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 the time 3rd Rock enters its fourth season, its “novelty of premise” has diminished so much that our second threshold for greatness — not just whether the premise is vital to an episode’s storytelling, but whether a mere awareness of the premise enhances the quality of an episode’s storytelling — is now more seminal. Oh, yes, as I’ve said before, the series is still able to churn out a handful of top and truly identity-validating half hours every year, but with 3rd Rock’s “situation” naturally consumed by a high concept, it must be addressed every week in order to satisfy its implicit promise to the audience, and that’s simply happening less. Now, I think we also want to credit the show for, when not being directly premise-connected, then at least exploring the leads and their relationships. However, while it’s true that most of the leads are well-defined (I would have said “all” previously, but now Tommy has been diluted), I don’t think the characters are often examined in a meaningful way, for so much of who they are is predicated on their existence as (or relationship to) aliens, and without that reiterated, there is a missing lack of narrative substance. What’s more, changes to the couples’ “status quo” seem like they arise more out of a need for story during Sweeps than a genuine desire to mine their “situation.” Perhaps we could say that Sally and Don consummating their romance furthers her integration into humanity and thus is a good point of growth for her, but their temporary split and reunion later in the year feels extraneous — a time-filler. Similarly, the idea of Harry wanting to conceive a child with Vicki could also invoke the premise given the uncertainty of the outcome, but questions related to this tension get mitigated in favor of weekly cliché… well, until the need for a cliffhanger, of course. As for Dick and Mary, this season tries to create conflict via a shift in power dynamics, when she is made dean, but there’s nothing here that has to do with their premised differences, and a contained arc with a boisterous Laurie Metcalf is funnier, yet no smarter. As such, 3rd Rock is feeling less like 3rd Rock now — at least, what it told us it was going to be — and if not for the strong performances (John Lithgow and Kristen Johnston both won Emmys again, incidentally) and a few true gems, I’d be disappointed, for this high-concept sitcom needs more than funny ideas that could exist on any series.
01) Episode 77: “Collect Call For Dick” (Aired: 10/21/98)
The Solomons become obsessed with collecting a brand of fuzzy toys.
Written by David M. Israel & Jim O’Doherty | Directed by Terry Hughes
With a comedic story about the Solomons growing obsessed with a collectable brand of stuffed animals (clearly modeled after the Beanie Babies craze), this entry is a perfect example of the increased strain evident in this season’s ability to connect to its premise. For while it’s possible to say that the reason the Solomons — and primarily Dick and Sally — get so invested in this phenomenon is because of their naïveté to it, that’s never made explicit in the script itself, and what’s more, it’s the kind of notion that would probably be funny on any series that decided to spoof the odd trend. However, the performances are elevating and because the idea is so amusing, I want to be generous and allow the premise to lurk under the surface of these characters’ actions — it’s their first material obsession as humans. (Peter Jurasik guests.)
02) Episode 79: “I Am Dick Pentameter!” (Aired: 11/04/98)
Dick pursues a relationship with the new literature professor.
Written by David Goetsch & Jason Venokur | Directed by Terry Hughes
This is the best of the trilogy featuring Laurie Metcalf (who was Emmy nominated) as Jennifer Ravelli, a new literature professor whose worship of Moliere leads to her — and Dick — speaking in rhyme to each other. Initially Dick, who has been feeling ignored by Mary now that she’s been promoted, is charmed by Jennifer and her eccentricities, but he slowly comes to detest her, particularly after he loses Mary. And this offering, right in the middle of the Jennifer trio, gives Dick that very emotional arc, making it the most valuable for him of the bunch. As for the premise, like in all of the attempted conflicts between Dick and Mary this season, it’s barely even implied, but the subplot of the other Solomons rearranging the furniture in their house is kind of interesting, in the sense that they first accepted human customs to fit in, even if they didn’t agree with them — now they’re bucking against convention, and it’s amusing and premise-adjacent. Ultimately, though, I feature this one mostly for its performances.
03) Episode 83: “Two-Faced Dick” (Aired: 01/05/99)
The Big Giant Head swaps Dick’s body with Sally’s.
Written by Gil Goldberg | Directed by Terry Hughes
My choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode, “Two-Faced Dick” is one of two installments here in Season Four that can genuinely stand among the best of the entire series, raising the qualitative standing of this whole collection — not by upping its baseline (which is still diminishing) but by simply proving that greatness is still possible on 3rd Rock From The Sun. Its story indulges the high-concept supernatural aspect of the premise to a degree that most don’t — at least, not outside of gimmicky cliffhangers, where gaudy narrative maneuvers pull focus from the regulars, negating the whole point of exploring their “situation.” But fortunately, this story is also predicated on character, as the setup of having Dick and Sally swap bodies intrinsically calls attention to their characterizations and the way they, in particular, contrast against each other. This script then gets to have fun playing up their differences, specifically in their romances with Mary and Don, respectively — and this flatters the rom-com aspect of the series’ identity, which is also an important part of its makeup. Additionally, the idea naturally allows both John Lithgow and Kristen Johnston opportunities to shine while mimicking the other — and this use of performance to elevate material (even though it’s already strong) is a perfect encapsulation of how Season Four also derives episodic merit, seeking other tools of production to reinforce a value that might not always be there on the page. (This was one of the two segments Johnston submitted this year to earn herself another Emmy.) There’s no better sample of Season Four and what it is capable of when operating at its peak.
04) Episode 84: “Dick Solomon Of The Indiana Solomons” (Aired: 01/12/99)
The Solomons attend a family reunion meant for another Richard Solomon.
Written by Gregg Mettler | Directed by Terry Hughes
The second of two top-tier outings produced here in Season Four, this unique half hour satisfies the premise by acknowledging that the Solomons, as aliens, have no extended family. In their effort to become more believably human, it therefore makes sense for them to crash a reunion intended for another “Richard Solomon” — a narrative idea that’s rich with a lot of comedic and dramatic potential. Obviously, they’re not prepared for the baggage that this family has with the real “Richard Solomon” — a story that consumes Dick at the party when he’s challenged by an embittered cousin (played by That ’70s Show’s Kurtwood Smith). It’s an episodic beat not motivated by character, but a believable consequence of this strong, farcical setup. Also, the other regulars are well-deployed in their subplots, as eager Sally explores her femininity by feeling what it’s like to have a sister, horny Tommy pursues his “cousin” (a rare use in Four of his original overly mature characterization), and eccentric Harry bonds with a cigar-smoking uncle played by Jack Carter, stealing all of his mannerisms and sayings. So, this ends up being a good showcase for both character and premise — easily one of the best of this season, and the series at large. (Other guests include Elsa Raven and Christine Lakin.)
05) Episode 85: “Dick And Taxes” (Aired: 02/02/99)
The Solomons are nervous to face an IRS audit.
Teleplay by Michael Glouberman & Andrew Orenstein | Story by Dennis Snee | Directed by Terry Hughes
Another one of the season’s strongest showings, this installment finds another “first” for the Solomons — the IRS and the whole process of doing their taxes. It’s not exactly a social phenomenon that allows the premise to be explored through character interaction, but it’s still a reality of human life that it would make sense for the Solomons to not understand. Accordingly, it’s smart for the show to employ this narrative, and it’s even believable that it might take three years for it to come to the surface — as it wouldn’t be an immediate concern. In this regard, the entry does a good job of finding an idea that reinforces the premise’s novelty, even at this late juncture. I wish there were more offerings as clever as this here in Four — it’s a credit to this list. (Marianne Muellerleile appears in her recurring role as Lucy.)
06) Episode 89: “Superstitious Dick” (Aired: 03/02/99)
Dick becomes superstitious, while Sally and Harry discover hardware stores.
Written by Gregg Mettler | Directed by Terry Hughes
Despite this excursion looking like it’s got one of those silly stories that any series could use — the fear of the chain letter — the fact that Dick has never had to experience the very human phenomenon of superstition means that it meets the second threshold for excellence on these lists, as our awareness of the premise adds helpful character logic and a sense of identity-validation specific to 3rd Rock From The Sun. So, we could essentially say this is the episode where Dick “discovers” superstition, and with Sally and Harry visiting a hardware store for the first time in the subplot, the entire half hour is therefore filled with a sense of high-concept “novelty” that so much of this season lacks — as the lead characters are genuinely learning again about what it’s like to be human… you know, as per the premise.
07) Episode 90: “Y2dicK” (Aired: 03/16/99)
Dick discovers the computer.
Written by David Goetsch & Jason Venokur | Directed by Terry Hughes
Yet another offering that has something for the Solomons — and in particular, Dick — to experience for the first time, “Y2dicK” is inherently poised to be a winner, as the childlike alien masquerading as a human professor becomes addicted to the computer, and specifically, the internet. It’s believable that an intelligent life form from another planet would be interested in our world wide web, especially as a means of learning more about humanity. And if it seems like this is a story that should have occurred earlier, at this point in the run, we’re just happy to have it at all, since the premise is beautifully invoked and the series’ situation is well-enforced, through character. I also appreciate the technological throughline in the subplots, as Harry and Vicki (Jan Hooks) continue their efforts to conceive, and the family gets a new TV.
08) Episode 91: “Dick ‘The Mouth’ Solomon” (Aired: 04/06/99)
Sally dates an Italian guy, while Dick and Mary go to a couples’ retreat.
Written by Christine Zander & Bob Kushell | Directed by Terry Hughes
Although not a terrific display of the premise, this installment showcases the performers well (like Kristen Johnston, who submitted this as the other entry to earn her Emmy) and even uses the characters in ways that I respect. The subplot of Dick and Mary (and Harry and Vicki) at a couples’ retreat is amusing because Dick’s emotional expressiveness makes him a darling of the group, while Mary’s repression posits her as an outsider — a reversal of their usual dynamic, as now she looks like the crazy one and he looks normal. This is the opposite of their usual “situation,” given his innate oddness as an alien, so it works. Meanwhile, the A-story of Sally dating an Italian guy whom they assume is a mob boss affords Johnston the chance to play a mafia wife — and, as when Sally dated the Cockney guy, this mirroring of other people is logical based on their goal of studying humanity. (Kevin Nealon and Anthony Tyler Quinn guest.)
09) Episode 94: “Dick v. Strudwick” (Aired: 05/11/99)
Dick is jealous of a rival physics professor; Sally and Don have trouble staying platonic.
Teleplay by David M. Israel & Jim O’Doherty | Story by Gregg Mettler | Directed by Terry Hughes
Recurring Dr. Strudwick (played by Ron West) does not debut in this outing, but it’s the first to really take advantage of him as a rival for Dick, as he’s another physics professor whose intellect comes the closest to threatening Dick’s own. It’s conceived a bit like last year’s MVE with John Cleese, except we’re never meant to doubt that Strudwick is a human — one Dick could theoretically show up, if he chose to reveal all the secrets of the universe that only he knows as an alien life force. Of course, that would “out” them and end their mission, so he doesn’t. His only recourse for revenge is through Tommy, whose new girlfriend Alissa (Larisa Oleynik) happens to be Strudwick’s daughter — a smart connection that looks like it could portend more indirect exploration of the premise through character interactions. Meanwhile, the subplot of Sally and Don not being able to stay platonic isn’t premise-based, but it’s fun and they work well together, as usual. (John Bennett Perry and Kim Johnston Ulrich also appear.)
10) Episode 96: “Dick’s Big Giant Headache (I)” (Aired: 05/25/99)
The aliens are visited by the Big Giant Head himself.
Written by Bill Martin & Mike Schiff | Directed by Terry Hughes
Gearing up for another gaudy cliffhanger, 3rd Rock From The Sun reasserts the high-concept aspect of its premise by finally introducing the Big Giant Head, personified here through the gimmicky casting of (Emmy-nominated) sci-fi vet William Shatner, who nevertheless is very funny in this role and a perfect fit, especially when his whimsical yet domineering persona is made to interact with all the regulars (primarily the Solomons, who fear they’ve maybe become too human-like and will be punished for it). Naturally, the idea itself is really the selling point of this two-parter, and that’s why I’m opting to spotlight the first half over its follow-up, for Part II is driven by its need to earn a cliffhanger, where BGH — so consumed with the pleasures of Earth — knocks up Vicki, giving her what is clearly an alien baby: a premise-related, but not-so-character driven conflict going into next season. We’ll see how the show handles it…
Other notable episodes that merit mention include the three closest to the above list — “Power Mad Dick,” where Sally has sex with Don for the first time and therefore becomes more human, “Indecent Dick,” a popular offering about nude magazines with which I strained to find any premise-specific value that would make it a good example of situation comedy, and “Happy New Dick!,” the series’ (not the characters’) first New Years’ show. Additional entries that I could cite here include “Feelin’ Albright,” where Sally and Dick are very human, “D3: Judgment Day,” where Sally goes bowling for the first time, “Citizen Solomon,” where the family struggles to understand how they should treat and behave with a hired maid, “Near Dick Experience,” where Dick is jealous that he hasn’t had a Near-Death Experience that would enable him to appreciate life like the rest of his family, and the second half of the aforementioned season finale. Lastly, I’ll also note “Alien Hunter,” an ostentatious outing with (Emmy-nominated) guest Kathy Bates that acknowledges the premise, but without featuring the leads or their relationships the way they deserve.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of 3rd Rock From The Sun goes to…
Come back next week for Season Five! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!