3rd Rock from the Sun (1996-2001)
When comedy meets Science-Fiction it is normally best advised to stand back, as the results are rarely if ever pretty. In literature, comics, movies or television the blending of the two genres has a fairly poor record with one or two few notable exceptions (the BBC’s ‘Red Dwarf’ being one of the most famous – Mel Brook’s ‘Spaceballs’ being one of the most infamous). But the American network NBC bucked the trend with ‘3rd Rock from the Sun’, it’s funny, wry and frequently laugh-out-loud sitcom centered on four alien explorers visiting the planet Earth (the ‘3rd Rock’ of the title) and their adventures – or more frequently misadventures – as they examined that strange Galactic phenomenon called Humanity.
There was the expedition leader ‘Professor Dick Solomon’ (played by an often, and gloriously, manic John Lithgow), his mismatched son and science officer ‘Tommy’ (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young and later teenage sparring partner), the security officer and sister ‘Sally’ (played by blonde Amazonian Kristen Johnston) and the brother – and the team’s Transmitter – ‘Harry’ (portrayed by French Stewart with an at times astonishing squinty-eyed madness and energy). Supporting cast members included long-time comic and ‘Saturday Night Live’ (SNL) veteran Jane Curtin, playing ‘Dr. Mary Albright’, Dick Solomon’s long-suffering on-off Human girlfriend whose turbulent relationship was a major centre of the show, and well-known comedic character actor (and ‘Seinfeld’ regular) Wayne Knight as ‘Officer Don Leslie Orville’, Sally’s unexpected yet hugely enjoyable love interest.
‘3rd Rock’ (as it was popularly known to its many fans) combined ironic observations on human life and society, in a small-town middle America setting, with some genuine moments of comedic genius. It was clever, witty, imaginative and often carried a not too cloying message about the common humanity we all share – along with our many, many foibles. Dick and his family became the observers of Western society in all its many guises making for some of the best comic writing to be seen on American television in the 1990s. There were episodes centering on love, sex, violence, jealousy, money (or the lack thereof), altruism or selfishness, and the many other characteristics of our way of life as the aliens learned along the way the expected and correct ways to behave in society – and which Mankind frequently and pointedly failed to live up to themselves.
One of the joys of the show were the frequent references to popular movie and television culture, and its playful way with the conventions of drama and acting that we have all become so familiar with from TV and movies, as well as deliberately inverting the accepted conceits of television sitcoms. Classic episodes included references to Jane Curtin’s role in the famous Saturday Night Live ‘Conehead’ sketches of the late 1970s (and the 1993 movie of the same name with regular SNL partner-in-crime, Dan Aykroyd), John Lithgow’s own role in an episode of the ‘Twilight Zone’ (the famous ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’, featuring a very nervous airline passenger played by Lithgow and an even stranger creature), and a star turn by William Shatner (‘Captain James Tiberius Kirk’ himself) in the role of the ‘Big Giant Head’ the distant alien boss of the expedition team. Indeed the show latterly became famous for its guest stars, including notably British comedy legend John Cleese, as ‘Dr. Liam Neesam’, a professor who is later revealed to be an evil rival alien.
By the last two seasons of the series, despite some still stand-out episodes, the formula was beginning to wear a bit thin, and the imagination that made the show so much fun to watch was beginning to lag. The last episode was a somewhat unsatisfactory one for some, but not an altogether unfitting finale for a frequently charming television comedy series whose quality of writing and acting makes it as watchable today as it was at the turn of the century. All six seasons of ‘3rd Rock From The Sun’ are available in a nicely bundled special edition and despite the frequent TV reruns I would still highly recommend a purchase for those dreary dog-days days when you need a good smile.
And don’t forget to practice the salute!