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.
Season Three of 3rd Rock From The Sun follows the same course as its predecessor — and most specifically, the latter half of its predecessor, where it became less likely for episodic story to explicitly address the premise of aliens masquerading as Earthlings. Now, this series has such well-defined leads that it’s often able to make a case for their sheer presence implying the premise, but in a survey that seeks to find the best half-hour samples, a clear hierarchy of merit forms based on how well the “situation” is featured. And this requires a bit of an asterisk too, for we’ve also noted how there are episodes that indeed acknowledge the premise, but don’t exactly do so by exploring the regulars — relying instead on outside guests or gimmicks to motivate the plot. These are not ideal either, for even in fantasy sitcoms, the goal is to play out a high concept through the characters — not to mention, in a ’90s rom-com, their relationships. To that point, Season Three tries to shake up its central romances, putting daylight between Sally and Don, Tommy and August, and most importantly, the broken-up Dick and Mary, but for the most part, stories don’t maximize changes in their dynamics for revealing comic conflict, let alone premise-validating comic conflict, and so even though one might try to credit this year for losing some of the premise but focusing more on the leads and their relationships, I wouldn’t necessarily call that a worthwhile trade-off, for it’s not as if great situation comedy happens here either… Of course, it’s also not as if the premise is entirely absent in Three. In addition to the premiere, finale, and gimmicky post-Super Bowl outings that, as discussed above, lean into the high concept without enough support from the regulars themselves as motivators of plot, there are at least ten entries that use the characters to offer what 3rd Rock does best, if not meeting our first threshold of “is this an episode that only exists because of the premise?,” then the secondary “is this an episode that’s at least funnier (or better in some way) because we know the premise?” And so, while the series’ overall quality continues to decline (and how!), there are still enough individual gems to remain entertained — in fact, some of the show’s best are below.
01) Episode 50: “Dick-In-Law” (Aired: 10/15/97)
Dick spends the weekend with Mary at her parents’ house.
Written by Christine Zander | Directed by Terry Hughes
One of the funniest of the entire series, “Dick-In-Law” is perhaps the only top-tier excursion that actually doesn’t need the high-concept premise — it would be riotous without it. Yet it’s exceptional because it satisfies the second threshold we’ve established, for its entire story is funnier given our awareness of the “situation,” as Dick’s trip to the suburban home of Mary’s parents — played with comic intensity by A Delicate Balance costars Elaine Stritch and George Grizzard — is so loaded with a Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? type of dysfunction (thanks to the casting!) that the absurdity of Dick being an alien (pretending to still be involved with Mary) is somehow rendered less ridiculous than the dark underbelly uncovered (in the hot tub) of this falsely idyllic family. As such, the whole idea of upper-class suburbia being more dishonest — and stranger — than Dick’s existence as a creature from another planet hilariously undergirds all of this familial tension, giving the script a thesis that adds to its comedy and invokes, even subliminally, the premise. (Meanwhile, the subplot is a great showcase for Sally’s persona.)
02) Episode 51: “Scaredy Dick” (Aired: 10/29/97)
Dick and Harry are frightened on Halloween.
Written by David Sacks | Directed by Terry Hughes
Although this isn’t the Solomons’ first Halloween on Earth, it’s the first one that we’ve seen on the show itself, and so there’s a certain “novelty” that, just as in last season’s Thanksgiving and Christmas outings, allows the series to explore this very human phenomenon in a way that feels believably fresh and premise-validating. Generally, I’m not crazy about the typical Halloween tropes that sitcoms often employ, but this is a case where the Solomons’ naïveté (even if it’s their second Halloween, and not their first), actually makes them more buyable — like Dick and Harry with the “haunted house” routine. What’s more, I appreciate that the notion of fear is a thematic through-line, as Dick is nervous about getting a checkup from a doctor — which is understandable, seeing that he’s not human and should be on guard about his body being studied.
03) Episode 53: “Eleven Angry Men And One Dick” (Aired: 11/12/97)
Dick struggles with the responsibility of being on a jury.
Written by David Goetsch & Jason Venokur | Directed by Terry Hughes
This is my least favorite episode of the ten I’m highlighting because it indulges one of the worst sitcom clichés — the old takeoff of 12 Angry Men, and unlike some of the better variations that boast a character-driven or situation-specific pivot, there’s really not a lot new here. The best that can be said is, naturally, Dick being the lone holdout because of his conscience makes more sense given that this whole concept of American justice is foreign to him, and there’s thus more emotional motivation for his actions. Beyond that, we also get the just-for-laughs subplot where Tommy and Harry try to communicate non-verbally, and the start of a mini-arc where Sally dates a British guy and assumes his Cockney style — a notion that’s mildly interesting because these aliens’ exposure to different types of people would surely influence the way they think about and then try to project their own false humanity. It’s not stellar, but the hahas are able to boost it up. (Guests include Jason Carter, Richard Fancy, and Patrick Kerr.)
04) Episode 56: “Tom, Dick, And Mary” (Aired: 12/03/97)
Tommy decides he needs to date somebody more mature — like Mary.
Written by Terry Turner | Directed by Terry Hughes
Tommy decides to pursue a romance with Mary in this installment — culminating in a physical fight between Dick and Tommy — and while this narrative would stretch the bounds of emotional credibility on any other sitcom, it works here because of the premise, and specifically, what we know of Tommy, for he is supposedly older than the childlike Dick and has theoretically been out-of-place in a younger body, dating girls that age. In this regard, his decision to go after someone older — Dick’s peer — actually makes sense for his character and acknowledges his identity as an alien. Additionally, the Sally subplot (where she’s harassed at work) is decent, and there’s a fun little side story where Harry tries to quit TV — an easy laugh-getting idea, based on the continuity of his depiction. (Rex Linn guests.)
05) Episode 58: “Dick On A Roll” (Aired: 01/07/98)
Dick leads a campaign to add a wheelchair ramp to his building at school.
Written by David Goetsch & Jason Venokur | Directed by Terry Hughes
Dick gets his first taste of a uniquely human phenomenon — the sense of self-righteous purpose that comes from championing a cause with popular approval, regardless of whether it’s morally or logistically sound. It’s a fairly nuanced experience for this alien character (or any character), but it’s distinctly human while he is not, and so the very use of this idea acknowledges the premise, and with a lot of laughs that come from his trademark insensitivity (due to his social naïveté). Meanwhile, the subplots are both worth noting as well — as Tommy’s efforts to get into a club reveal the incongruity between his age on Earth and his maturity as an alien, while the always comedic Jan Hooks returns as Vicki… now apparently celibate. So, this underrated outing packs in the comedy, and has an insightful look at humanity as well.
06) Episode 62: “Pickles And Ice Cream” (Aired: 01/28/98)
Sally goes to the gynecologist while Harry is visited by his old pet from back home.
Written by Bob Kushell | Directed by Terry Hughes
The premise is strongly invoked in both of this entry’s major stories. For starters, the gaudy idea of this family getting visited by Harry’s own pet from back home (a dog-like creature played in human form by Bill Irwin) naturally calls attention to the fact that they are beings from another planet. It’s not a great exploration of the regulars — nor is it motivated by their interactions with each other — but it’s comedic and pairs well with the other plot here, of Sally going to the gynecologist for the first time, and after seeing the excitement other women exhibit upon learning they’re pregnant, deciding to pretend that she’s expecting too. This leads to a somewhat predictable misunderstanding with Don, but the reason it works is because Sally, as an alien whose “femininity” doesn’t come easy for her, has never been to a gynecologist and has had no experience with the concept of pregnancy. Allowing her to comprehend that, then, is a fine way to engage the premise in a weekly story — with her becoming more human as a result.
07) Episode 63: “Auto Erodicka” (Aired: 02/04/98)
Dick discovers the joys of casual sex, while Sally goes up against a car salesman.
Written by Mark Brazill | Directed by Terry Hughes
Dick enjoys a unique social phenomenon in this laugh-laden outing where he discovers the joys of casual sex for the first time, giddily boasting about how wonderful it can be to anyone who will listen. The twist that he’s actually slept with one of his students’ moms — played by Karen Austin, whose character is married to a mafioso played by Dom DeLuise — is amusing, but less exciting than the simple setup that explores the premise through his character. Additionally, I appreciate the subplot where Sally goes up against a car salesman — never having had experience with someone in the sales industry, or their notorious negotiation tactics. It’s a surprisingly clever idea for a B-story — again, subliminally acknowledging the premise and the ways in which these characters can still be naïve to Earth. (Of note: Dom DeLuise’s son David has long played the recurring role of Dick’s student, Bug. His brothers also guest.)
08) Episode 68: “Just Your Average Dick” (Aired: 04/28/98)
The Solomons try to become a completely “average” family.
Written by Michael Glouberman & Andrew Orenstein | Directed by Terry Hughes
An MVE contender, this funny premise-affirming offering allows the Solomons to finally be cognizant of the fact that they’re “weird” in comparison to other humans. Now, in their effort to blend in with humanity so they can continue their mission, they decide to make a concerted attempt at being “average” — moving out of their kooky apartment into a generic condo, where no sense of quirk or difference is tolerated. (Tommy even cuts his hair.) Again, the idea itself is probably more important than any of the actual telling, but it’s fun to see Sally become a Stepford-esque proponent of anti-individualism, and Mary admit to loving Dick because of his bizarreness and unpredictability. So, the characters feel well-utilized in addition to the well-invoked premise. Also, John Cleese pops in to set up the following installment…
09) Episode 69: “Dick And The Other Guy” (Aired: 04/29/98)
Dick competes with a new rival professor.
Written by Bonnie Turner & Terry Turner | Directed by Terry Hughes
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Dick And The Other Guy” notably guest stars John Cleese, who was introduced in one small scene in the previous entry, as Liam, a new professor — a guy so much like Dick that he insults Nina, captivates Mary, and can only possibly be explained as one thing: he’s also an alien. This realization occurs to Dick well into the half hour, but the delightful silliness of his matching Dick in every way gives an early sense that the premise will be acknowledged… even before he confirms that he is indeed an alien — sent to destroy Earth before realizing that humans may actually have the capacity for brilliance, if Dick is any example (wink). This is such a unique play to the series’ high-concept “situation,” and even though it’s sparked by a guest, said guest is deliberately made to (a) emulate Dick, a regular whose definition is therefore centralized in the process, and then (b) cause conflict in the main romantic relationship — another key part of the series’ identity. So, in this regard, it is a strong character-based show, even if it’s goosed by the outside comic force of the great John Cleese… Meanwhile, Wayne Knight gets one of his funnier showcases, as Sally realizes that Don has been moonlighting as a suave karaoke singer. It’s not premise-related, but it’s an affable subplot to this dominating A-story — the most memorable use of the premise in Season Three.
10) Episode 72: “The Tooth Harry” (Aired: 05/20/98)
Nina falls for Harry after he accompanies her to the dentist.
Written by Joshua Sternin & Jeffrey Ventimilia | Directed by Terry Hughes
The subplot of Dick horning in on Mary’s commercial is comedically popular, but I find all those beats predictable and hacky, possible of any sitcom. What I much prefer is this outing’s A-story, where Harry takes Nina to the dentist and she falls for him, leading to a funny climax where the naïve alien — who just learned about “the Tooth Fairy” from a kid in the office — leaves $20 under Nina’s pillow, right before they’re about to have sex. It’s a fun set piece — the kind that can only happen because he’s never experienced the human idea of the Tooth Fairy before. This addresses the premise, and does so while utilizing the leads and exploring a unique relationship in the ensemble. (Oh, and speaking of relationships, there’s a decent Sally and Don subplot as well — based on her ignorance to social norms.) Jeff Doucette guests.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Portrait Of Tommy As An Old Man,” whose A-story takes advantage of Tommy’s characterization, “Stuck With Dick,” where Mary and Dick are trapped together, and “Sally And Don’s First Kiss,” which seeks to advance the Sally/Don relationship. Meanwhile, I’ll also take this space to cite both parts of the premiere, “Fun With Dick And Janet,” which guest stars Roseanne Barr as an alien sent to Earth to portray Dick’s wife and split him up from Mary — it’s a functional and contrived plot device that’s nevertheless affable because it plays against Barr’s reputation as a “domestic goddess” — and the finale, “Eat, Drink, Dick, Mary,” which has funny moments in spite of its fixation on motivating a lame and not-so-identity-validating cliffhanger. And lastly, there are several mediocre entries that have a kernel of the right idea — “A Friend In Dick,” “Jailhouse Dick,” “The Great Dickdater,” and “When Aliens Camp.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of 3rd Rock From The Sun goes to…
“Dick And The Other Guy”
Come back next week for Season Four! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!