Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding 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.
3rd Rock has long lost its “novelty of premise” by the time it reaches Season Six — with too many stories not only ignoring the alien logline (so it’s invoked neither explicitly nor implicitly), but also undermining the series’ entire “situation” by offering gimmicks that aren’t predicated on anything established about the characters, like episodic locales and circumstances that have little to do with the regulars or their relationships. It’s a dilution of identity, and that’s a problem for the year overall, with the minimized use of Tommy — as Joseph Gordon-Levitt went off to college, forcing his character to do the same — physically disrupting the “status quo” of the ensemble and further restricting premise-based opportunities for story. Meanwhile, the bizarre downplaying of Dick and Mary’s relationship only exacerbates this decline. To that last point, it’s almost as if this final season, in anticipation of its finale, wants to condition the audience to accept the idea of this central romance ending, so there are several episodes that depict their feelings for each other as more trivial and casual than ever before. This is not congruous with what we’ve come to expect from them, and it’s honestly a bit regressive, for the intensity of their love has heretofore risen in tandem with Dick’s assimilation as a human being. And it’s actually at cross-purposes with the rest of this season, which barely considers the Solomons as aliens anymore, such that you’d think they might be too assimilated… In this regard, there are mixed messages sent in Six, and all of them suggest a series that simply isn’t able to reliably satisfy its “situation” in weekly story. In fact, I’m shocked that I was able to dredge up a full list of ten — I really had to strain, finding any segment that acknowledged the premise, even slightly (minus the dreadful “alternate reality” two-parter that’s one long gimmick, not based meaningfully on the series’ givens), and truthfully, there’s only one half hour here that is almost as enjoyable as the best of 3rd Rock, which, frankly, had up until now been able to remain decent for a longer period of time than most high-concept idea-driven sitcoms. Thanks to good ideas and strong characters, it was able to stave off a truly tragic decline… well, almost — delivering a disappointing end (a terrible finale — see below) for an otherwise impressive effort.
01) Episode 122: “InDickscretion” (Aired: 11/14/00)
Dick and Sally embarrass their partners by talking about sex on a double date.
Written by Nastaran Dibai & Jeffrey B. Hodes | Directed by Terry Hughes
Although this outing probably won’t be anyone’s favorite, as it forces emotional contortions that stretch credibility with established characterizations and their relationships (specifically, the prospect of Dick and Sally becoming sexually attracted to one another, or Don and Mary sharing a kiss), the whole setup of Dick and Sally embarrassing their partners by graphically talking about their sex lives is both amusing and rooted in the notion that they still don’t grasp all the nuances of proper social etiquette. So, when they overshare, the premise of them being aliens unaware of unwritten human rules is subliminally recalled. That’s why I highlight this segment here — it does the bare minimum in an era where that’s rare.
02) Episode 126: “B.D.O.C.” (Aired: 12/12/00)
Dick struggles when Tommy goes away to college.
Written by Aron Abrams & Gregory Thompson | Directed by Terry Hughes
Tommy officially heads off to school in this offering (matching Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s own scale-back this year — he missed eight of 20), and its script acknowledges what this change in “status quo” does to the premised idea of them being aliens on a mission and the proxy-family they’ve created, with Dick sad to see Tommy go like any father would be sad to say goodbye to his son. It’s not hilarious, but it explicitly addresses the arc of the Solomons’ integration on Earth as humans — even though they’re aliens from another planet — and it’s thus a good reminder of the premise, using the characters and their relationships. What’s more, the notion of a literal replacement for Tommy calls direct attention to their galactic assignment.
03) Episode 127: “Red, White & Dick” (Aired: 12/19/00)
The Solomons discover patriotism.
Written by Will Forte | Directed by Terry Hughes
My pick for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Red, White & Dick” is the one half hour that stands alone in Six as the only segment to possibly warrant citation alongside the best from other seasons. That’s largely because it’s able to find something that we’ve never seen the Solomons experience before — a topic that’s especially ideal because it’s not a physical reality of the planet, but a behavioral phenomenon unique to human beings: patriotism. Accordingly, the premise’s “novelty” is temporarily restored as we get to watch these aliens grapple for the first time with pride for their country and its stated beliefs, through their own behavior and social interactions. So, it’s a lot of “situation”-affirming fun to see Dick become extremely pro-U.S.A., and then disappointed to learn that he actually has a Canadian passport. Meanwhile, there are also many laughs with the other Solomons, who misinterpret the words of the Constitution and institute a dictatorial communist-like regime in their house (initially predicated on “equality”). It’s essentially one last good premise-exploring idea for the series (credited to writer Will Forte), and given the rest of the competition here in Six, there truly was no other choice for MVE.
04) Episode 130: “A Dick Replacement” (Aired: 01/30/01)
A psychic tells Mary that Dick is from another world and will leave her.
Written by Matt Silverstein & Dave Jeser | Directed by Terry Hughes
One of the year’s most explicit applications of the high concept (outside of the finale and its extended lead-up), this atypical installment uses a psychic to create a conflict that both acknowledges the “situation” of Dick being an alien, and the upcoming finale, where he will do exactly as predicted: leave Mary. But beyond this, the ideas themselves are amusing, as the other aliens prepare to kill the psychic for knowing too much, and Dick tries to find a replacement — someone who can be Mary’s partner once he goes. It’s evidence of what I said above — the show starting to treat their romance casually, ahead of their anticipated separation — but it works in the context of this premise-affirming sample. (Charles Rocket and Amy Hill guest.)
05) Episode 131: “Dick’s Ark” (Aired: 02/06/01)
Sally gets a job as a local weather forecaster.
Written by Danny Smith | Directed by Terry Hughes
There’s a lot of relative mediocrity on this list (compared to the best of the series in other seasons), and I would put this entry in that category, for it’s neither hilarious nor revealing for character. It’s just one of the handful of outings that actually addresses the premise, as Sally’s success as a weather forecaster on TV has Dick fearing that their cover will be blown, and they’ll be exposed as aliens — a rare source of jeopardy, especially at this point in the series’ run. Also, the subplot has Mary deciding she needs some time apart from Dick — it’s another example of how the year is laying pipe for their forthcoming farewell, but it at least earns some laughs via a misunderstanding with Nina. (Ever Carradine and Pat Finn appear.)
06) Episode 133: “My Mother, My Dick” (Aired: 02/20/01)
Mary’s mother visits, and the Solomons conjure up another alien.
Written by Nastaran Dibai & Jeffrey B. Hodes | Directed by Terry Hughes
Elaine Stritch returns as Mary’s domineering mother, and while she’s always a hoot, it’d be impossible to pretend that this offering is as enjoyable as her debut, which was hilarious and had something unique to say about the premise. Truthfully, her presence here is just a bonus, as the real reason I feature this one is for its subplot, where Sally and Harry’s horsing around accidentally conjures up another alien — in human form — someone whom they now have to acclimate to life on Earth and among this species. It’s, obviously, a reminder of the “situation,” and though it doesn’t explore the regulars — instead it’s sparked by this external, episodic concern — beggars can’t be choosers with Season Six. (Mark McKinney also appears.)
07) Episode 136: “Mary Loves Scoochie (I)” (Aired: 05/08/01)
Mary has a secret admirer; Harry and Sally live among the Amish.
Written by Aron Abrams & Gregory Thompson & Dave Boerger | Directed by Terry Hughes
The first half of a two-parter, this installment sets up the next entry by introducing the idea that Mary has a secret admirer — revealed at the end of Part I to be Dick’s old rival from Three’s classic “Dick And The Other Guy,” Liam, played by the great John Cleese. But this whole A-story setup is mediocre, and I only include Part I here rather for its B-story, where the Solomons are sad to have lost an award to another family of aliens living in Ohio. Sally and Harry then try to find them — believing that an Amish clan, given their unique ways, must be aliens as well. This allows for a subplot where they temporarily live among the Amish. It’s gimmicky, but premise-connected. (Other guests include Derk Cheetwood, Meagen Fay, and Jamie Kaler.)
08) Episode 137: “Mary Loves Scoochie (II)” (Aired: 05/15/01)
Dick’s old rival Liam reveals his plan to turn all humans into monkeys.
Written by Will Forte | Directed by Terry Hughes
Part II is all about the return of John Cleese as Liam, who’s back to destroy humanity by turning mankind into monkeys as part of a planet-wide amusement park for other aliens. Naturally, the Solomons have come to love Earth and its people, so they are against these plans, with Liam’s faux courting of Mary a secondary concern to the total annihilation of the species. This is gaudy high-concept fare that acknowledges the premise but minimizes the regulars and their relationships — the type of material I would have excluded from past lists, yet can’t now. (And, it goes without saying, but this two-parter is far below the quality of Cleese’s initial debut.)
09) Episode 138: “The Thing That Wouldn’t Die (I)” (Aired: 05/22/01)
Dick tells Mary that he and his family are aliens.
Teleplay by Matt Silverstein & Dave Jeser | Story by Dave Lewman & Joe Liss | Directed by Terry Hughes
Originally airing in an hour-long block, 3rd Rock From The Sun’s finale can be neatly divided into two halves. The first deals with the aftermath of the previous entry, where Mary witnessed Dick changing Liam into a monkey and is expectedly shaken. With no other viable explanation for what she saw, Dick finally confesses the truth to Mary — that he, and his family, are aliens. The scene where she learns this information is a tour de force for Jane Curtin, whose many reactions are a lot of fun. Yes, it’s maybe a leap for her to accept the news so quickly, but if we believe that she loves Dick (which the first five seasons suggested), then it makes some sense. And this great, premise-validating moment — perhaps the best of the season — had to be included here.
10) Episode 139: “The Thing That Wouldn’t Die (II)” (Aired: 05/22/01)
The Solomons prepare to leave Earth.
Teleplay by Dave Goetsch & Jason Venokur | Story by Christine Zander | Directed by Terry Hughes
Shown in the same block as Part I above, the series’ actual last half-hour — with guest Elvis Costello — is about the aliens’ departure from Earth, as their mission has ended and they’re being called back home. It’s a natural conclusion that of course addresses the high-concept premise and mines pathos from the relationships they’ve established with the humans, from whom they must now take leave. But I don’t buy it. Given how much the Solomons have come to love and appreciate Earth, why do they decide to go? Wouldn’t their integration make them want to fight to stay? They did in the past… Accordingly, I think it’s disappointing and emotionally illogical. Now, I understand that the show was unsure of its fate, but it deliberately chose to seek closure in the highly probable event of cancellation (a correct prediction). Closure could have instead come from them transforming into humans, or staying aliens on Earth but merely ending their mission. This episode taking for granted their departure — and teasing the idea of Mary joining them, only for her not to — is just emotionally at odds with the rest of the series (the purposely unsentimental sixth season, with its Dick/Mary agenda notwithstanding). Okay, the “alternate ending” — seen in syndication, but not in the original broadcast (and apparently used as an insurance policy in case of a very unlikely last-minute renewal) — at least has Mary going with Dick at the closer… but again, why wouldn’t they all stay? The fact that they don’t even try to remain, and with the people they love, essentially means the show is throwing out all the progress they made “becoming” human beings with attachments to Earth and each other, thereby rendering the whole series — their arcs, and the premise itself — a waste of time. In a crucial moment, they reverted. Thus, it’s a self-negating stop instead of a self-fulfilling finale — a sad end for a usually smarter series. (And even if the show had snagged a bizarre renewal, this two-parter would remain a blight on 3rd Rock‘s record — it insults the audience for investing in the characters and the premise. That it was conceived as a viable finale is even more unfortunate.) I feature it here because it defines the season — you won’t forget it!
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Les Liaisons Dickgereuses,” which opens the season by minimizing Dick and Mary’s love through the gimmicky inclusion of Megan Mullally as Mary’s sister, and “Fear And Loathing In Rutherford,” which pairs Dick with Strudwick for an amusing story that nevertheless has no affiliation to the premise.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of 3rd Rock From The Sun goes to…
“Red, White & Dick”
Come back next week for Cybill! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!