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 One is the best year of 3rd Rock From The Sun because, as a high-concept sitcom where success is predicated on episodic satisfaction of the premise, when the “novelty of premise” has already dwindled this much by Two, One is quickly proven as more ideal. Fortunately, while this decline will continue over the next three years, there’ll still be a decent number of identity-validating episodes produced each season — just not as many as in One, or even Two, which itself reveals this trajectory inside itself, with the first half of the year doing a much better job than the latter of premise-affirmation. Remember, the perfect 3rd Rock is an entry that only exists because of its “situation” — the high-concept fantasy premise, and the leading characters who should reinforce it. As usual, there are a few segments — particularly at the beginning and end of each season — where, true to form as a mid-’90s sitcom, gaudy cliffhangers and ostentatious narrative maneuverings acknowledge the premise but don’t necessarily use the leads or their relationships as motivation. These aren’t great. Mostly, though, we’ll see the opposite: shows that decently feature the characters, but without any explicit link to the premise. These installments are often enjoyable, especially as the stars continue to settle into their roles and the series becomes more comedically rambunctious, but they’re just not as satisfying as those that honor the premise while also exploring the leads. Thus, as stellar half hours of 3rd Rock begin to grow scarcer — like they do, again, in Two’s latter half — the threshold for relative excellence essentially hinges on two questions. The first is obvious: “is this an episode that can only exist because of the premise that these characters are aliens?” Not every segment for which the answer is “yes” will be featured (support from the regular characters still matters), but most will, for on a high-concept sitcom, that’s first and foremost. If the answer is “no,” the second question then becomes: “is this an episode that’s at least funnier — or better somehow — because of our implicit understanding that these characters are aliens?” Answering “yes” to that question will become the predominant barrier for entry on these lists going forward, and we can already see this becoming applicable here for Season Two, the series’ second-best collection.
01) Episode 23: “Hotel Dick” (Aired: 09/29/96)
The Solomons go to a sci-fi convention, while Dick considers telling Mary he’s an alien.
Written by Bob Kushell | Directed by Robert Berlinger
With satisfaction of the premise becoming rarer as Season Two progresses, it’s exciting that there are still a healthy number of entries in its first half that make explicit narrative use of the Solomons’ identity as aliens, and this installment is chock-full of reminders, starting with the family taking offense to the depiction of aliens in science fiction films, and then going to a sci-fi convention (with gaudy guest star George Takei) where they experience a hotel for the first time. Then there’s the most interesting character and relationship-driven notion of all: Dick’s desire to come clean to Mary, now that they are in a formal monogamous relationship. With the premise clear throughout all of these ideas and supported by what we know of the leads, this is an ideal sample of 3rd Rock, especially here in Two. (Tim Bagley also appears.)
02) Episode 27: “Fourth And Dick” (Aired: 11/03/96)
Dick doesn’t understand the school’s fascination with football.
Written by Michael Glouberman & Andrew Orenstein | Directed by Robert Berlinger
One of the smart things about 3rd Rock From The Sun is that, unlike other high-concept shows that require some kind of “fish out of water” premise, the Solomons are allowed to learn things about Earth and become increasingly more assimilated into this way of life. For that reason, there aren’t as many shows about them discovering something new as there were in Season One — actually, from here on out, there’s only a handful of stories like that every year. This episode, however, falls in that category, with this family of aliens discovering football and Dick, in particular, resisting its fascination before going overboard with his fandom — a comic notion that John Lithgow (who won an Emmy for his work this season) really sells. Meanwhile, I also appreciate the subplot with Tommy and Brenda Strong playing his choir teacher, for that takes advantage of his character’s precociously horny depiction, which will be phased out over time. (Mike Ditka also appears in his recurring role as Tommy’s coach.)
03) Episode 28: “World’s Greatest Dick” (Aired: 11/10/96)
Dick pushes Tommy to go to a gifted school, while Sally is mistaken for a drag queen.
Written by Dave Goetsch & Jason Venokur | Directed by Robert Berlinger
Admittedly, I’m not fond of this subplot where the family goes to a gay bar (the setting of a much funnier entry later on in the run) and Sally is mistaken by a gay man for a drag queen. While there’s something to be said about how the series explores her struggle with projected femininity, a lot of this joke is simply predicated on Kristen Johnston’s looks, and that’s not really character-driven. However, I do enjoy the A-story with Dick and Tommy, for it puts the two characters in conflict in a way that mirrors a typical father/son relationship but is especially unique here because of what we know about them as aliens, and how this dynamic is actually a role reversal for the mature Tommy and the immature Dick. Also, the show’s elevated comic energy is on display in the sequence where the two go back and forth in a variety of different languages. Fun! (Guests include Laraine Newman, Paxton Whitehead, and Danny Strong.)
04) Episode 29: “My Mother, The Alien” (Aired: 11/17/96)
Sally bonds with Mrs. Dubcek’s grandson when the Solomons are asked to babysit.
Written by David M. Israel & Jim O’Doherty | Directed by Robert Berlinger
Kristen Johnston also won an Emmy for her work this season (ostensibly for this segment and “Fifteen Minutes Of Dick,” below), and she shines in this offering, which extends Sally’s further embrace of humanity, as her biological attachment to a baby leads her to consider kidnapping the child and raising it on her own. The story is goofy and perhaps not great on paper, but it speaks to the fact that this is the family’s first exposure to a baby, and their unexplainable feelings for it, particularly from the potentially maternal Sally, implicitly reside on the idea that they are aliens who are experiencing something human for the first time. Meanwhile, the subplot has Dick killing all of Mary’s fish — it’s mediocre, except for an apparently popular gag where Dick gifts Mary a replacement dog, which then proceeds to hump her.
05) Episode 30: “Gobble, Gobble, Dick, Dick” (Aired: 11/24/96)
The Solomons stumble through their first Thanksgiving holiday.
Written by Bob Kushell & Christine Zander | Directed by Robert Berlinger
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Gobble, Gobble, Dick, Dick” presents the Solomons’ first Thanksgiving — a holiday that’s been frequent fodder for sitcoms, as the opportunity to gather characters in one place at one time lends itself to natural situation comedy, for they can bounce off each other in direct comedic conflict. In this regard, Thanksgiving is a reliable set piece for any sitcom by way of character, but in this case, it’s especially good for 3rd Rock From The Sun, because it acknowledges the obvious given of the Solomons being totally foreign to the entire tradition, as it’s unique to humanity (and Americans, in particular). Indeed, from this simple log line there’s a lot of premise-validating comedy, as Sally tries to grasp what it means to cook a Thanksgiving meal, and the show gets to have fun depicting discord between the aliens as relatable to all families who are forced to be together during the holidays — a notion that furthers their integration into humanity. Meanwhile, this entry also notably introduces the hysterical SNL alum Jan Hooks as Mrs. Dubcek’s daughter Vicki — a recurring love interest for the eccentric Harry, who really thrives with a scene partner equally as idiosyncratic. Their shared moments are a hoot, and Hooks is never better than here in her debut. So, this is an important half hour of 3rd Rock, not just because of who it introduces, but also because of how it uses the show’s high-concept “situation” in the context of what is otherwise a familiar (and low-concept) sitcom framework… (Other guests include Victor Raider-Wexler, Jim O’Heir, and Mark Christopher Lawrence.)
06) Episode 31: “Dick Jokes” (Aired: 12/08/96)
Dick struggles to understand comedy and tries to be funny.
Written by David M. Israel & Jim O’Doherty | Directed by Robert Berlinger
In Season One, many of the best offerings involved the family’s discovery of something specific to Earth — and the best of the best featured them learning about a custom/idea unique to humanity and their social interactions. This is maybe the closest Season Two has to one of those outings, as its story finds Dick trying to grasp humor — what’s funny (and what’s just mean) — both as something to understand and then something that he can himself use to make himself more desirable to the people he wants to impress, like Mary. This is a perfect idea for the series, and although it’s not as uproarious as similar excursions from the previous year managed to be, it’s still strong by the standards of Two. (Dick Martin guests as a jokey professor.)
07) Episode 32: “Jolly Old St. Dick” (Aired: 12/15/96)
The Solomons have trouble getting into the holiday spirit during Christmas.
Written by Bill Martin & Mike Schiff | Directed by Robert Berlinger
Just as with the Thanksgiving episode, this installment concerns the Solomons’ first exposure to another classic holiday, Christmas — a more universal human tradition and one that inherently acknowledges the premise because, at this time, the family has never experienced it before. To that point, a story like this could only exist before the show runs through one full calendar year, since, to its credit, its characters are allowed to grow and actively learn, and never again is there the opportunity for something like Christmas to be new. This is a physical, literal embodiment of the show’s early capacity for “novelty,” and how that diminishes over time — through no fault of the show itself, just a reality of having this high concept. As for this entry, there’s plenty of funny moments, with the best probably being Dick’s grinchy behavior when, after getting arrested for cutting down a Christmas tree, he screams at carolers and throws rooftop decorations at them. It’s emotionally relatable, even though, narratively, this is the kind of Christmas that could only happen on a series with characters like this (aliens).
08) Episode 33: “Proud Dick” (Aired: 01/05/97)
Dick’s pride gets him fired, while Harry temporarily loses his memory.
Written by David Sacks | Directed by Robert Berlinger
Although this seems to be popular, I must admit that I don’t think it’s the cream of this list’s crop, for it isn’t the best display of the series’ regular “situation,” instead requiring temporary changes to the “status quo” in both its A-story and subplot. Its A-story is the weaker of the two, as Dick gets fired from the university for demanding a better parking spot, leading him to take a job at a fast-food joint. That’s an easy comic idea that doesn’t have much to do with him being an alien, and it’s not funnier because of that implicit given. However, the subplot, where Harry hits his head, loses his memory, and then relearns that the entire family is made up of aliens, is a much better application of the premise, for while it’s not motivated by him directly, and again, involves an external circumstance that only briefly disrupts the “status quo,” it’s the kind of story that only this show can do, for it depends on the Solomons’ supernatural secret. And to be fair, it’s very funny, making up for the mediocre A-story. (Philip Baker Hall guests.)
09) Episode 38: “I Brake For Dick” (Aired: 03/16/97)
Dick accidentally kills a chipmunk and becomes an animal rights activist.
Written by Gregg Mettler | Directed by Robert Berlinger
This is as another example where the Solomons experience something unique to humanity for the first time, as Dick accidentally kills a chipmunk and then feels so guilty that he becomes an animal rights activist, giving up all animal products — food, clothes, etc. Naturally, given his outrageous, impulsive persona, he goes extreme in his efforts, which yields big laughs, and though that turn of behavior is a beat that doesn’t need his premised existence as an alien to be funny, the whole episode is made better for it, allowing for commentary on human folly, and the perhaps complicated or contradictory relationship that people have with animals — a nuance that aliens might not innately comprehend. As such, this story actually becomes more logical when letting its fantastical premise provide the foundation, and that’s why it’s worth featuring.
10) Episode 43: “Fifteen Minutes Of Dick” (Aired: 05/11/97)
Sally’s quick celebrity makes Dick jealous.
Written by David M. Israel & Jim O’Doherty | Directed by Terry Hughes
The Solomons get their first taste of another quintessentially human phenomenon in this installment, as Sally beats up Mark Hamill (another ostentatious Sweeps guest star chosen for his sci-fi connection) and becomes temporarily famous. It’s the sort of plot that could be used on a lot of sitcoms and with many characters, as fame is an intoxicating prospect that can corrupt most people, but the fact that these aren’t people, they’re aliens — and they’re totally foreign to this kind of notoriety — makes the idea much funnier, more specific, and actually more logical too, with Sally’s growing ego even more understandable with this added context, and Dick’s corresponding jealousy an equally character-consistent response.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: both parts of “See Dick Continue To Run” (for which Lithgow won another Emmy), the extended season premiere that’s based on the premise but is a little too fixated on its narratively gaudy elements instead of the regulars themselves, and both parts of “A Nightmare On Dick Street,” the extended season finale, which has some funny and premise-connected ideas but is too consumed with its Sweeps gimmick of having surrealistic 3-D dream sequences, all of varying quality and character value. I’ll also take this space to cite “Dick The Vote,” which has the right idea but gets distracted by other concerns, “Romeo & Juliet & Dick,” simply for the comic image of Harry pretending to be Mrs. Dubcek, “Guilty As Dick,” where Dick first enjoys the sympathy and care he gets upon being injured, “Sensitive Dick,” which has a jokey script that uses Dick’s characterization well but without enough of the premise itself, “Will Work For Dick,” which is fun for several of the regulars (Dick, Harry, and Sally), and “Dick And The Single Girl,” which has a great premise-related subplot for Harry and Tommy, a decent subplot for Sally and the recurring Don (Wayne Knight), and a memorable A-story that’s carried by Cybill’s Christine Baranski.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of 3rd Rock From The Sun goes to…
“Gobble, Gobble, Dick, Dick”
Come back next week for Season Three! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!