thankfully through the years they’ve added Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) and Amy (Mayim Bialik), which gives us a fighting chance on the Bechdel Test.  In fact, one could argue they made the show infinitely better-the show was able to expand Howard, Penny, and Sheldon far more with these actresses to bring out different sides of them, and the two ladies should get a chunk of that credit (fittingly, they are both now in the credits).  But did it help with the Bechdel Test?

As a reminder, these are the criteria for passing the Bechdel Test:
1. The show needs to have two named characters.
2. The two characters need to talk to each other.
3. The conversation needs to last thirty seconds and be about something other than a man.  This thirty second rule is something that has been added specifically at the Many Rantings of John to ensure that a simple “hello”/”hello back” conversation doesn’t get a show an accidental pass.

The Date Night Variable (#6.1)
A tight call, but I’m going with a FAIL.  Penny and Amy briefly discussed their beauty regiments, but the subject quickly turned to Sheldon and Leonard and their respective relationships, so it’s a toss.  Otherwise, we got some ugly stereotyping late in the episode (Leonard was the “girl” in the relationship since he wanted to discuss it and didn’t like sports) and a fairly enjoyable anniversary dinner between Sheldon and Amy (I love the way that Mayim Bialik has grown that character through the years).

The Decoupling Fluctuation (#6.2)
We easily hit a PASS in the opening scene of the show, with Bernadette, Amy, and Penny all discussing wedding presents and where Amy would want to register (the cadaver lab, natch).  After a fairly rudimentary premiere, we get a considerably stronger second episode, with Sheldon and Penny having a heart-to-heart about her conflicted feelings about staying with Leonard (Sheldon and Penny episodes are always the best).  And Howard’s interactions with Mike Massimino are always hilarious (for those who don’t know, he’s an actual astronaut in real life).

The Higgs Boson Observation (#6.3)
This episode brought us another recurring female role, though not a main character in Alex, Sheldon’s stunningly patient grad assistant (played by Margo Harshman).  She didn’t get us a Bechdel Pass (instead, we got that PASS from Amy and Penny discussing Amy’s beauty regiment), but it’s nice to have another female presence at the University, since Sara Gilbert has disappeared without any sort of plot explanation.

The Re-Entry Minimization (#6.4)
Sometimes the Bechdel Test pass or fail is very debatable.  It’s arguable that Penny and Amy’s interactions during the Pictionary game fails, since their conversation is being driven by Sheldon, but I’m giving it a PASS, since they’re technically discussing the game.  The episode was Howard-driven, which usually is a bit of a pass for me (Howard’s character always seemed a bit much for me).

The Holographic Excitation (#6.5)
It’s incredible the amount of guest stars (and always connected to the characters) that the show can get now that it is such a massive hit.  Buzz Aldrin’s cameo as a man who can’t stop talking about being an astronaut was such a stroke of genius, it made up for what was a relatively routine episode, with Amy and Sheldon fighting about the speed of their relationship and Howard and Bernadette quarrelling over Howard’s constant chatter about his space expedition.  The episode also FAILS the Bechdel, as the only brief interaction between female characters is Bernadette and Penny chatting about their costumes at the comic book store, but it doesn’t hit thirty seconds.

The Extract Obliteration (#6.6)
Like Aldrin in the last episode, the re-appearance of Stephen Hawking as one of Sheldon’s Words with Friends competitors is a great wink to the Celebrity World of the Geeks.  This episode is a PASS for our female characters, as Penny, Amy, and Bernadette discuss Penny’s recent interest in going back to community college and their help with her term paper.

The Habitation Configuration (#6.7)
One of the best recurring bits on this series is Sheldon’s complicated relationship with Wil Wheaton.  Random factoid about me-Wil Wheaton was my first celebrity crush.  I used to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation with my dad, and would hope every time we watched that it would be an episode with dreamy Wesley Crusher.

But while this episode was terrific in that sense (Parsons wisely chose this episode as his Emmy episode submission), we get a FAIL on the Bechdel Test-the ladies only share a scene together at the Cheesecake Factory, which consists of Penny and Bernadette talking about Howard and his failure to move out of his mother’s house.

The 43 Peculiarity (#6.8)
The most estrogen-lacking episode so far this season, I don’t believe Amy or Bernadette even show up during the episode, leaving us with just Penny, who finally admits she loves Leonard in this episode, and Alex, who flirts with Leonard, though he doesn’t pick up on it. The two women never share the screen, though, so FAIL

The Parking Spot Escalation (#6.9)
As a series, particularly an ensemble series, gets on in years, the absolute best way for it to remain fresh is to explore relationships on the show that don’t always get their due.  It’s a weirdly underutilized tool at the writers’ disposal.  Case in Point: I loved that this episode had more of an interaction between Bernadette and Amy (who clearly spend boatloads of time together, even though the focus of the women’s scenes is always Penny), as they fought their own version of a Howard vs. Sheldon fight over a parking space.  The feud also resulted in an easy Bechdel PASS (in multiple scenes), as they discussed Amy’s bikini wax and Bernadette towing Amy’s car.  Here’s to hoping that we get some Bernadette/Sheldon or Amy/Howard scenes in the future-mix up the chemistry people!

The Fish Guts Displacement (#6.10)
In a particularly silly episode, Mayim Bialik got her chance to shine (this was her Emmy submission episode).  The episode has Sheldon particularly naïve to the ways of Amy and her lust for him (she tricks him into, amongst other things, giving her a bath and spanking her), but Bialik sells it wholeheartedly.  We also got a PASS, with Amy and Bernadette discussing Amy’s illness.

The Santa Simulation (#6.11)
Ugh, after two great passes, we got a depressing FAIL this week, even though the ladies were out for a girls’ night.  The point of a girls night, not that Hollywood writers seem to know this, is not just to go out and pick up men, but for some reason since all three of these ladies are romantically involved, they had to add Raj to keep the conversation alive (and to hijack them discussing anything other than his love life).

The Egg Salad Equivalency (#6.12)
Let’s start with the good-Regina King is always a welcome addition to anything she does and, thanks to a discussion about Alex between Penny, Bernadette, and Amy, we got a Bechdel Test PASS.  But the rest of the episode was a low point for the series.  Sheldon has been many things, but a clueless racist and misogynist isn’t usually one of them, but this episode had him being both.  I don’t know that I laughed once during this episode, and all four of the guys should have been fired.  This was cheap humor, and this show should know better.

The Bakersfield Expedition (#6.13)
One of the great oddities of television is the fact that some of the worst episodes of a series can be followed with a genuine best episode of the series, and this is one of them.  While the guys trek through the desert was relatively standard fare, the women got a home run this episode.  From their brunch discussions of the guys’ fascination with comic books, to their subsequent discussions about comic books, we got to see great, hilarious character work for all three women-Melissa Rauch, Kaley Cuoco, and Mayim Bialik should all be extremely proud, as should the writers, as this was probably the most and longest PASS the series has ever had on the Bechdel Test.

The Cooper/Kripke Inversion (#6.14)
We got a return of one of the series more annoying creations, Barry Kripke, a walking sexual harassment lawsuit (he makes early season Howard look positively gallant), and we get no interaction between the female characters-Amy is sidelined and basically just talked about, Bernadette is in a tussle with Howard over money, and Penny is just stunned that Sheldon may want to have sex someday.  FAIL

The Spoiler Alert Segmentation (#6.15)
Another FAIL, though not for a lack of female characters-Bernadette, Amy, and Penny all appear throughout the episode, the latter two pretty significantly, but the only interaction between female characters is at the very end of the episode, when Penny and Amy are talking about Sheldon and Leonard and their inability to comprehend their diverse feelings about moving in together (Amy being pro for moving in with Sheldon, Penny against moving in with Leonard).

The Tangible Affection Proof (#6.16)
Our third FAIL in a row (bummer), though we had five speaking female characters in the episode, and one non-speaking one (Kaley Cuoco’s sister Briana played her ex-best friend).  The episode had a pretty significant interaction between Bernadette and Penny, but the bulk of it was spent discussing Penny’s ex and Leonard, so that caused the fail.  In other news, Sheldon and Amy continue to see their relationship progress (I have a feeling that next season’s finale cliffhanger will finally mean they’ve had sex).

Th Monster Isolation (#6.17)
The FAIL streak continues, though we again got a significant portion of the episode given to our female characters.  Penny, in particular, saw a lot of growth, showing that all of those acting classes have not been in vain and that she can actually pull off a strong Blanche DuBois (though she completely abandoned the Southern accent).  In other venues, we also learned a bit more about Raj’s potential girlfriend Lucy, who is just as disturbed as he is.

The Contractual Obligation Implementation (#6.18)
We’re back, and in an episode that was about trying to get more women in science, it was heartening to know that the Bechdel Test was a major PASS.  The girls spent the day playing hooky at Disneyland (with everyone dressing as their favorite Disney Princess…well Bernadette at least).  I’m so glad that Sheldon remembered the fact that he did know two successful female scientists toward the end of the episode, so that their endeavor to get women into the sciences wasn’t totally in vain.

The Closet Reconfiguration (#6.19)
This was such a beautiful episode, I almost want to give it a pass as it showed how far Howard has come through the series in such a positive way, and it may have been the first time ever that The Big Bang Theory (an oddly unsentimental show) made me cry.  The girls shared a couple of scenes, but like most of the episode, it focused on their discussion of the letter from Howard’s father’s letter, so FAIL, but that scene where they all read what might have been in the letter was wonderful.

The Tenure Turbulence (#6.20)
Perhaps Sheldon is just racist.  Once again we had a series of cheap racial jokes with the fabulous Regina King for some reason being the brunt of them (is this all Chuck Lorre can do with a talented actress of color?  Really?), though we got a PASS on the Bechdel Test (Amy and Penny discussed the ways that they would be a better asset in flirting with the tenure staff).

The Closure Alternative (#6.21)
We got a fascinating topic worth investigating (shows that get cancelled and never have resolution, in this case SyFy’s Alphas), and even a Bechdel PASS, with Bernadette and Penny discussing Penny’s lack of passions (though I thought it was a major cop-out that her passions ended up being her friends).

The Proton Resurgence (#6.22)
Bob Newhart recently won an Emmy Award for this episode, and he’s by far the biggest draw here, in what was a fairly “throwback” style episode for Big Bang, with Penny, Leonard, and Sheldon all staying within their own story and Raj, Bernadette, and Howard in theirs (no sign of Amy anywhere).  This led to a Bechdel FAIL, though, of course.

The Love Spell Potential (#6.23)
A great episode, one that I personally think should have been the season finale (we’ll get to a complaint I had about the season finale in a moment): the gang all play Dungeons and Dragons together.  Since all seven of the main characters were there, in some fashion (Raj left rather early), we got a Bechdel PASS amongst the women, and we also got a truly solid piece of acting from Mayim Bialik (she could have just as easily have submitted this episode for Emmy consideration).

The Bon Voyage Reaction (#6.24)
I know that the whole point of this finale was to focus on Raj, who, in hindsight, had quite the character journey this past year (writing about all of these characters, you see that for him, as well as for basically everyone except Leonard and Bernadette, this was a transformative year), so his ability to now talk to women probably makes sense, but I think that’s going to take away a lot from his character.  I hope that what this means is that he still can’t talk to women, but can talk to Bernadette, Penny, and Amy since they are his “family” (as was pushed through most of the episode’s narrative, and since he’s always been able to talk to his mother and sister).  Oh, and Bechdel Test FAIL to close the season.

Final Scorecard
Bechdel Test: 12/24 (50%)
Bechdel Grade: F

Another season where we hit 50%, but we just come up short of a passing grade.  Overall, watching all of these episodes with a closer eye (rather than just having it on in the background during TBS), you get to see a bit more of the dialogue for being racist, sexist, and homophobic (I still like the show, but it shouldn’t quite get the free pass that it does from some critics, as the jokes come from a baser place than we’d hope despite the strong cast).  The show of course passed the reverse Bechdel in every single episode, and with stories about Penny not really having interests and the sexual harassment storyline, at least the writers seem to be becoming aware of their shortfalls in political correctness.

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