Dick Solomon: Just act normal.
Mary Albright: I'd ask you to do the same, but I'm afraid that ship has sailed.
The Situational Comedy is a classic. It populates the airwaves of American television through new products and syndication, seemingly acting as the filler that completes the lineups of countless networks. The format is so familiar that it almost seems second nature. A group, usually a family, is featured as promoted as characters to be related to by the audience. Then, as a device to create the plot for each episode, a certain crisis, problem or situation would arise that the characters would have to conveniently wrap up in 30 minutes or so. With so few twists available to modify this already tired genre, I have to tip my hat (just imagine I’m wearing a hat) to the show that I’ll be discussing today – 3rd Rock from the Sun.
Staff – 3rd Rock was the brainchild of the husband/wife writing team of Bonnie and Terry Turner. They began as staff writers on Saturday Night Live from 1986-1992; they wrote several movies: including Coneheads, Wayne’s World, Wayne’s World 2 and Tommy Boy; and followed up this show with the highly popular That 70’s Show. So, the pedigree of quality was definitely there, as well as former SNL connections that probably helped bring Jane Curtin on as a regular and Jan Hooks and Ana Gasteyer on for shorter periods of time.
Premise – A group of aliens are sent to Earth to research humanity and the human condition, and they attempt to do so in the cosmopolitan (note the massive amount of sarcasm) town of Rutherford, Ohio. And… hilarity ensues. Dick is the leader of the group, even though he is quite often the least mature person in any situation. In a bit of irony, Tommy is the oldest alien and is implanted in little tiny Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s body, forcing him to go through high school and awkwardly deal with teenagers. They were given orders from their leader - the Big Giant Head. Those messages were always transmitted to the crew by Harry. The romantic entanglements were central to the show: Dick with Mary who put up with all his crazy and then some, Sally and the adorable Officer Don (kudos to this show bein
Cast – The cast of 3rd Rock clearly had to have been its greatest strength. With a premise so bizarre, you had to have someone as weird as John Lithgow heading it up. Are we entirely sure that he isn’t an alien? Kristen Johnston’s complete lack of awareness of female sexuality that eventually evolved into her using it as a weapon to get whatever she wanted was amazing and kinda subversive. French Stewart will always be Harry Solomon to me, and somehow always found a way to be even stranger than even Lithgow. I loved his furry jacket and that he lived in the closet! The transformation that Joseph Gordon-Levitt has done from this show to now is astounding. It’s great to look back and see him younger – and with particularly pretty hair. Jane Curtin was brilliant and her scenes with Dick never went as expected, and that’s a good thing. Nina (Simbi Khali) was Dick's assistant and, though she dealt with loads of verbal abuse, she could send it back doubled. Finally, WAYNE KNIGHT. Officer Don might be one of my favorite TV characters ever. His earnestness, the amount that he loved Sally, and the swagger that he got from Sally finding him attractive was wonderful.
What I loved about this show is that it stretched what a sitcom could be. Usually, there’s enough room for one ‘airhead’ or one ‘doofy husband’ that everyone could take some time and laugh at every episode… But because of the initial premise, everyone in the Solomon family can be the smartest person in the room but also a complete idiot. Learning even the smallest social cues and niceties seem to be light-years (space pun!) away from these individuals. Topics are dealt with in the least serious ways possible. At the beginning of the series, when Sally asks why she has to be the woman, Dick answers, "Because you lost." Boom, patriarchy! And finally, it really subverts what a 'family' should look like. With no wife for Dick, and the Tommy being quite literally the smartest and wisest person in the family, it undercuts what you would expect from a family structure.
Final Takeaways – Can an alien with no social skills come in and become a tenured professor at a lesser state school? Apparently so. How Nina didn't sue Dick thousands and thousands of times for the sexist/demeaning things that he said to her is far beyond me.
Should I watch it? Yes, and if you haven’t already I’m a little jealous. I wish I could watch this for the first time again. It’s on syndication somewhere, so go find it! The glory of the sitcom is that you can come in at any point and not be too lost. There are six seasons of this show, so I’ll let Dick Solomon close this out…