Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on 3rd Rock From The Sun (1996-2001, NBC), which is currently available on DVD and Amazon Prime.
3rd Rock From The Sun stars JOHN LITHGOW as Dick, KRISTEN JOHNSTON as Sally, FRENCH STEWART as Harry, JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT as Tommy, and JANE CURTIN as Mary. With SIMBI KHALI, ELMARIE WENDEL, and WAYNE KNIGHT.
By Season Five, 3rd Rock From The Sun’s premised novelty has evaporated entirely, with few stories that explicitly invoke the high concept, and consequently more episodic gambling on the audience’s willingness to allow said high concept to implicitly exist underneath ideas that would otherwise be funny on any series and with any set of outrageous characters (be they aliens or just goofballs). This, of course, is not ideal, for we want this series’ premise to be informing its weekly storytelling — the show’s practice of its own identity — with, as always, meaningful support from the leads and their relationships. Unfortunately, too many entries in Five really extend their credit regarding what can believably be deemed premise-implicit, and while this is a function of the leads being able to learn (so that fewer things are “new” enough to suggest alien-related ignorance), it’s also a sign that the show itself is running out of ways to genuinely play out its “situation,” sans recycling previous ideas — which Five also does. Additionally, Sweeps-timed stunts that rely on high-concept supernatural trappings are also less satisfying — especially in Five, where such outings are dominated by recurring folks and guests (in the Vicki baby arc), not truly exploring the regulars and their relationships. To that point, the show’s Big Laugh sensibilities have sanctioned a continued broadening of tone, enabling bigger, bolder, and less emotionally credible plots that no longer have as much direct justification from the fantasy logline, particularly when the characters — who should be upholding and embodying the premise — also feel subordinated. In this regard, 3rd Rock once again proves to be a very idea-driven series — whether it’s premise-connected or not, for the amusing episodic notion is paramount above all else… However, this prioritization of funny ideas is not totally worthless, as there are indeed some gems here in Five due to the show’s eagerness to entertain — enough to render the season actually enjoyable, and perhaps convince viewers to strain even more when accepting how the premise can be applied as an implicit connective tissue for story. And with Five, unlike Six, at least trying to acknowledge its high concept, 3rd Rock remains surprisingly fun.
01) Episode 100: “The Fifth Solomon” (Aired: 11/02/99)
Dick wrecks the car and decides to get a new one.
Written by Gregg Mettler | Directed by Terry Hughes
Dick wrecks the Rambler — an iconic symbol of the series, given that it was the device in which the Solomons first arrived on Earth — so they decide to replace it in this entry, which sees the characters experiencing emotional attachment to an inanimate object, perhaps not for the first time, but in a way that catches these aliens off-guard because it’s a human phenomenon for which they’re still not primed. Additionally, hoping to get the accident covered by insurance, the family realizes they needed to take a policy out before the wreck — an idea that speaks to their ignorance of this human construct. And this enables a very funny story with Bob Odenkirk as an agent who sells a policy to Harry, an alien with no real grasp of insurance or what his relationship should be with an insurance agent. It’s all amusing, and premise-adjacent.
02) Episode 101: “Dial M For Dick” (Aired: 11/09/99)
The Solomons unknowingly attend a murder mystery party.
Written by Christine Zander | Directed by Terry Hughes
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Dial M For Dick” finds another something to which the Solomons are genuinely still naïve: the murder mystery dinner party — a uniquely human phenomenon that’s great for this series because it’s all about character interactions, thereby allowing the regulars’ personalities to shine in the process. Now, the murder mystery dinner party is not a totally original gimmick for the sitcom — this blog has seen it featured in the ’90s on The Golden Girls, Frasier, and Just Shoot Me! — but I actually think that works in this outing’s favor, for it doesn’t feel strained as a subject matter, and yet it also makes sense why it would take them until this point in the run to have their first exposure. Meanwhile, in terms of laughs, there are lots of prime moments — (Emmy-nominated) John Lithgow leads the way as Dick, challenging the actors in the staged murder mystery, but I’m especially fond of how the story naturally incorporates the cop in its regular cast, Officer Don, for a memorable climax. A favorite — one of the few gems in Five, using the characters in a way that implies the premise and earns supreme comedy. (Guest stars include Billy Connolly and Janet Carroll.)
03) Episode 102: “Dick And Tuck” (Aired: 11/16/99)
Dick and Sally both consider having plastic surgery.
Written by Bob Kushell | Directed by Terry Hughes
There are a few offerings here in Five that revisit themes the Solomons first encountered way back in their first year. Although we want to credit the series for still trying to connect to its premise, it’s sad that there’s a lack of new ideas, and mostly, these updates are merely broader — in accordance with the show’s elevation in comic tone — which is not always more ideal. Take, for instance, this entry, for while its Season One predecessor — “Dick’s First Birthday” — found Dick dying his hair and wearing leather pants to feel young, this one has him considering drastic plastic surgery, a more heightened, gaudier notion (especially with David Hasselhoff stunt cast as the doc). This update is no better for character — or premise, since this is already trodden “ground” — but it’s good for Five, and I appreciate the humor in the subplots, where Harry is told he’s physically gorgeous, and Sally believes she’s too ugly for Don — a fun reversal of humanity’s typical standards of beauty, and a thought that therefore reiterates her alienness.
04) Episode 103: “Dick, Who’s Coming To Dinner” (Aired: 11/23/99)
The Solomons unknowingly attend a “white power” rally.
Written by Dave Goetsch & Jason Venokur | Directed by Terry Hughes
Just as with the above, this installment looks back to a memorable first season classic for a familiar — and hopefully premise-affirming — subject. In this case, it’s race, which was first discussed in the series’ “Dick Like Me,” where the leads struggled to understand ethnicity during their quest to select a “superior” heritage for themselves. This outing, much broader and more about skin color exclusively, is far more forced, contriving a way to get the Solomons to a “white power” rally, with the rest of the story then following the consequences of that action. Their lack of awareness about racial tensions is somewhat believable, but the script’s stretches — particularly with Nina, in a not-so-satisfying climax — don’t really feel well-supported by character. So, again, while the story ensures this is a must-include for Season Five, it’s not near the quality of that earlier gem, where a command on character and a novelty of premise blended together for great comic results. (Emily Osment has a small role.)
05) Episode 104: “Sex And The Sally” (Aired: 11/30/99)
Sally starts taking birth control pills.
Written by Julie E. Sherman | Directed by Terry Hughes
I’ve credited 3rd Rock for believably progressing its leads’ assimilation with humanity, but that’s on general terms. There are a couple of outliers, like this one, which asks us to believe that Sally has yet to understand how unprotected sex leads to pregnancy. Considering that the loss of her virginity was a big turning point for her — and that in Season One, she seemed to comprehend “breeding” — this is a logistical hurdle that’s not congruent with her depiction, and it feels regressive. However, I’m willing to overlook that to get to this entry’s gold — her first exposure to birth control pills, a foreign substance that changes her behavior and thus yields premise-validating comedy. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of value in the hilarious subplot too, where we learn Dick is a terrible tipper, and in his efforts to be better, he establishes a new method — where he subtracts a dollar every time the service is not up to his standards. It’s a funny idea for a creature not totally aware of social mores, and it adds boffo laughs, helping to make this another winner. (Aaron Lustig, Phil Reeves, and Brian Dunkleman appear.)
06) Episode 106: “The Loud Solomon Family: A Dickumentary” (Aired: 01/11/00)
Mary makes a documentary film about the Solomons.
Written by Valerie Watson | Directed by Terry Hughes
After writing about the odd Solomon family, Mary makes a documentary film starring them in this popular excursion that’s predicated on the “home movie” device — common on a lot of sitcoms, where characters that we know react differently due to the presence of a camera, with the edit (or framing) of these captured moments then creating additional laughs. It’s not my favorite trope, as it’s inherently manipulated and not quite character-driven. And yet, I appreciate this offering because the evident dysfunction in the film starts as a result of the family trying not to reveal their big secret — that they’re aliens — which, of course, plays directly to the “situation” and allows this episode to be an original story that addresses the high-concept premise in a fresh way. So, it’s one of Season Five’s must-includes.
07) Episode 107: “Gwen, Larry, Dick, And Mary” (Aired: 01/25/00)
Dick and Mary try to hang out with new friends, while the Solomons discover the laundromat.
Written by Christine Zander | Directed by Terry Hughes
This entry’s A-story has Dick and Mary trying to befriend a couple that ends up not being able to stand them — mostly because of Mary, not Dick. This is enjoyable, for it’s a reversal of the premised norm, where Mary is the representative of humanity and thus “normal,” and Dick is eccentric and bizarre because he’s an alien, and since it’s hinged on this purposeful swap of expectations, it feels like the “situation” is being acknowledged, however indirectly. Meanwhile, the subplot finds the rest of the Solomons experiencing a laundromat for the first time — another reality of Earth that can be “novel” for these aliens, and as such, premise-affirming. And there are a lot of yuks too, particularly with Sally as a Judge Judy-esque arbiter of laundry disputes — what a unique idea! (Genie Francis and Jonathan Frakes are among the guest cast.)
08) Episode 108: “Dick Puts The ‘Id’ In Cupid” (Aired: 02/08/00)
Dick goes to Mary’s psychiatrist to see what she says about him.
Written by Dave Goetsch & Jason Venokur | Directed by Terry Hughes
In another example of Season Five revisiting previously featured subject matter, this outing has Dick going to a psychiatrist (which he’d done before in Season Two) — Mary’s psychiatrist (Ana Gasteyer), because he’s so curious to uncover what she tells her doctor about him. I suppose his childlike curiosity and lack of social grace permits a story setup like this, but the real fun, I think, is that this time, he realizes that he’s insecure in his relationship with Mary due to his past — which, in other words, is the fact that he’s an alien. So, he decides he doesn’t want to be an alien anymore. That’s a really funny idea, and I think the show actually could have maximized it further. As it stands though, its mere inclusion is enough to earn this a spot on my list. (As for the Tommy subplot with Lindsey McKeon, it’s mediocre because he’s lost a lot of his characterization in the last few years, as he’s aged and is no longer precociously mature.)
09) Episode 116: “Frankie Goes To Rutherford” (Aired: 05/09/00)
Mary’s former student assumes Dick’s secret is that he’s gay.
Written by Gregg Mettler & Will Forte | Directed by Terry Hughes
Probably the second strongest entry in Five — behind my chosen MVE — this installment guest stars Just Shoot Me!‘s Enrico Colantoni as Mary’s former student, a gay man who sparks a misunderstanding when Dick thinks he’s met a fellow alien, while Mary’s student believes Dick is just closeted. By using the fact that the Solomons are aliens as a major plot point, this story naturally satisfies the premise, but it’s funny too, thanks to a centerpiece in a gay bar that Dick assumes is a secret hangout for other aliens. Now, this isn’t the Solomons’ first time at a gay bar — they went to one in Season Two, where Sally was mistaken for a drag queen — but this is a much better use of the idea, mostly because it’s far more affiliated with the series’ “situation,” and it’s actually more impressive coming here in Five, as it proves that 3rd Rock can still pull off a great premise-validating half hour, even if it’s going to be much broader (as evidenced in the contortions to get a Village People climax). Also, note that this is one of the scripts credited to Will Forte, the future SNL vet and star/creator of Last Man On Earth.
10) Episode 117: “Dick Solomon’s Day Off” [a.k.a. “Dick Cassidy And The Strudwick Kid”] (Aired: 05/16/00)
Dick discovers the fun of faking sick days.
Written by David M. Israel & Jim O’Doherty | Directed by Terry Hughes
This well-liked offering features an amusing centerpiece where Dick, Mary, and his rival Strudwick (Ron West) play hooky from school and have a wonderful day of fun in the park. It works only because Dick has never called off sick from work erroneously, and the novelty of him discovering that this is something people often do acknowledges his ignorance to all their social customs. Meanwhile, I appreciate the comedic subplot of the other Solomons spying on a woman through Don’s police scanner, for although the premise-link is not explicit, their mission here is to study humanity, and so them treating a poor girl’s life as entertaining voyeuristic fodder feels believable based on who they are and what they were put on Earth to do. It’s not a favorite, but it does work for the series. (Lane Davies and Olivia d’Abo guest.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Rutherford Beauty,” where Sally turns into a Martha Stewart-inspired domestic goddess (in a subplot that’s much more affiliated with the “situation” than the lame, clichéd A-story), “The Big Giant Head Returns,” which is the funniest of this year’s otherwise disappointing high-concept idea-driven entries related to Vicki’s alien baby, and “Dick For Tat,” where Dick’s childlike jealousy finds him plotting to sleep with Strudwick’s wife after learning that he and Mary once had an affair. I’ll also cite “Charitable Dick,” which has a subplot related to Harry, Tommy, and “the mission,” “This Little Dick Went To Market,” where Dick discovers the stock market and Sally meets a rival, and “Youth Is Wasted On The Dick,” where Dick has his first taste of a collegiate spring break.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of 3rd Rock From The Sun goes to…
“Dial M For Dick”
Come back next week for Season Six! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!