Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday, on a Wednesday! This week, we’re starting our coverage on 3rd Rock From The Sun (1996-2001, NBC), which is currently available on DVD and Amazon.
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.
Of all the Sitcom Tuesday shows we’ve examined in our recent sweep back through the 1990s, 3rd Rock From The Sun is the only one that I actively planned to cover during our original look at the decade. Frankly, if not for my busy schedule at USC during the 2018-2019 season, it would have been discussed here, for I only dropped it from my slate because of time – or rather, a desire to prioritize sitcoms that I deemed more necessary, opting to move directly to those “must-includes” after a series of reruns, consequently skipping over scheduled fare like 3rd Rock From The Sun, which wasn’t the greatest in the context of that initial batch, but did deserve our attention and now stands as my favorite (the one I personally most enjoy) from all the shows we’ve highlighted recently. Of course, it remains less academically important or influential than many others — a point I make here to note that I still wouldn’t rank this series in the genre’s top-tier, among efforts that are both highly enjoyable and simply have to be featured in a serious study. I suppose there are two big reasons for 3rd Rock’s hierarchical downgrade, one of which is the series’ own trajectory – that is, its first season is the best and every year thereafter is less commendable, thus giving the impression that it’s not consistently rewarding. This is ironic, because, as we’ll see, the show manages to churn out a handful of gems every season (minus only in Six), so it almost always contains greatness, regardless of the collectively diminishing episodic returns that influence its overall baseline, or average, quality. And yet, it is true — only Season One is totally great. Meanwhile, the second reason for an aforementioned hierarchical downgrade is that 3rd Rock just isn’t one of the samples that most reflects this genre during the 1990s. Yes, there are major elements that lock it into its era exactly — we’ll point those out — but on the whole, it’s a high-concept fantasy from a time when low-concept realism was more popular. That’s why covering it for a quasi-chronological survey was not imperative to me in our first ‘90s cycle and, honestly, still wouldn’t be today (no matter how much I like it).
That said, I would make a quality-based argument for its inclusion here, particularly because of its first season, and indeed, I think there are maybe two dozen episodes throughout the run that are stellar examples of situation comedy. Now, it may be surprising to some readers that I appreciate this series as much as I do, for, as indicated, it’s a high-concept fantasy sitcom with a premise that, by design, is made to take precedence over its characters and their relationships, which, at best, can only be smartly used as support. I get it; as someone who calls character the most important element of any sitcom’s “situation” — it’s the only essential ingredient to every work of dramatic fiction, even high-concept sitcoms like these — I probably don’t seem like someone who prefers premise-heavy stuff. But just as in all idea-driven shows — whether high-concept or low — as long as the regulars are well-featured, upholding story and thereby remaining instrumental to the “situation,” I’m satisfied because the genre is satisfied. And, by and large, that’s true with 3rd Rock From The Sun, for while the whole notion of aliens experiencing life on Earth — not unusual fodder for the sitcom; just look at My Favorite Martian in the 1960s, Mork & Mindy in the 1970s, and Alf in the 1980s — means that every episode’s primary goal is to address this premise, since these leads are aliens, their depiction as foreigners who are “out of water” is also seminal to how this high concept is presented. So, the premise is validated simply when these characters are naïve to the ways of this world — and, even better, it’s brilliant when their naïveté is manifested in different personality traits: Dick is childlike, Tommy is too mature, Sally is “unfeminine,” and Harry is just bizarre. Heck, even without the alien premise, those characterizations would be enough to inspire comic story through specific relational dynamics. But with their alien existence justifying the extremes, character is foundationally tied to the premise, making 3rd Rock one of the best fantasy sitcoms ever, with uniquely defined regulars inspiring different stories affiliated to the high concept.
The show’s smart depiction of its leads also extends to other regular and recurring folks as well, like the repressed but eager to explode Mary, the sarcastic Nina, the oversexed Mrs. Dubcek, and the bumbling Don — and it’s one of the attributes that links this series to the 1990s, as this era’s general affinity for low-concept realism mainstreamed a renewed focus on relationships, even in high-concept outliers like 3rd Rock From The Sun. To wit, the decade’s penchant for rom-com narrative maneuverings — predicated on the coupling and uncoupling of romantic partners — is certainly felt on this series, with the main dramatic stakes for the Solomons manifesting in their human connections, and primarily Dick’s serious feelings for Mary. This is thematically wise and actually perfect for the high-concept premise, for as Dick grows more and more to love her, he experiences more and more what it’s like to be human, which is alternatively the point of the whole mission… and a threat to it. In this regard, exploring the dynamic between Dick and Mary then becomes a way to explore the high-concept “situation” — using characters. To a lesser degree, the same is true of Sally’s relationship with Don, Tommy’s pursuit of all his girlfriends (mainly August and Alissa), and Harry’s recurring affair with Vicki Dubcek — and this is yet another way that character is smartly applied in support of the guiding premise, affirming this era’s rom-com sensibilities in the process… However, if that’s an example of how 3rd Rock’s fidelity to ‘90s sitcommery is positive, this decade’s habit of indulging Sweeps stunts and big cliffhangers is also present, and with more mixed results, for while most major developments hinge on some aspect of the aliens’ mission temporarily changing — like when Dick is replaced, or the family is called back for maintenance, or their boss “The Big Giant Head” visits — and this would theoretically reinforce the premise, the truth is, these narrative hooks are not always well-supported by character, relying more on external gimmicks suggested by the premise itself… but without the otherwise more direct use of the regulars’ characterizations and their established relationships.
This may seem like I’m splitting hairs, but in our quest for this series’ best, these distinctions matter. And if episodes that acknowledge the show’s high-concept premise without healthy character support aren’t as desirable as those in which they’re working in tandem, then merely featuring the characters and their romances — sans a meaningful link to the premise — makes for less satisfying entries as well. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I just said that these characterizations (and their relationships) inherently exist in a way that can uphold the premise. That’s still true — we’ll see entries that benefit from this implied foundation. But stories that don’t tie themselves back to the “given” of this family being aliens are simply less perfect than those that do. And, in particular, we’ll find that plots utilizing the Solomons’ extreme characterizations — which, again, can be comical even without the premised justification — are less agreeable as time goes on and the series’ tone becomes broader, for minus the premise explaining their extremes, these stories feel less earned… not because they’re any more ridiculous, but because they now lack support from the element of this “situation” that is most guiding. Accordingly, for as much as I sing its praises regarding character, 3rd Rock From The Sun — I must reiterate — only has an impressive use of character for a high-concept idea-driven sitcom. In other words, I’m mostly holding it to the standards of a high-concept idea-driven sitcom, for that’s what it is — not only by its premise, but also by its textual ethos, coming from Bonnie and Terry Turner, a pair of Saturday Night Live alums who, incidentally, had written the 1993 film Coneheads, which also starred Jane Curtin and claimed a similar aliens-on-Earth premise. In fact, several of 3rd Rock’s major scribes boasted an SNL or comedy-variety background — with a style that, as in most sketches, naturally centralizes a funny idea over everything else, like story-yielding characters. This sensibility is evident in the series’ generation of plot, no matter how well its leads are featured, for the show always reveals an affinity for big, bold comic notions — premise-related or not.
Simply, the high-concept 3rd Rock From The Sun is totally idea-driven. As such, it’s perhaps no surprise that it peaks early — when the novelty of its premise is strong and can still be invoked every week in story, for that’s what matters most to this series’ understanding of its “situation.” While most sitcoms are at their best when the dwindling “novelty of premise” matches a rising “grasp of character” — and this occurs usually somewhere around Seasons Two or Three (but not always) — 3rd Rock generally has a solid command on its leads’ depictions from the start. I’d say the performances settle into a groove later on — with a looser and more comfortable vibe that better reflects the elevated comedic tone. But it’s not enough to counteract the sheer fact that premise-acknowledging stories are paramount to the projection of 3rd Rock’s identity. That’s why Season One is the best — it’s got the most stories that directly flatter the premise, and with an already impressive use of character. Two is the second-best, for it’s close to One, yet we can already start to see the show struggle to concoct stories that explore these leads while also reminding us — even subtly, tangentially, implicitly — that they are aliens. From here on out, this ability to regularly keep the premise explicit — or even implicit — in plot dwindles every successive season, with Six being the worst. However, there are two silver linings. As I said before, every season (at least through Five) is still able to deliver a few gems — episodes that brilliantly engage the premise, with help from character — which means that these lists are never dire. And second, unlike other high-concept sitcoms with “fish out of water” regulars… they actually evolve and learn. That is, unlike the Beverly Hillbillies, for instance, the Solomons’ knowledge of their surroundings generally progresses believably, and doesn’t really regress. That partially explains why the premise grows harder to link to story — creating, then, a double-edged sword, for this is both a credit to the series’ depiction of its characters, and a guarantee that the premise’s novelty will diminish. But such is the intrinsic Catch-22 of a high concept.
At any rate, 3rd Rock’s design positions Season One as the most favorable, and this makes the show seem like it’s not consistent, even though it’s usually of a decent (if diminishing) quality, with gems often nearby. This is due both to how the show can marry its premise to its characters, and also to the expert performers — starting with John Lithgow, who is structurally and comedically the star, offering a hilariously inventive and yet sympathetic portrayal that instills in the series its comic identity (like Robin Williams did as Mork). No matter the shape of the show, he is always worth watching — and, for the record, he was always celebrated too, earning Emmy nominations for every single season and winning three times, including for his work in One. Matching him in comic intensity are Kristen Johnston, another hysterical force (and Emmy-winner) who’s perfectly cast, and French Stewart, who is a lot of fun as the ensemble’s wildcard. Additionally, young Joseph Gordon-Levitt is appreciated as Tommy — the only character who actively loses some of his early definition, as the gag of him being super mature, and specifically, precociously horny, plays better the younger he looks, for when he grows older, that characterization ends up feeling more typical and less precisely tied to his existence as an alien… Meanwhile, love interests played by Jane Curtin (another SNL vet) and Seinfeld’s Wayne Knight are paired perfectly with their partners, as Curtin’s restrained mania is a delightful foil to Lithgow’s manic attempts at restraint and Knight’s empty bravado helps exacerbate a comic dynamic with Johnston’s Sally that highlights the gender-tweaking aspects of her characterization. Collectively, this cast — and so many of the recurring and guest players too — make it easier for this comedically conceived series to earn boffo laughs, giving it a reputation for comedy that elevates its overall allure, allowing it to impress and, for me personally, to stand as the most enjoyable sitcom that I’ve covered here since late 2020. So, on that compliment, let’s get into my picks for the best episodes from this first and best season…
01) Episode 1: “Brains And Eggs” (Aired: 01/09/96)
The Solomons settle into life as humans in Rutherford, Ohio.
Written by Bonnie Turner & Terry Turner | Directed by James Burrows
All high-concept sitcoms must use their pilots to establish the premise — that’s what most determines a successful opener. 3rd Rock From The Sun “yada yadas” some of the mechanical details — like how the family got their apartment, and how Dick got a job at the university — and while that might seem like the show is leaving potential “situation comedy” scenarios on the figurative table, it fast-forwards through them so that the premiere can instead focus on the characters. This is where 3rd Rock’s pilot really shines, for beyond just setting up the idea that these are aliens who’ve come to Earth on a fact-finding mission, the script clearly presents each of the four Solomons’ personalities, showing us how they’ll earn their laughs, and then leaning into their central relationships, particularly the romance between Dick and Mary, whose dynamic is wonderfully explored in a bathroom scene where they go from slapping to kissing. So, all in all, this is a competent, enjoyable introduction for both premise and character.
02) Episode 2: “Post-Nasal Dick” (Aired: 01/16/96)
The family gets sick for the first time and Dick becomes high on cough syrup.
Written by Michael Glouberman & Andrew Orenstein | Directed by Robert Berlinger
The series’ sophomore showing indulges a classic formula, in which Dick publicly embarrasses Mary, and at this point in the run, where the Solomons are so new to Earth, there’s a lot of fodder for naïveté to create chaos. This installment, however, doesn’t really use Dick’s natural lack of social grace — nor his childlike demeanor — to simply cause conflict, for it instead sets up a story about the aliens having their first human illness and him taking cough syrup, thereby becoming drunk/high on this foreign substance. It’s thus less character-driven than it could be, relying more on the family’s mere exposure to elements of this planet — like colds, and cold medicine — which reinforces the premise, but in a more idea-driven way… Of course, in an idea-driven series, this is perfectly fine, especially when it makes sense for the characters and is as comedically excellent as what’s delivered here — essentially presenting a “Dick gets drunk for the first time” episode… only with cough syrup. (Martha Stewart has a cameo as herself.)
03) Episode 3: “Dick’s First Birthday” (Aired: 01/23/96)
The Solomons learn about how humans view youth and the aging process.
Written by Andy Cowan | Directed by Robert Berlinger
Many of this series’ most satisfying offerings don’t deal with the aliens’ exposure to tangible elements of Earth, but instead to social dynamics between members of the human race — a subject that’s fertile and naturally confusing (even to members of the human race). This allows the show to both acknowledge its premise while also mining humor and conflict from character interactions, a.k.a. ideal situation comedy. In this early example of the template, the Solomons get their first lesson in how humans view their own aging process — specifically, how they prize youth, and the ways in which perceived youth is social currency. It’s a fascinating topic for the series to explore as the Solomons grow to understand the creatures they’re imitating, and it enables easily funny ideas, like Dick dying his hair — a typical sitcom sign of a “mid-life crisis,” a notion predicated on an obsession with youth. (Lauren Graham guests.)
04) Episode 4: “Dick Is From Mars, Sally Is From Venus” (Aired: 01/30/96)
Sally has her first date and waits for him to call her back.
Written by Bill Martin & Mike Schiff | Directed by Robert Berlinger
Sally takes center stage in this installment, which finds her going on her first date — creating a scenario where, again, the show is examining social mores through the prism of these fish, or aliens, “out of water.” It’s then a lot of predictable fun when Sally goes crazy waiting for the man to call her back, as he said he would. However, the real value in this entry comes from the further creation of relationships within the ensemble — in this case, the bonding that occurs between Sally and Mary and Nina. Meanwhile, there’s an appropriate subplot where Dick explores what it means to be a father, since that is the role that he is supposed to play on Earth for Tommy, who’s now going to high school. In both of these plots, the characters are developed via their relational dynamics, and the premise is well-enforced.
05) Episode 8: “Body & Soul & Dick” (Aired: 02/27/96)
Dick has his first experience with death when he’s asked to eulogize a late professor.
Written by Bonnie Turner & Terry Turner | Directed by Robert Berlinger
Just as a previous episode dealt with the topic of age and humanity’s fixation on youth, this outing gives the Solomons their first exposure to death. It comes courtesy of Frasier’s John Mahoney, playing a jerky and unlikable professor who drops dead at a party. Watching the aliens come to grips with the cycle of life and death on Earth — or mortality in the human context — is the kind of rich dramatic material that the high-concept premise sincerely enables this otherwise wacky comedy to enjoy, and this is an incredibly satisfying way to spend a half hour, as it validates a major aspect of the series’ identity. In terms of story, it offers the relatable comic angle of Dick being forced to give a eulogy without knowing what to say, while these humanistic ideas supply earned dramatic weight underneath. (William Bogert also appears.)
06) Episode 10: “Truth Or Dick” (Aired: 03/12/96)
Dick finds it difficult to understand humanity’s acceptance of casual social lying.
Written by Bonnie Turner & Terry Turner | Directed by Robert Berlinger
Another excursion built around the family’s ignorance of humanity’s social code, “Truth Or Dick” puts Dick in conflict because he’s not accustomed to the casual dishonesty that people deploy to avoid uncomfortableness — the “bending of the truth” or “white lie” to spare somebody’s feelings or sidestep trouble. This makes for another fascinating topic, as it’s the kind of relatable examination of human relationships that could only come from such a high-concept premise, which, obviously, is well-invoked as a result — and with some nuance, too, for the Solomons are deliberately lying to everybody on a macro level, but not on such trivial and socially accepted terms. Meanwhile, the other characters get strong identity-validating subplots, as Tommy’s body subjects him to puberty, and Sally learns that she can use her feminine wiles to help her when she and Harry experience the clichéd awfulness of the DMV.
07) Episode 12: “Frozen Dick” (Aired: 03/26/96)
The Solomons’ first encounter with snow has them in a panic.
Written by Linwood Boomer | Directed by Robert Berlinger
This funny offering once again exposes the Solomons to an external Earth phenomenon — snow — something they, like so many other things, have never experienced. That lack of awareness colors the three subplots — as Tommy and Harry are trapped in the video store where the latter works (maximizing his heightened naïveté for a lot of big laughs), Sally believes that it’s up to her and Dick’s student Leon (played by John Lithgow’s son, Ian) to repopulate the Earth, and Dick purposely strands himself and Mary on the road to an award ceremony. Truthfully, even though I’m a Broadway nerd, I’m not crazy about the gimmicky John Raitt cameo or Mary’s apparent love of musicals (which is without the continuity needed to feel believable). But this script is comedically compensatory, and the progression of Dick and Mary’s relationship further makes this installment a winner. (Rex Linn also appears.)
08) Episode 15: “I Enjoy Being A Dick” (Aired: 04/21/96)
Dick doesn’t understand why he can’t join a women’s group.
Written by Christine Zander | Directed by Robert Berlinger
There’s a broadness to this outing that may preclude it from being a universal favorite, but I think it’s another formative example of how this series uses its high-concept alien premise to comedically play with social frameworks that we readily accept, although they may be confusing to outsiders. In this entry, Dick struggles to understand society’s view of gender — and specifically, the idea that there could be clubs for women that don’t include men. As noted, it’s great whenever the family grapples with social designations, for this is a way to explore the premise’s capacity for examining humanity via interactions between characters, and so despite the script then veering into ridiculousness — as Dick dresses as a woman and crashes Mary’s event — it’s still too good a display of the series’ unique narrative identity to be disqualifying. Also, Ileen Getz debuts as the recurring Judith and she’s a one-of-a-kind hoot.
09) Episode 16: “Dick Like Me” (Aired: 04/23/96)
Dick tries to figure out which ethnicity the Solomons should be.
Written by Joe Fisch | Directed by Robert Berlinger
My choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Dick Like Me” is the best of the series’ best season — the quintessential half hour of 3rd Rock From The Sun. Its story sets itself up for success, exposing the Solomons to something foreign to them — calling to the fore this premise, as they are aliens who are naïve to this planet — and a topic that, like in so many of the greatest offerings on this list, isn’t a natural reality of the world, but a social concept that uniquely involves humanity. We’ve seen the family confront aging, and honesty, and even gender, but this is their first recognition of race and ethnicity — other social designations that would understandably seem arbitrary to members of a whole other planet who view human beings on Earth as one singular collective. But as they seek to integrate with the humans to learn more about them, it therefore becomes imperative for the Solomons to study these issues and have an answer for who they are in relation to everyone else. So, this is a perfect subject matter for the series, as it not only flatters the idea-driven premise beautifully, but it also allows for relatable conflict based on the Solomons’ ignorance — creating moments of socially taboo or “cringe” comedy that has been a major source of humor for this genre in the post-Seinfeld era. In this regard, “Dick Like Me” is more than just a stellar sample of 3rd Rock, it’s also a stellar sample of the situation comedy — proving why this series has long deserved our attention on this blog, for this is exactly the kind of segment these lists were made to spotlight. (Oh, and the subplot of Sally having to learn to dance now that she’s got a new love interest — played by John D’Aquino — is a lot of complementary character-exploring and premise-related fun!)
10) Episode 20: “See Dick Run” (Aired: 05/21/96)
The Solomons are called back to their home planet.
Written by Bill Martin & Mike Schiff | Directed by James Burrows
Season One’s finale has to build to a cliffhanger — this is the mid-’90s on NBC, after all — and like every 3rd Rock closer, it involves narrative concerns relating to the alien premise, thereby seeming to explore the “situation.” However, as discussed above, sometimes these Sweeps developments are all story or idea-driven, not really earned by the characters or their relationships. Fortunately, this is one of the better finales, for it forces the leads to confront the progress they’ve made as human beings — primarily the status of their romances. The focus, rightly, is on Dick and Mary, who have sex for the first time — accelerating their emotional connection, which is now complicated by the fact that the aliens, but eventually only Dick, are faced with the prospect of being kicked off their mission and leaving Earth. This is interesting, and checking in on their slow embrace of humanity is a much richer and more character-driven avenue for engaging the premise than the convenient narrative mechanics of the replacement Dick, who only exists for the gimmicky high-concept cliffhanger…
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Selfish Dick,” which guest stars Harry Morgan and has fun spoofing medical TV dramas like ER, “Green-Eyed Dick,” where Dick first experiences the very human emotion of jealousy, “Lonely Dick,” which introduces August and guest stars NewsRadio’s Phil Hartman, and “Assault With A Deadly Dick,” which boasts the first appearance of Seinfeld’s Wayne Knight as Officer Don. (Incidentally, I like every offering produced here in Season One, especially in the context of the entire series’ overall quality.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of 3rd Rock From The Sun goes to…
“Dick Like Me”
Come back next week for Season Two and a new Wildcard Wednesday!